Russia Has Moved on Over the Past 40 Years, Why Can’t We?

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There is a joke making the rounds in Russia that goes “forty years ago, people in the Soviet Union were willing to pay a thousand rubles to have the nationality section in their identity cards changed from ‘Jewish’ to ‘Russian.’ Nowadays Russians are willing to pay five thousand rubles to have it say ‘Jewish’.”

I spent a few days this week with a group of Russian Jews and was struck by how freely and openly they express their identity, not only among themselves but in interactions with non-Jews. I was also surprised to see how at least in some cases, they are eager to broadcast the presence of their Jewish schools and synagogues with prominent Stars of David. Compare this with the nondescript fashion of communal buildings in many parts of Western Europe.

I asked the president of one regional community, who has lived most of his life in an industrial city over a 1,000 miles from Moscow what has made Russian Jews so eager to project their identity to the surrounding society. “Two reasons. First, because of Israel. Everyone knows how powerful it is in military terms and successful in technology and business. Second, the Russian government is not like the Soviets; they don’t discriminate against Jews.” I heard these same sentiments repeatedly in various versions: Russian Jews believe that their association with Israel increases their security and, in part as a result, the government actively discourages anti-Semitism.

These are not starry-eyed ideologues or Putinist propagandists. Not one Jewish Muscovite I met voted for the Putin-backed candidate in Sunday’s mayoral elections. In private they are full of criticism of the president and his administration. “Putin has only one interest, his own” said one of them. And like Putin, they are also pragmatists. Not that I doubt the sincerity of their allegiance to either component of their dual identity or their connection with Israel, but the openness with which they express these loyalties is the result of a clear and cool-headed calculation that it benefits them both as individuals and as a community to be seen thus by other Russians. All this in Russia, which is actively arming Israel’s mortal enemies Iran and Syria and where a virulently xenophobic nationalist press allows itself to indulge in conspiracy theories regarding Jews and Israel that in the West can only be found on the wild extremes of the Web.

In Western Europe there has been much hysteria this year (and almost every year of the preceding decade) over a “wave” of anti-Semitism crashing over the continent, intensified by the diverse effects of the Middle East’s conflicts. We have heard dire warnings of an impending exodus of Jews to calmer shores and predictions of rapid Islamization making the land inhabitable for infidels. By and large, all these prophecies of doom have failed to materialize in anything but an isolated number of cases and locations.

The only large group of Jews today in the world, under the age of 70 that is, who have any real experience of living in an anti-Semitic society and under a regime that actively, if not officially, discriminated against them, are those who grew up in the former Soviet Union and some of its satellites. So when it comes to assessments of the general security and wellbeing of the Jews, I would put more store by the opinion of those living in Russia than I would, the assessments of West European Jews. Only one group has relevant and recent experience of living without any security. But it isn’t only Western Jews who should pay more attention to what Russian Jews are saying. Israelis should also listen in.

Yom Kippur hysteria

This weekend of Yom Kippur is the high point of an orgiastic reenactment of the war that erupted 40 years ago. While commemoration and remembrance are appropriate, so much of the coverage is as hysterical and defeatist as Moshe Dayan’s panic-stricken mutterings of “destruction of the Third Temple” in the command bunker when the first counter-attack failed. Despite all historical research pointing to the contrary, the myth of Israel fighting for its survival in 1973 still persists.

I heard a much-admired educator this week talk of “Avigdor Kahalani and just seven or eight tanks blocking on their own the Syrians from bringing destruction down on us.” The truth is that it wasn’t the bravery of the tankists in Sinai or on the Golan that prevented Egypt and Syria from following up on their temporary tactical advantage in the first days of the Yom Kippur War. It was the Arab assessments of Israel’s deeper strategic assets that dictated in advance their limited objectives. The ultimate results of that war proved them right. There was no prospect at any stage of Israel losing an existential battle. It wasn’t a fight for national life or death and the perpetuation of that myth continues to fuel Israel’s national psyche and dictate its strategy.

The image of an all-powerful Israeli super-power, as it is believed to be in Russia and in many other corners of the globe, is of course greatly exaggerated; it’s the result to a large degree of an inverse Protocols-of-Zion-style Judeophobia. But it is every bit as realistic as visions of Israel’s destruction.

More than anything else, these real and imagined threats to Israel’s existence serve as an excuse for successive governments not to make the necessary efforts to fix the endemic failures of Israel’s social structure, including its lack of constitution and citizenship charter, and to convince a majority of Israelis of the moral imperative of ending its rule over another nation.

I asked one of my new Russian friends why he doesn’t move to Israel, if it’s so successful. “Actually, I have Israeli citizenship, own real estate and one of my daughters lives there,” he answered. “I like my vacations there but I couldn’t live there. All you Israeli Jews are constantly at each other’s throats.” And he’s right. On Yom Kippur we should admit that the biggest threats to Israel’s wellbeing are from within.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani telling students about the Yom Kippur War. It's time to discard the myth that "Kahalani and a few tanks blocked the Syrians and saved us from destruction."Credit: Ruth Naama Paz

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