#10 - JRL 7008
January 8, 2003
The new Russian anti-Semitism targets Muslims
By Eliahu Salpeter
The slowdown in immigration from Russia has led to the formation of new, stronger Jewish communities by those who have remained. The institutionalization of religion has allowed the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement to increase its activities as have Conservative and Reform organizations. The ousting of tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky has weakened the image of Jewish dominance in politics. Only the authorities' response to racist expressions has not changed.
Five main factors mold the status of Russian Jewry today, including their relations with their gentile neighbors and their ties with the government. A few of the factors have undergone very significant changes since Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in 1999. Other factors have changed less, or not at all.
There has been no real change in the attitude of the authorities throughout Russia to verbal or physical expressions of anti-Semitism. Despite Putin's unchallenged status in Moscow and the central institutions of the fed, the czarist phrase "God is in heaven - the czar is a long way off" still holds. The local rulers and senior officials in many of the states of the federation behave like little kings in their own fiefdoms. There are some who try to cope with racist phenomena and with attacks on foreigners. Others, apparently the majority, ignore the situation (intentionally or otherwise) and sometimes even aid elements supporting the extremists. Thus, for example, in a few regions the armed Cossack movements are practically recognized officially by the authorities. There is more than a little anarchy in law enforcement, and the Jews are often its victims. This happens against the background of a missing tradition of respecting basic civil rights, which could set limits to racist phenomena.
The best thing about the post-Communist era for the Jews was the opening of the gates of emigration. More than a million came to Israel, and many others went to Western countries. This of course changed the face of the communities they left. Recently emigration has slowed significantly and this has accelerated the process of the reconsolidation of Jewry in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
"All the Jews" are no longer sitting on their suitcases or trying to decide whether to go or stay. It also looks as if anyone who wanted to come to Israel did so before the economic crisis in Israel. Those who decided to stay (and who wish to remain Jewish) are now hard at work creating a framework that will ensure their ethnic future, aided by worldwide Jewish organizations and the Jewish Agency. Throughout the CIS there are many Jewish schools, which also teach Hebrew; there are adult classes for Judaic studies and Jewish cultural events; and there are both secular and religious national organizations.
The connection with family members who came to Israel is certainly contributing to the Jewish identity of those left behind, but, on the other hand, the marked drop in the number of local Jews is liable to increase intermarriage. The third factor is the institutionalization of religion by the authorities, which added Judaism to the (few) religions that enjoy "recognized" status. This has helped Chabad in particular and it sends vast sums of money for the expansion of its activities. One of the expressions of the strong status of this movement is the strange fact that the state agreed to recognize two Ashkenazi chief rabbis, one who has been serving since the Soviet era and another one, from Chabad, whom the authorities have decided to favor.
The Interfax Russian news agency last week reported that "the Russian Congress of Religious Organizations and Jewish Communities" had formulated "a cultural ideology regarding the key aspects of life in our times." The declaration notes, in conservative tones, the preference of motherhood and homemaking as women's roles. It also speaks of political, cultural and social equality for women, but opposes "the trend to diminish the importance of her role as wife and mother." Concerning abortions, the declaration states that "the Bible's determination that human life is sacred from the outset contradicts the right to freedom of choice regarding the fate of the fetus."
This ideology forbids rabbis from membership in political parties and from participating in elections. Jews are to obey the state authorities and pray for their welfare. "May God bless the president, the head of the state and all Russian citizens," concludes the declaration.
Conservative and Reform Judaism are also making inroads in Russia. The Reform movement is currently putting a major organizational effort into outlying towns. The World Union for Progressive Judaism (Reform) has founded a new movement in Russia and now operates an Institute for Modern Judaic Studies in Moscow. The institute course lasts a year and its graduates become teachers of Hebrew and Judaic studies in non-Orthodox communities. According to the New York newspaper The Forward, Reform sources say that if they had the funding that Chabad has, they would be able to set up the largest network of communities and Jewish schools in Russia. The Forward also notes that Chabad sources concur that the Reform movement has "great drawing power among most of Russian Jewry," as close to 70 percent of them have mixed marriages.
Russian Jewry's status has also been affected, indirectly but still substantially, by Putin's "political wing-clipping" of tycoons in the past two years, kingpins who had made their fortunes during the accelerated privatization in the Yeltsin era. Two of the most prominent of these men, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, had also acquired important sections of Russian radio, television and print media, gaining tremendous political influence. After covert and overt confrontation with Putin, the two were forced to sell some of their communications holdings and leave Russia.
This was not an expression of anti-Semitism on Putin's part but rather the implementation of a principle the new president had laid down -that riches and economic power be separate from political power.
Cries of "the Jews control Russian capital" and "the Jews control the Russian press" were heard more and more frequently and caused discomfort among Jews both inside Russia and beyond its borders, particularly because of Berezovsky's high profile (even though he had converted to Christianity he was still viewed as a Jew) and that of Gusinsky, who was also serving as chairman of the Russian Jewish Congress.
The ousting of these two eased Jewish fears and put an end to the open involvement of oligarchs in Russian politics. Jews continue to be active in politics but as politicians (and not as businessmen). Sometimes they belong to Putin's "cheering section" which helps him with public opinion in the West, mainly among American Jewry. Putin rewards his supporters by putting in an appearance at important Jewish events.
The ousting of the Jewish oligarchs from politics and the media does not mean that Jews are no longer in the upper echelons of economic circles. The Washington Post figures that eight "clans" control 85 percent of the capital in the 64 largest private companies in Russia. Other American publications claim that three of these "families" are connected with Jewish oligarchs, including Mikhail Khodorkovskij, head of the largest oil company, and Mikhail Friedman, a banker who also has substantial holdings in the steel industry. Most of these businessmen are in Putin's "tea club" and are often invited to the Kremlin for economic policy discussions.
The last factor that affects the status of the Jews is the Russian populace's growing hostility toward Muslims from the CIS, due to the war in Chechnya. This hostility intensified in recent weeks due to the disastrous Moscow theater hostage affair. Putin takes pains to emphasize that Islam is not synonymous with terrorism, but sometimes has difficulty holding his tongue. He told a French journalist, for example, that there is now a war between Christianity and Islam. It is reasonable to assume that some of the blows meted out by thugs to Muslim passers-by in Russian towns were intended for Jewish passers-by.
"It used to be the Jews," lamented a Moscow imam to a Washington Post journalist. "Now they have all gone to Israel. Instead of the Jews, now the politicians incite the masses against the Muslims. We are the new Jews."