The Kremlin is keeping anti-Semitism “under control”
In addition to its standard anti-Western rhetoric, Kremlin propaganda has recently included accusations of growing anti-Semitism in Europe while claiming that in Russia, this problem is long resolved and that no prejudice or intolerance towards Jews exists. Putin has even suggested that European Jews can escape anti-Semitism by moving to Russia. But in practice – as has become Kremlin tradition – the message conveyed to the outside world differs fundamentally from domestic policy.
Elements of anti-Semitism have become an integral part of the fight against internal opponents of the regime. The message also flies in the face of statistics, according to which, Jewish immigration to Israel from Russia rose by 40% in 2015 from 2014, and by 60% from 2013. (For comparison: the number of repatriates from Ukraine to Israel, where military operations continue thanks to the efforts of Russia, rose by 16% and 24%, respectively.) Of course, one cannot know with certainty the reason Russia’s jewish population is leaving the country - the failing economy or politics - but what is clear is that many Jews are not comfortable with some aspects of today’s Russia.
Some Jewish organizations (either intentionally or otherwise) go along with the heart-warming story which portrays Putin as a defender of Jews. Thus, on April 19, Putin held a meeting with the President of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), Ronald S. Lauder, who stated that Putin had fulfilled his 2003 promise to fight anti-Semitism. According to Lauder, unlike in Europe, where anti-Semitism “still raises its head,” in Russia it’s rare. Similar statements can be expected from Russian Jewish organizations (including the Russian Jewish Congress) which are loyal to the Kremlin, but not from independent Jewish organizations as, in theory, they should be aware of the real situation. But, apparently, they also become hostages to Kremlin propaganda, if not “persuaded” thanks to Kremlin generosity.
It is very telling that in his interview given to Interfax news agency, in response to a question about the growing popularity of radical parties in Europe and the potential impact on rising anti-Semitism, the WJC President noted that one should not “ignore the threats posed by the extreme left-wing parties, some of which contributed to the fomenting anti-Jewish sentiments.” However, he ignored the fact that some of these parties enjoy the Kremlin’s support. By all appearances, it is not that common to speak of Kremlin support of extreme parties in Europe or, in fact, real Russian anti-Semitism, the development of which is deliberately manageable. The Kremlin orchestrates anti-Semitism, particularly against Jews who embrace their Russian identity and advocate the democratization of the country. On the other hand, manageable anti-Semitism allows the Kremlin to ensure the loyalty of the greater part of Russian Jewish community, since in rhetoric, it is Putin who prevents open xenophobia from blooming. Thus many believe that when Putin leaves the office, various negative tendencies which he was able to “keep at bay” will emerge. In other words, people fear that the domesticated predator will break loose once the owner is gone.
“Convenient” anti-Semitism is not extremism?
Anti-Semitic pranks are “forgiven” in Russia when committed by those favored by the regime, be it by a politician or a cog in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. A recent example of this forgiveness occurred on April 10, when a participant of pre-primary debates representing United Russia in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, Vladislav Vikhorev, accused Jews of the genocide of Russians who were “on the brink of extinction” after “the Jewish coup” which took place under President Boris Yeltsin. Although this statement falls squarely within the scope of anti-extremism Article 282 (Incitement of hatred or hostility, as well as violation of human dignity) of the Penal Code of the Russian Federation, Vikhorev was let off with a warning and was not even stricken-off from the primaries list. It turns out that anti-Semitic statements are not considered extremist in the country which readily resorts to citing this article when it comes to those who condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine via social media. Recall the high-profile case of Yekaterina Vologzheninova, found guilty of inciting hatred for re-posting pro-Ukrainian materials on VKontakte.
It is worth noting that the number of those convicted, having been found guilty under Article 282 of the Penal Code, increased three-fold in Russia in 2015 compared to 2011, In fact, the overall number of convictions for “use of the Internet for extremist purposes” rose. The latest report by the Center for Economic and Political Reforms explains that the application of the anti-extremist article in practice has transformed with the political situation in the country. Depending on the political situation, it has been used for the persecution of the nationalist opposition, pro-Ukrainian activists or various religious organizations. Apparently, there has been no command to “Attack!” anti-Semites issued. On the other hand, such a command has been issued in relation to all those supporting Ukraine’s transformation and Ukrainians themselves. In such cases, propaganda swiftly reverts to backdoor politics tactics and includes anti-Semitism. An illustrative example is a report by the Russia 24 channel about the Jewish origins of Ukraine’s new Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. Groysman’s Jewish roots was emphasized by the presenter as a “defamatory” fact: “Volodymyr Groysman may become Prime Minister of Ukraine. What do we know about him? A Jew, 38, non-autonomous.”
