By SEMYON DOVZHIK, The JC—
On the day of the presidential election last Sunday, Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar published a fascinating post on Facebook.
“In my opinion, ” he wrote, “today’s Russia is one of the most attractive places in the world for the development of Jewish communal life.”
“Unfortunately, in many places traditional religious values have become undermined, which has led to a number of negative consequences.
“Here in Russia, we see the reverse process. Traditional values have been strengthened; the links between people and communities have become closer.
“This is, to a very large extent, thanks to the current Russian leadership.”
Although few other Jewish leaders in Russia would dispute this statement in public, many privately do not share Rabbi Lazar’s enthusiasm. More than 6,000 left Russia for Israel last year alone.
This is still very far away from the huge waves of the early 1990s but it certainly highlights an increasing new tendency. Many Jews feel this is the right time to leave, or at least to apply for an Israeli passport as insurance in case things deteriorate further in Mother Russia.
In recent decades, Jewish life in Russia has flourished like never before. But this golden era for the Russian Jewish community is about to end. The only questions are: will it be fast and will it be painful?
President Vladimir Putin is not about to turn overnight from the philosemitism for which he is known. But antisemitism is already a de facto part of Russian society and only the deaf and blind would not recognise it.
An early manifestation of this was a few years ago when Ulyana Skoibeda, a columnist for the leading daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, expressed regret that the Nazis did not manage to manufacture lampshades from the flesh of the ancestors of current Russian liberals. Elsewhere, a presenter on the state-funded Rossiya 24 channel casually remarked: “The Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves.”
As if this was not enough, a prominent bishop from the Russian Orthodox church claimed in another broadcast that Nicholas II, the last tsar, was murdered by Jews for ritual purposes.
In Russia, people know how to read between the lines. It is just a matter of time for antisemitism to move from Russia’s television screens and become a part of everyday reality.
You do not need to be an expert political analyst to realise that the Russia-West relationship is going from bad to worse. The recent poisoning of the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury is only one sign.
Public opinion largely backs Mr Putin’s stance towards the United States and Europe, and any Western sympathiser is likely to be treated as part of a fifth column. Jews — with their tribal links to the US, Israel and Europe and their unconcealed preference for Western values — could be the first to be identified.
Jacob Mazeh, a distinguished chief rabbi of Moscow in the 1920s, once said: “Trotsky makes the revolution, and Bronstein pays the bill.”
This is still the situation for Russian Jewry today.
With the overwhelming support gained in the recent election, there is nothing to prevent Vladimir Putin from ordering a massive crackdown on the opposition — and the majority of Russian opposition leaders have Jewish roots.
When Boris Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow three years ago, Mr Putin immediately expressed his condolences to Nemtsov’s mother.
But, in the public announcement, the public was casually reminded of her name, Dina Bat Yaakov Eidman. In Russia’s prevailing political climate you need not say more than that — the subliminal message is clear.
The country’s propaganda machine has extensive experience in cultivating hatred towards particular ethnic groups. It happened with the Georgians during the 2008 war and the Ukrainians after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine.
I feel the Jews are next in line. There is a traditional antipathy in Russia for oligarchs with Jewish origins and names like Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky and Abramovich.
They made their fortune in Russia and then left for overseas, purchasing mansions and yachts along the way. Turning Russian public opinion against the Jews won’t be an onerous task: many will enthusiastically take the initiative.
I pray this is a false alarm. But history suggests the future promises nothing comforting for the Jews of Russia, even if they refuse to realise it.