December 17, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his fight against anti-Semitism. According Arutz Sheva , at the initiative of President Putin, the Duma (Russian Parliament) has legislated a law outlawing “distorted and/or extremist” commentary of Scriptures. The purpose of the unusual law, it is widely understood, is the prevention of cynical advantage being taken of Biblical verses for anti-Semitic purposes.
Cynical person might say that this act is just a tactical political statement, but I think this law and the interest in it are real. Putin, a former KGB agent, has long been known to oppose anti-Semitism, and violent attacks against Jews in his country have in fact been on the decline in recent years. He also conducts warm relations with Israel – even as he does the same with Iran.
Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia, said that the law is truly important in the fight against Russian anti-Semitism. He publicly thanked “my friend President Putin who bodily blocks all anti-Semitic phenomena” and the members of the Duma for “proving that Russia respects the beliefs of all its citizens.”
Even Putin is incapable of wiping out a thousand years of Russian anti-Semitic tradition, however he has long been fighting against it.
Background of anti-Semitism in USSR/Russia
Russia and Soviet Union has as a long, sordid, and bloody history of anti-Semitism. The Russian Czars enacted anti-Semitic legislation, subjecting the Jews to inferior status and forcing them to live in the pale of settlement far away from the large cities.
The word ‘pogram’ originated in Russia and refers to violent attacks by non-Jews on Jews in the Russian Empire. The first such incident is believed to have occurred in Odessa in 1821. Some Russians blamed Jews for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II which triggered pogroms and local economic conditions were attributed to Jewish money lending practices. Pogroms led many Jews to reassess life in the Russian Empire and many emigrated to the United States and Palestine.
Antisemitism in the Soviet Union reached new heights after 1948 during the campaign against the “rootless cosmopolitan”, in which numerous Yiddish-writing poets, writers, painters and sculptors were killed or arrested. This culminated in the so-called “Doctors’ trials”, in which a group of doctors (some of whom were Jewish) had allegedly conspired to murder Stalin.
USSR’s relations with Israel had been severed in 1967 because of the Six-Day War. Although Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev denounced anti-Semitism in a speech on February 22, 1981, the real change in relations began with an episode in 1988 when in southern Russia, a group of bandits seized a bus carrying school children and demanded an airplane to fly to Israel. To the terrorists’ surprise, the Israeli authorities immediately returned them to the Soviet government. This incident significantly accelerated the process of restoring relations between the countries.
While the anti-Semitism that existed as official state policy during the Soviet era has not resurfaced, some prominent political figures, particularly those associated with the Communist party, have employed anti-Semitism to further their own political ambitions. Scapegoating Jews as the source of Russia’s economic and social problems become increasingly common on both the national and local levels of the late 90’s.
Putin as philo-Semitic leader
Vladimir Putin would appear to be one of the more philo-Semitic leaders in Russian history.
The rise of Putin began in 1999 with the war in the Caucasus, when the decisive prime minister took a hard line against the separatists and Islamic radicals in Chechnya. He remodeled his actions on Israel, which has always declared that softness or flexibility toward terrorists can only lead to an escalation of the violence. The same approach was taken after the year 2000 when terrorists seized the theater in Moscow and the school in Beslan.
One example of the good health of Jewish society in Putin-era Russia is Moscow’s new [est. 2012] Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center – probably the largest Jewish history museum in the world. Mr. Putin has extended his personal support to the lavish project, donating a month’s salary for its construction, which cost around $50 million. The construction of a massive monument to Jewish identity would seem to be a pretty strange thing for an anti-Semite to do.
On 9th July 2014 President Putin met Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, to discuss joint efforts to combat anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism. The meeting was also attended by rabbis from Israel, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and France. The parties discussed joint efforts to prevent the “rewriting of history”: the fight against neo-Nazism and neo-fascism, as well as xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Putin assured the Jewish leaders that Russia will fight against any new manifestations of Nazism. Berel Lazar stated his views as follows:
“It is in Russia that people are genuinely concerned about the threat of neo-Nazism, Holocaust denial and revisionist approaches to World War II. Many leaders in different countries prefer to keep quiet about it, but here in Russia the matter is openly addressed. Tomorrow we fly to Sevastopol, where we will once again remember the 6 million [Jews] that died… for us, it is very gratifying to see how it is in Russia, a country where the Jewish way of life was previously banned, that such a dynamic Jewish community exists now. We are grateful to the government for its support and for the fight against anti-Semitism.
Many Jewish institutions were founded and flourished under Mr. Putin’s administration and many Jewish leaders, not all of them Putin-supporters, claim that he had little tolerance for the inbred Russian anti-Semitism. In a Russia which is facing a demographic crisis of negative growth, Putin certainly views the emigration of an estimated two million Jews, to Israel, North American and Germany, as a net loss of highly-educated and productive citizens. His government has set and supported a number of official and semi-official organizations whose objective is to maintain contact with these expatriates and if possible, persuade them to return to the rodina. The Foreign Ministry has even begun financing Jewish cultural events for Russian Jews around the world, such as a Hanukah party in Berlin.
Putin’s warm relations with the Jewish community in his country have long been a matter of curiosity. Some say it is because of his many Jewish friends and neighbors when he was a child. One story even has it that a Jewish family befriended him when he was a poor child in St Petersburg whose parents were barely ever home. Another story relates that years later, as Vice-Mayor of that city, Putin stuck his neck out to give permission for the opening of a Jewish school in the city, even though it was not in his authority to do so.
Putin’s government has long been playing the Soviet nostalgia card. In television documents, articles etc the Soviet past was made to seem glorious. The annexation of Crimea, air-strikes and regional cooperation in Syria and international cooperation with Iran nuke program have restored Russia’s geopolitical role; many writers and politicians now openly call for the revival of the Soviet Union. However the pining for the Soviet past has not had a significant anti-Semitic component.
There actually doesn’t seem to be any large-scale anti-Semitism in Russian society today. And opinion polls made by The Levada-Center show that Russians are positively disposed towards Israel.
The government level cooperation and mutual understanding of each others strategic interests between Russia and Israel seems to be fair and interactive. During the war in southern Lebanon in 2006, when Israeli special forces showed their Russian colleagues the markings on Russian shells that had been supplied to Syria and then transferred to Hezbollah, Moscow investigated and temporarily suspended its deal with Syria. On the eve of the war between Russia and Georgia, Moscow informally warned Israel that active military cooperation with Tbilisi could backfire, and Israel curtailed its involvement. Israel’s evolving relationship with Russia was also highlighted in the Netanyahu government’s decision not to vote on a 27th March 2014 UN General Assembly resolution on the situation in Crimea.
Israel’s generally cooperative relationship with Russia makes sense e.g. based on the large and politically influential Russian-speaking population in Israel, growing economic ties including a proposed free trade agreement, substantial tourism (Russia is second after the United States as a source of 600,000 tourists who visited Israel last year) and similarly unconstrained approaches to combating Islamic extremist terrorism that has led to tacit support for one another’s policies, including Russia’s wars in Chechnya. Vladimir Putin has made two visits to Israel as Russia’s president — double the number of trips by US President Barack Obama.
Recent meetings between Putin and Netanyahu, military co-ordination in the skies over Syria and closer economic ties appear to be strengthening the relations between the two countries. However the Russia’s fight against anti-Semitism will create real content to fair cooperation at grassroots too.
Article originally appeared in Conflicts by Ari Rusila