MOSCOW - The Jewish community of Russia is worried over a rumor campaign by nationalist parties claiming that Dmitri Medvedev, President Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, is Jewish.
Russian Jewish leaders declined to comment on the rumors officially, fearing to lend them credibility. Off the record, however, one said: "I pray it isn't true, because it would only make trouble, for him and for us."
Medvedev, who recently told a Russian weekly that he was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church at age 23, has not commented on these rumors. But Russian Internet sites are full of reports about his alleged Jewish roots.
The rumors are based in part on the fact that his maternal grandfather's first name was Veniamin - similar to the Hebrew Binyamin (Benjamin) - while his family name, Shaposhnikov, is sometimes a Jewish name. But beyond that, accusing an electoral rival of being Jewish is a tactic that nationalist parties have employed in the past, both in Russia and in other former communist countries.
Nikolai Bondarik, who heads the St. Petersburg branch of the nationalist Russian Party, told the Moscow Times on Wednesday "we are categorically against him [Medvedev] because he is an ethnic Jew and does not conceal his sympathies toward Judaism." He also charged that with Medvedev in power, foreigners and Jews would plunder Russia's natural resources; "tens of thousands" of Israelis would be given key positions in bodies such as "the police, army, and secret services"; and Russia's relations with the Arab world would be destroyed.
The Russian Party, which is considered anti-Semitic, is not running in the March 2 presidential election. Due to both Putin's backing and the disqualification of several opposition candidates, Medvedev's victory in the balloting is virtually certain.
Medvedev visited the Jewish Community center in Moscow during the Hanukkah holiday in December, just three days before Putin anointed him as his preferred successor. Thus all the television reports of the new heir presumptive included shots of him surrounded by leaders of the Jewish community, with Hanukkah candles and a Torah in the background.
Jewish community leaders said that Medvedev's visit and the good will he radiated during it encouraged them to hope that his presidency will be good for the community. "Medvedev will be wonderful for the Jews," just as Putin was, declared Israeli-Russian businessman Lev Leviev, who heads the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.
Yet off the record, several said they feared this good will could create a backlash that would strengthen anti-Semitic currents in Russia.
Asked about Medvedev's alleged Judaism, they declined comment, beyond noting that he identifies himself as a Russian Orthodox Christian.
"The irony," said one, "is that we're doing everything possible to bring Jews back to Judaism, but in this particular case, with the next president, it would be better for the Jewish community if he did not identity himself as Jewish, so as not to draw fire."