One cannot seriously argue that today’s authorities are fighting Judeophobia, particularly as they use this very prejudice for their own purposes, capitalizing on the (real or imagined) Jewish origins of members of the opposition. It is noteworthy that whenever the media peddling Kremlin interests go much too far in their expression of antisemitism, they are not adequately punished. For example, Ulyana Skoibeda lamented the fact that the Nazis had not made lampshades from the ancestors of today’s liberals (Jews) in Komsomolskaya Pravda. She received a mere warning from Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communication, (although the decision of the Public Board for Press Complaints clearly identifies that there exists a need for a sterner punishment), and continues to work at the newspaper which ranks fifth among the most cited newspapers in Russia and fifth among the 30 most cited online resources.
A blind eye was turned to a recent instance of equating Jews with liberals (i.e. the opposition) in an article by Vladimir Bondarenko, forecasting that Russian liberals will eventually “draw down Babi Yar on themselves.” However, finding or inventing a reason for crushing Putin’s critics with a judicial steamroller is another matter entirely. Anything can serve as a reason for judicial intervention. For example, any mention of the Ukrainian organization “Right Sector” in a piece which does not also state that the organization is banned in Russia is more than sufficient reason for punishment. In fact, this is precisely why a Moscow district court imposed a fine on Yevgenia Albats and The New Times for “abuse of freedom of mass media following a Roskomnadzor warning.”
We are witnessing extreme selectivity of law enforcement practice which ignores the open anti-Semitism of some, and selectively punishes others for “extremism” which in a normal, democratic society, would not be considered such.
There is reason to worry
Meanwhile, popular anti-Semitism in Russian society remains. Commentators love to reiterate that, compared to the early 2000s, anti-Semitism has dropped from 8 - 12 percent down to 3 - 6 percent in Russia. What they fail to mention is that while this is true of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and some other large cities, the situation differs across the country. Jews rank second in the list of nationalities disliked by the inhabitants of North Ossetia (anti-Semitic views are typical of 25 percent of the population in this region of Russia), and they tie for first with 38 percent in Mordovia. In Russia overall, 57 percent of residents believe that “money and profit are more important to Jews than human relations,” an increase of 17 percent from 1990.
It seems that the flourishing of such sentiments is primarily due to the rhetoric prevalent in Russian media. The overwhelming majority of them are dependent on the state to a larger or lesser extent. The dependence of these media outlets gives every reason to believe that no nationally significant topics are broadcasted without the approval of the authorities. The Levada Center report on anti-Semitism concluded that the current level of anti-Semitism in Russia exists as a political resource in today’s Russia. This isn’t responding to societal demands of the elites - it is a top-down process.
Without this top-down process, anti-Semitism in Russian society would have declined long ago and would be limited to kitchen conversations involving a narrow group of radical nationalists. However, when society feels the political elite giving them the “go-ahead” for hostility against a particular group, people start to project anger prompted by dissatisfaction with their own lives onto that group. (A scheme is in operation: “Americans, Jews, the fifth column, etc., are to blame for the fact that my life is getting worse.”) As a result, not only are anti-Semitic publications and statements possible, but in the near future, so too are more radical forms of hostility, such as, for example, a rally against the Jewish movement Chabad-Lubavitch held in Perm recently which resulted in more than 100 people signing a petition addressed to Putin demanding that the movement’s activities be banned in Russia. When promoting the antisemitic rally, its organizers released a poster featuring clearly visible blood stains, a phrase pertaining to the “bloody ritual Sabbaths” (a belief widely held among antisemites), and a call to “protect your children from THEM.” However, this ugly rhetoric did not prevent local authorities from giving their authorization for the anti-Semitic rally to go ahead.
What we witness in Russia today is anti-Semitism managed by the elite. It can become radicalized at any given moment. This is exactly what happened with homophobia, largely absent from public discussion, until it was forcefully brought in from the top and made one of the tenets of Putin’s National Idea. We must realize this can happen to any minority in Russia today.
The strategy of politically manageable anti-Semitism generally resembles works by Eurasians who treated Jews with some skepticism despite claiming that there was no racism in Russian thought. Eurasians explained their attitudes not by racial hostility, but instead by spiritual or ideological reasoning. Thus, according to Lev Karsavin, the theoretician of left Eurasianism, Jews can be divided into three groups: those who have fully preserved their religious and cultural identity; those who have assimilated and integrated with the people of their host countries; and Jews at the crossroads (i.e. those who are already somewhat distant from their people for some reason but have not yet adopted traits of the people with whom they share their new home). It was the third group that Karsavin perceived as potential enemies who were considered cosmopolitans, internationalists at heart, and revolutionaries by nature committed to the idea of “abstract equality and freedom.” These were potential democrats and socialists. According to Karsavin, denationalized Jews had precipitated the fall of Russia once already and thus constitute an eternal enemy which must be fought. It seems that Vladimir Putin harbors similar views…
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