Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wikileaks: Russian anti-semitism way down (updated)

Here are sections from a very interesting Wikileaks cable from December 2009:
As the country that a century ago produced "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," saw state-sponsored pogroms that prompted the emigration of millions of Jews under the Tsars, and saw the development of anti-Semitism as a policy under Stalin and his predecessors, Russia for many years was synonymous with anti-Semitism. After the notoriety of both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union in this area, the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed yet a new threat to Jews in the form of violent neo-nationalist groups. However, in recent years both societal and official attitudes towards Jews have showed a marked improvement, and contacts of ours in the Jewish community, whose current population is approximately one million, tell us that they have never before felt this comfortable living in Russia. Although occasional incidents of vandalism and attacks still occur, racist groups have shifted their focus from Jews to Central Asian and other dark-skinned immigrants and migrant workers.

Not surprisingly, the most prominent Jewish leaders have scrupulously maintained friendly relations with the GOR. Rabbi Berel Lazar of the Chabad community, one of Russia's two Chief Rabbis, has for years maintained the line that life is good for Russian Jews.

...Other Jewish leaders have confirmed this rosy assessment of official relations. Shayevich told us that "there is no doubt of any kind" that life has significantly improved for Russian Jewry, and that relations with the GOR are "completely different" from those of the Soviet period. He noted that he had just received Hannukah greetings from members of the State Duma, as well as from Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov, who attended Hannukah services at the Synagogue. ...both Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev make a point of publicly sending holiday greetings to Russia's Jewish population, although thus far they have stopped short of donning yarmulkes and attending services themselves. Lazar told us that the overall message is that Jews "are a part of the Russian community."

More substantively, Lazar told us that two years ago, GOR officials brought him a list of anti-Semitic books and publications that they promised to eliminate, and that they had since made good on this promise, based on his people's examination of stores and book expos. In a November 6 conversation, Svetlana Yakimenko, who runs the Jewish women's rights NGO Project Kesher, agreed that "at the official level, the attitude towards Jews is the best ever." She said that the GOR has announced that it will do anything necessary to fight anti-Semitism, and that police have standing orders to close down any known anti-Semitic groups.

Many other Jewish leaders in the NGO world have also striven mightily to establish good relations with the GOR, and the effort has paid dividends. Natalya Rykova, whose Moscow Bureau of Human Rights (MBHR) has such a close relationship with the GOR that she and fellow MBHR denizen Aleksandr Brod inspire disdain among most of the human rights community, has shared with us her chilling memory of emerging from her apartment in the early 90s to see threatening graffiti from the anti-Semitic group Pamyat. MBHR's habit of toadying up to the GOR on matters such as the Georgia conflict and North Caucasus policy is designed to provide its members with iron-clad "cover" against anti-Semites, a point that Rykova readily acknowledges.

Alexander Axelrod of the Jewish Anti-defamation League explained to us on October 23 his belief that, while in the past official anti-Semitism was more of a problem than social anti-Semitism, now it was the other way around. However, he added that he did not see social anti-Semitism as a significant problem at this point. Other contacts agreed that anti-Semitism has become increasingly marginalized in the social sphere. Shayevich said that, although there is still some "street" anti-Semitism, the number of attacks had decreased in the past several years. Lazar asserted that Judaism is now "on a par with other religions" in most people's minds, and said that "if the trend continues, we will be wholly integrated." (Note: Thanks to the 1997 Law on Religions which defined Judaism as one of Russia's four "traditional" religions, Judaism enjoys special status relative to less established religions. End Note.) He described an experiment that he carried out for several days during the Jewish High Holidays in September, in which his employees, clearly dressed as Chabad followers, conducted man-on-the-street interviews regarding people's views of Judaism. According to Lazar, the response was overwhelmingly positive, with very few exceptions. Lazar added that this activity received uniformly friendly media coverage as well, including on state-run television.

Anti-Semitism has been a part of Russian culture for such a long time that it would be unrealistic to expect it to disappear overnight. Russians, including those with entirely friendly attitudes towards Jews, routinely distinguish between a person who is "Russian" and one who is "Jewish," something that would be inappropriate in the United States.

Shayevich noted that economic factors may exacerbate suspicion towards Jews, as the crisis has inflamed xenophobia generally, and public perception of Jews as crafty money-grubbers persists. This perception was not helped by the significant portion of 1990s oligarchs who were Jewish (even though, as Shayevich noted, in the past Jews were often forced to find new, "unofficial" ways to acquire wealth because of official restrictions against them, and the oligarch phenomenon should be viewed in that context). Even some of the apparently positive attitudes towards Jews may at times tie in with this perception, as with the woman who told Lazar's researchers that she "wished she were Jewish, too."

Kesher also alluded to examples of ingrained suspicion towards Jews in society; for example, at a Project Kesher roundtable on tolerance in Orel five years ago, FSB representatives appeared and advised participants not to use the word "Jewish" too loudly. ...

Another factor tipping the GOR and Russians towards a more favorable attitude towards Jews is the palpable warming trend in Russian-Israeli relations. In an April news poll, 52 percent of Russians viewed Israel favorably, a figure slightly less than that in the U.S. (56 percent). As a result of many decades of Russian immigration to Israel, Israel's Russian population, one million, now equals Russia's Jewish population. Israel's current Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, visited Russia in June to great fanfare, with widespread favorable media coverage. Lieberman announced that he felt as if we were "coming home" to Russia (he was born in Moldova), and news reports focused on his use of fluent Russian in his meetings with GOR officials. Back in Russia on December 6, Lieberman praised the visa-free system established last year between Russia and Israel -- which is expected to double the number of Russian tourists traveling to Israel to 400,000 this year -- while Putin said that Israel's Russian community "unites us with you like no other country." Axelrod dismisses the idea that rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Russian society is changing attitudes towards Jews or Israelis, but agrees that Russia is hedging its bets in the region and moving away from Arab or Muslim client states, and that this official attitude is likely percolating down to the societal level....

Tsevi Mirkin of the Israeli Embassy in Russia told us December 17 that the positive trend in Russian-Israeli relations began in the 1990s, but has especially improved in the past five years. He attributed this to many factors, including the disappearance of "the official Soviet hatred towards Israel." He added that there is a high level of interest in Israel in Russian society, with many Russians having friends, relatives, or classmates there, and that the two countries trade 2 billion USD in products each year. Sadly, Mirkin noted, one other reason for improved views of Israel is racism among Russians; "they see Israel as a 'white' state in a non-white region." He related an encounter he had, as he was entering the Israeli Embassy, with a Russian man who told him, "The Americans don't deserve you guys," and explained that his positive feelings about Israel related to its status as a bulwark against "blacks."
Who would have imagined, even twenty years ago, that Russia could ever be a comfortable place for Jews to practice their religion?

UPDATE: Commenter Vandoren, from Moscow, takes exception to this:
Comparing with pogroms in Czarist Russia and Stalin times it looks good, but we are living in the 21st century! There were always anti-Jewish feelings in Russian public. Ben Lazar whose Russian even worse then my Rnglish is living in another world. Russian Jews don't respect him cuz he's a Putin puppet. And never trust any poll in Russia.

And about Israel. Yes,comparing with UK and other Europe people are mostly pro-israel. It happens because the media in Russia does not demonize Israel; you can hear anti-israel bias only from Euronews and BBC Russian. Only a tiny part of Russian anti-semitism is about Israel and Arabs. Most popular slogans are about that Jews control Russia. Also that all liberals (not British style left-wing) are Jews and they want to destroy the country.