SIMFEROPOL - This has been a great week for the Jews. Russia has invaded its neighbor Ukraine, causing what many observers are now considering to be the worst geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War. And while history and the experience of centuries teaches us that any dramatic upheaval involving the movement of armies (“the Cossacks are coming!”) entails widespread pogroms, murder, pillage and rape of Jewish communities, so far the net sum of anti-Semitic attacks in Crimea has been one incident of graffiti sprayed on a synagogue here in Simferopol.
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As an Israeli-British journalist reporting on the conflict here in Crimea since Sunday, I can categorically say that I have never been more comfortable using my Israeli passport. Both sides have been courteous whenever I have presented it at roadblocks and checkpoints, and that has been the experience of other Israeli colleagues working here as well. I suspect that at least on the Russian side, my British passport, with its connections to the reviled European Union, would have elicited less sympathy. But this is true also of Ukrainian officials I encountered. Not only were they entirely cordial, but they seemed to be going out of their way to show how friendly they were to a citizen of the Jewish state.
In a perfect world none of this should be remarkable. But Jews have never lived in a perfect world, certainly not in this part of the world, steeped as it is in the blood of millions of our ancestors. I’m sure I can spare you the history lesson.
No rise in anti-Semitism
However, if you were relying only on Kremlin-financed media, such as the Russia Today news channel, and that group of journalists who are prepared to do anything to demonize the democratic governments of the West, even shill for Vladimir Putin, for your information of recent events in Ukraine, you would be convinced that a dark wave of anti-Semitism has smashed down on this country. According to the Russian media and those echoing it, the pro-European opposition, now the interim government in Kiev, is dominated by ultra-nationalist neo-Nazis who have already begun to embark on an orgy of pogroms. In some cases, this narrative has been picked up by Jewish figures, rabbis and community leaders, who have voiced their concern for the Jews of Ukraine, even calling for them to flee the country and urging Israel to send its security services in their assistance. These calls have been countered by other rabbis and leaders, loyal to the new government, who are insisting that there is no rise in anti-Semitism and the few acts of violence and vandalism that have taken place could well have been carried out by pro-Russian provocateurs intent on smearing the opposition that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Whom to trust? The Jewish spokespeople on either side are suspect; They have to get along with their respective governments and continue living there. Speaking with serious professionals from international Jewish organizations operating in both Russia and Ukraine, people with no political axe to grind, I can only point to the conclusion that the rise has been minimal so far.
“There is anti-Semitism lurking beneath the surface in both Russian and Ukrainian societies,” one of them told me. “But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, all governments in Moscow and Kiev have done a pretty good job of keeping it in check. There has been a small number of attacks in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities since the Maidan protests broke out, but those can be attributed mainly to the breakdown in law and order, not to a concerted campaign, and we can’t rule out the possibility of pro-Russian provocations. What is certain is that Putin is using the anti-Semitism card for his own propaganda.”
Some may think that given past experience, we can never be careful enough and we should be thankful for Putin’s vigilance. But highlighting Ukrainian anti-Semitism has been one of his central propaganda tools whenever there is a pro-western government in Kiev. Strangely enough, when a more Kremlin-friendly president was in charge, the criticism disappeared.
Putin has ruthlessly suppressed freedom of speech in Russia, his police violently breaking up pro-democracy protests and jailing hundreds of demonstrators on trumped-up charges of “hooliganism.” His regime is unabashedly homophobic, introducing laws against LGBT rights and encouraging vigilante groups that use dating websites to lure gay Russians into violent and humiliating encounters which are filmed and posted online. Whether these and other authoritarian and hate-based policies are a reflection of his personal phobias or a simply an attempt to appeal to the paleo-conservative instincts of a large part of his Russian constituency, his defense of Jews is not the product of any form of liberal or enlightened mindset.
Putin the Judeophile
Over the years, I have heard from Russian Jews and others working in Russia a wide range of explanations for his apparent Judeophilia. Some believe it is due to the fact that growing up in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) he had many Jewish friends and never developed the atavistic anti-Semitism so prevalent among many Russians. Others say that as a young KGB officer he formed the view that the Soviet Union’s persecution of its Jewish minority was one of the reasons for its decline and downfall and that the subsequent emigration of two million of the best and brightest Russian Jews, the moment the Iron Curtain went up, was a further blow to his country’s prosperity. Many Russian Jews have told me that their current favorable status in Putin’s Russia is due to the respect in which Israel is held, particularly its military successes (the Russians lose no sleep over the Palestinians’ rights) and technological prowess.
There is probably some truth to all these theories. Arkaday and Boris Rotenberg, his judo sparring partners from Leningrad, are today among the wealthiest Jewish oligarchs, only recently receiving billions in shady construction contracts for the Sochi Olympics. He has personally approved funding for the rebuilding of Jewish communities around Russia, even contributing from his own (some would say his pilfered) fortune to the building of the new Jewish museum in Moscow and under his rule the Russian government has set up a government agency to maintain contact with Russian expatriates, which focuses heavily on Jews and has a presence in Israel. It is interesting also that despite the fact that Russia continues to be the most dependable ally of Israel’s biggest enemies, Iran and Syria, no senior minister in Jerusalem has ever openly criticized Putin or his administration. On the contrary, he has held annual meetings every Israeli prime minister in office and he is regarded by many in the security and diplomatic establishments as a strategic ally who we can and must do business with and not risk offending. Despite the urging of the Obama administration, the Israeli government has been extremely reluctant to comment on the Crimean crisis and condemn the Russian invasion in any way or form.
Putin’s attitude to the Jews has led some Jewish organizations, particularly Chabad, to forge an alliance with his regime and regard him as a friend of the Jewish people. The movement’s rabbis regularly praise him in public and private, even comparing favorably the situation of Jews in Russia to that in the United States, where they say that freedom of speech is often abused to attack Jews. Many, though not all Chabad rabbis, have willingly allowed themselves to become part of the Kremlin propaganda machine.
Israel, living in its rough neighborhood, has little choice but to engage with Putin, and really has no business getting involved in the Ukrainian crisis. The United States and main European governments have so far spectacularly failed here and Israel can only cause more damage by piling in. But in our dealing with the master of the Kremlin, we should never forget what a repressive dictator he is. Whatever the reasons for his ostensible friendship towards the Jews, it is an instrumental and cynical relationship. For all the faults and failings of the West, democracy has always been the key to any prolonged prosperity and security for Jewish communities. Putin is dangerous, to his so-called friends as well as his enemies, and we must never forget that.