Responding to anti-Semitism in Russia
by Paul Goble
In the wake of two attacks on Moscow synagogues, a prominent Russian Jewish organization has decried the increasing incidence of such activities as well as what it said are the reasons behind that rise.
In a statement released on July 27, the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) said that the mounting number of attacks on Jewish institutions now represents "a threat to all Russian citizens regardless of their nationality" and argued that such crimes "should not remain unpunished."
The organization blamed the increase on chauvinistic appeals by some Russian politicians, the indifference of many ordinary Russian citizens to such attacks, and the inability or unwillingness of the government to identify and punish those responsible.
The Russian Jewish Congress issued the appeal after a July 12 attack on the Moscow Choral synagogue left Leopold Kaimovskii, the executive director of Moscow's Jewish Arts Center, badly wounded and after reports earlier this week that a bomb had been planted near another Moscow synagogue.
The RJC argued that "such incidents cease to be something extraordinary and are committed with the connivance of those who are in charge of the formation of our society's moral climate." It provided three explanations for this increase, which comes after a period in which many Russian Jews felt anti-Semitism in the country had been declining.
First, the RJC put the blame on the increasing number of political figures who have with impunity issued anti-Semitic statements as part of their effort to win popular support. It noted that "there is nothing strange in the escalation of such violence when members of the Federation Council and State Duma deputies make chauvinistic statements," particularly when they escape censure for such statements.
Second, the RJC criticized the indifference of many Russians to what is taking place. All too many Russian citizens, the group indicated, have failed to react at all to such outrages against Jewish groups, an indifference that sometimes extends to attacks on other national minorities.
This Russian indifference, the RJC noted, has prompted Jews and other minorities to "raise the question of whether it is possible to live on Russian territory" and, in the absence of domestic support, to issue "appeals to the international community" as the only means of defense.
And third, the RJC denounced what it said is the "impotence of the Russian authorities" in the face of such acts, an impotence that reflects either their inability or their unwillingness to bring those responsible to justice. The failure of the Russian government to do so, the RJC noted, has only emboldened those responsible for such behavior.
To counter these factors, the RJC called on Russian leaders to denounce racists and anti-Semites "no matter how high their posts are." It demanded that the Russian people recognize the danger to themselves of anti-Semitic actions left unpunished. And it called on the authorities to work harder to identify and convict those guilty of such crimes.
But it is a measure of the difficulties Jews in Russia now face that this organization has directed its appeal to foreign governments and human rights activists as well, virtually inviting both to put pressure on Moscow to change its current approach.
Several Jewish groups and human rights organizations in the United States and other Western countries recently have begun campaigns to attract attention to what many people had assumed was no longer a major problem in post-Soviet Russia.
The appeal of the Russian Jewish Congress from Moscow is likely to give additional impetus to these Western efforts. And its identification of the sources of the new tide of anti-Semitic violence in Russia is likely to lead ever more people to consider not only why anti-Semitism has re-emerged, but also the ways in which it can be combated.
To the extent that this does happen, this appeal may mark a turning point in Russian social development. To the extent that it does not, the appeal may come to be viewed as a barometer of how bad things now are and how much worse they could become.
Paul Goble is the publisher of RFE/RL Newsline.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 22, 1999, No. 34, Vol. LXVII
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