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Jews Assess Anti-semitism in Russia As Congress Moves to Revise Trade Policy

March 19, 2002
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The first indications of a possible trade war between Russia and the United

States surfaced earlier this month when Russia followed through on its decision to ban U.S. poultry imports due to health considerations.

As if nostalgic for the Cold War tradition of tying every problem to the Jewish question, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said in Washington that the ban could lead Congress to drop its plans to adjust the 70s-era Jackson- Vanik Amendment, which linked U.S.-Soviet trade relations to loosening restrictions on Jewish emigration.

Zoellick’s threat provoked a wave of jokes, both on the street and in the Russian media, comparing Jewish legs and other parts of the body with the Bush legs, a popular Russian nickname for the cheap U.S.-produced chicken legs that flooded Russia in immense quantities a decade ago under the first President Bush.

But few observers in Russia believe that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment will still apply to Russia after congressional hearings on the issue, which are expected to take place next month.

The only question seems to be: What should the Jews get in return when the restrictions are lifted from Russia?

“Jackson-Vanik is not working in the present-day conditions, but it’s absolutely unacceptable to just give it away,” Lev Krichevsky, director of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Anti-Semitism and Extremism in Russia, told JTA.

According to the ADL and other Jewish organizations, the United States should demand from Russia a set of guarantees for religious and ethnic minorities, as well as consistency and effectiveness in dealing with hate crimes and official support for the return of the Jewish property seized under the Communists.

Jackson-Vanik has “now become the vehicle to discuss what steps are necessary to facilitate” Russian Jewish life, said Harold Luks, chairman of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

But the move to lift Jackson-Vanik provisions comes amid disagreement among monitors over the state of Jewish life in Russia.

Many in the Jewish community believe that the economic situation has improved, the political situation is relatively stable and the government has signaled that it is possible to live as a Jew in Russia.

“Jews in Russia feel fine,” Karol Ungar, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s delegation to Russia, recently told reporters.

A chorus of Jewish voices in Russia, including public statements by leading umbrella groups and the major international Jewish organizations working inside the country, say state anti-Semitism is absent, while the total number of anti-Semitic incidents is declining, thanks to the pro-Jewish stance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Acts of anti-Semitism are declining dramatically; this is due to the policies of the new administration,” Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of the two chief rabbis of Russia, said in a letter to President Bush, urging him to graduate Russia out of Jackson-Vanik.

But a group of Russian Jewish leaders sent a letter to Putin last month, urging him to stop what they believe to be an anti-Semitic campaign in the Russian media involving dozens of organizations — and hundreds of periodicals across Russia with a combined circulation in the millions.

Adolph Shayevich, Russia’s other chief rabbi and a signatory to the letter, slammed the inactivity of the authorities in fighting this campaign.

“There is a mass of anti-Semitic publications; synagogues and cemeteries are being vandalized across the country — and the state Duma keeps pretending there is no problem. Sometimes a regional governor is making an openly anti-Semitic statement, saying it has been coordinated with the Kremlin administration — and there is no reaction from the Kremlin,” Shayevich said.

Lev Gudkov, head of the VTSIOM Institute of Public Opinion, is very careful in assessing the situation.

Research shows that the level of anti-Semitic feelings has remained stable for a number of years, said Gudkov, who is widely considered the most reliable source on the subject.

Gudkov added, however, that there are signs that anti-Semitic sentiments and incidents have risen recently among Russian youngsters, which, he said, is part of a more general rise in xenophobia among Russian teens.

According to Alexander Axelrod, the director of ADL’s office in Moscow, there were 24 serious offenses against Jews and Jewish communal property in Russia in 2001, compared to 18 in 2000.

The ADL’s Axelrod and Krichevsky, as well as other U.S.-based experts, attribute the growth to a general rise in hate crimes and to better monitoring of the situation.

The Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, which traditionally takes a more militant stance on the issue, drew attention in its recent statement on the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the rise of anti-Semitism in Russia, especially in the provinces, and criticized the statements by some Russian Jewish leaders that they say minimize the scope and danger of anti-Semitism in the country.

Leonid Stonov, director of the UCSJ’s bureaus in the FSU, told JTA that in many regions the local administration has stayed traditionally anti-Semitic — a remnant of Soviet anti-Semitism.

These old-timers, according to UCSJ s regional monitors, are using every hole in the Russian legal system to hinder anti-hate-crimes legislation.

The regional prosecutors, for instance, are saying they don’t have a working definition of anti-Semitism or xenophobia or fascism, said Alexander Brod, the Moscow-based coordinator of the UCSJ’s monitoring system.

“The prosecutors and judges say they need in every case an academic linguistic analysis of the use of the word zhid,” or kike, he said.

The latest developments in the city of Yekaterinburg, home to a thriving Jewish community, presented a striking example of this legal blind alley.

Last year Mikhail Oshtrakh, a local Jewish leader, sent written appeals to the authorities demanding that criminal charges be brought against the local diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church for distributing anti-Semitic materials in local churches, including “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The book purports to describe a Jewish plot to take over the world.

In December, a case against local church officials was opened by local prosecutors, probably under some pressure from the Kremlin.

Then the charges were suddenly dropped earlier this month. Prosecutors reportedly determined that there was not enough evidence to press the case

“They will close the case, of course,” Oshtrakh said a few days before his prediction came true. “I only want that the church leaders apologize before the Jewish community.”

But so far there has been no apology.

Luks, of the Washington-based NCSJ, said that while the Russian government could do more, he thinks the days of state-sponsored anti-Semitism are over and that Jackson-Vanik should be used as an “instrument to facilitate better policies” on the part of the Russian government regarding human rights issues.

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