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Bush Pressed to Address Worries over Anti-semitism in Putin Meeting

February 16, 2005
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Amid the growing concern about anti-Semitism in Russia, Jewish activists in Washington are hoping President Bush will press his Russian counterpart to do more. Bush is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovakia Feb. 24. The summit will focus in part on concerns about democratic efforts in Russia, and Jewish leaders say the rise of anti-Semitism is an important trend to discuss.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal body created to monitor religious freedom in other countries, was expected to meet with Bush on Friday. During that meeting, commission members are expected to broach their concerns about threats to Jews in Russia, hoping Bush will raise the topic with Putin.

Felice Gaer, vice chairman of the commission and director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights at the American Jewish Committee, said she hopes the president would push Putin to increase police efforts to protect Jews, to prosecute anyone thought to be guilty of physical attacks against Jews or other hate crimes in Russia and to be aware of the rising number of skinheads.

“He gets it,” Gaer said of Bush. “It’s a longstanding concern of our commission and the situation itself is more inflamed than it was in the past.”

The lobbying efforts come after a few highly publicized incidents raised the fear that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Russia.

Last month, a letter signed by 20 Russian lawmakers called on Russia’s prosecutor general to ban all Jewish organizations because they are extremist and anti-Russian. Next, on Feb. 3, more than half of the viewers who called the television station during a prime-time debate on one of the country’s most popular talk shows supported a lawmaker who made anti-Semitic comments throughout the program.

“It’s a horrific situation when elected officials continue to expand and expound on the ‘Protocols of the elders of Zion’ and other anti-Semitic tracts,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of the NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “We believe that it is a far more serious situation for Jews than it was six months ago.”

The NCSJ recently held a conference call during which the chief rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt, briefed North American Jewish officials on the issue.

The news is not all bad. Jewish leaders have been impressed with Putin’s tough rhetoric on anti-Semitism, and hope he can be pushed by the Americans to combat the growing threat more actively.

“I’m not sure scolding Russia for human rights violations and anti-Semitism is the right approach,” said Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.

Naftalin sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week, asking the Bush administration to recommend steps Putin could take to combat the growth of anti-Semitism.

“Despite Putin’s exemplary rhetoric, which traces back to speeches made at least three years ago, the impunity of grassroots anti-Semitic and racist violence and propaganda has been increasing,” the letter said. “This is not simply a failed effort at changing hearts and minds. It is emblematic of a failure to reform his corrupt and dysfunctional justice system, including a failure to discipline racist attitudes and behaviors by the KGB, police, prosecutors, judges, mayors and governors.”

The nine-point plan includes encouraging more programming of human rights issues on the national government-controlled media, increased dialogue between U.S. officials and Russian human rights leaders, and increased reliance on the Russian business community to work with human rights groups in the country because they have a vested interest in the issue: A rise in anti-Semitic incidents could thwart economic development, international trade and investment.

Gaer said the issue has changed since the fall of communism: It is no longer a question of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, but of the state taking action against anti-Semitic attacks on the streets.

“The concern is that anti-Semitism” has become a nationwide problem, she said. “I don’t think that it is yet, but it’s the right question to keep asking.”

(JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.)

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