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Jewish Leadership in Russia Struggles with Worsening Climate

December 11, 1998
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Responding to rising concern about the deteriorating climate of anti-Semitism in Russia, Jewish organizational leaders are grappling with how best to ensure the Jewish community’s safety.

At a meeting this week, the governing board of the Russian Jewish Congress decided it would lobby the international community to halt contacts with Russia’s Communist Party because of its failure to censure one of its members of Parliament, Albert Makashov, who made several public anti-Semitic statements earlier this fall.

But some members of the umbrella group are saying that the move does not go far enough, while others believe the threat of anti-Semitism has been overstated.

The debate over the extent of anti-Semitism in Russia and what steps to take in response comes against the backdrop of a deteriorating climate for Jews in Russia. In addition to Makashov’s remarks and the Duma’s failure to censure him, a lawmaker long supportive of Jewish interests, Galina Starovoitova, was assassinated last month.

Most leaders of the congress, which unites leading representatives of the business community, public figures and prominent rabbis, agree that the Russian Jewish leadership should carry out a low-profile political offensive against anti-Semitism.

“Our mission is not about loud public statements, but about pragmatic work inside and outside of Russia,” Yevgeny Satanovsky, a member of the group’s board, said after the closed meeting.

It was with this goal in mind that a majority of participants at the meeting supported the initiative of Vladimir Goussinsky, the group’s president, to ask the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament and legislative assemblies of major European nations to halt all contact with the 121 Communist and nationalist lawmakers who rejected the censure resolution, according to Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, a board member.

But some board members are questioning what positive impact these moves will have on Russian Jews.

“I don’t feel that everything that could have been done was done,” said Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief emissary of the Lubavitch movement in Russia. “All this activity doesn’t reassure the Jewish population and doesn’t change the minds of the people on the street.”

“It isn’t enough to rely on support of the international community. Jews should get together and show that they are not afraid to express their opinion,” agreed Tankred Golenpolsky, founder of Evreyskaya Gazeta, the leading Jewish newspaper in Moscow.

Golenpolsky advocates the idea of staging a mass Jewish rally in Moscow against fascism and anti-Semitism in Russia.

Yosef Kobzon, a popular singer and Jewish lawmaker who walked out of a parliamentary session saying he would not return until Makashov was suitably chastised, supports the idea of a rally — as does Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. According to sources close to the mayor, Luzhkov said he would personally join in such a demonstration.

But most of the leaders of the congress rejected the proposal, saying it would jeopardize the safety of Russian Jews.

Jewish leaders also decided to approach Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov in an attempt to make them express a clear stand on anti-Semitism and take legal measures against Makashov and other ultranationalists.

Primakov has kept silent on the issue so far.

Skuratov announced last month that his agency had found evidence proving that Makashov’s statements at several rallies earlier this fall incited ethnic strife — a crime punishable under Russia’s criminal code. But the case has apparently stalled in the prosecutor’s office.

On Thursday, Skuratov’s deputy, Alexander Rozanov, announced that his agency has appointed an expert commission, consisting of psychologists, linguists and anthropologists, to decide whether Makashov’s statements would fall under the code.

Meanwhile, Jewish leaders rejected a request from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to meet with the Russian Jewish Congress leadership.

The board “decided not to meet with him until he takes an unambiguous position on Makashov,” Goldschmidt said.

Zyuganov reportedly gave Makashov a mild dressing-down in private.

In an attempt to improve his party’s image, Zyuganov has met with Israel’s ambassador to Russia and told him that Makashov’s views are not those of his party. On a recent visit to Germany, Zyuganov also met with the leader of the Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis.

Most participants at the Jewish congress meeting said the situation for Jews in Russia is cause for concern but is not grave.

“In most places — especially in Moscow — anti-Semitism is not a problem for somebody walking in the street,” said Lazar. “It should be understood that a lot of [current anti-Semitism] is politically connected and has to do with elections,” he added.

Parliamentary elections are slated for late next year, and the presidential elections are planned for the summer of 2000.

Reports coming from some provincial centers suggest, however, that the economic crisis that hit Russia in August and the wide-ranging public debate over Makashov’s remarks have contributed to an increase of anti-Semitism in various parts of the country.

Some residents of the Russian city of Novosibirsk recently found their mailboxes stuffed with anti-Semitic leaflets blaming Jews for Russia’s economic hardships. In addition, anti-Semitic sentiments were recently spray-painted in different parts of the Siberian city, which has 9,000 Jews among its 1.5 million residents.

“Jews are scared by this anti-Semitic wave, and few are willing to talk about it openly,” a source in the Novosibirsk Jewish community who insisted on anonymity said in a phone interview.

The incidents took place after hundreds of stickers saying “Jews Are Rubbish” and showing a man throwing a Star of David into a garbage bin appeared in the northwestern Russian town of Borovichi, according to a community leader there.

With the current situation in mind, Russian Jewish leaders decided to ask authorities to provide special security measures for synagogues and Jewish schools.

The Lubavitch movement, which traditionally stages a massive menorah-lighting ceremony in a downtown Moscow square, has also decided to keep it more quiet this year than in previous years.

“Last year, we had over 1,000 at the ceremony,” Lazar said. “Today, people might look at such a crowd as a picket or protest” against anti-Semitism.

“This year, we don’t feel it’s appropriate to set Jews out on the street,” he said. “We don’t want a religious ceremony to be falsely understood as a political statement.”

On the other hand, the Russian Jewish Congress will hold a Chanukah celebration next Tuesday in one of Moscow’s largest concert halls. The event has been advertised widely on Russian television.

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