Why Don't Russian-speaking Jews Trust Obama?

Communities in both U.S. and Israel more concerned with the president's Muslim background than skin color.

In the past two weeks, in advance of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Russia, chapters of the Bible have become hot current events items in the Russian-language media in Israel. This is not necessarily a matter of an increasing link to the Jewish sources, but rather the use of verses found relevant to eroding the American president's legitimacy.

The Torah portion "Noah" has become particularly popular, and especially his son Ham. This Ham - whose name in Russian also means a very crude person - was punished in the Bible by having his skin turn black, with all his descendants doomed to be blacks destined for a life of slavery. Another very popular text lately is a verse from Proverbs: "Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up." The first of the heralds of evil, according to the verse, is "a slave who becomes king."

Each of these chapters is important in itself, but the real sparks are created by the connection between the two: Ham the black man who is doomed to eternal slavery and brings suffering to the world when a black slave becomes king - or in this case, ascends the throne of the presidency of the United States.

The large community of Russian-speaking Jews in America is not enthusiastic about the new president either. But here there is an interesting cultural difference. While Russian speakers in Israel proudly proclaim their rejection of political correctness, their colleagues in America have actually internalized what is politically correct. They are far less preoccupied with the color of the president's skin, and focus on his Muslim background. That is considered legitimate.

The curse of Ham and the White House

Last Thursday, at peak viewing hours, Channel 9, the Russian-language Israeli television channel, devoted its weekly tradition program to the story of Noah and his sons Shem, Ham and Yefet. It should be noted that in terms of halakha (Jewish law) ,"Noah" was not the weekly Torah reading that week: The choice to discuss it of all things was deliberate and designed to create a link to current events.

David Kun, one of the channel's important anchors, moderated the program; alongside him sat Rabbi Eliyahu Essas, journalist Alexander Wiesman and famous professors from the Russian-speaking community. The lengthy broadcast began with a series of doleful pictures of slavery, of the type seen at the time on the American TV series "Roots," which was about the history of black slavery. From here the discussion turned to Ham, Noah's son, who was punished by having his skin turn black. "A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers," said Noah regarding Ham's son Canaan - a punishment for the fact that when Noah became drunk and was rolling around naked in his tent, Ham called his older brothers instead of covering his father's nakedness.

The question that preoccupied the members of the panel who gathered in the Channel 9 studio was whether the black man can overcome this curse; it was mentioned that the curse of Ham was never revoked in the Torah. The discussion also sled to the question of whether there is genetic slavery or only a slave mentality. To illustrate that mentality, they showed the picture in which President Obama is seen talking on the phone with the Israeli prime minister, with his feet on his desk.

Although the speakers were for the most part cautious in their replies, the contexts left a bitter aftertaste of racist provocation. Obama, they said, is a direct product of the trend of political correctness that began in the U.S. in the 1960s. For some reason that didn't sound like a compliment. The impression left by the program, in the final analysis, is a direct line ostensibly connecting Ham, Kunta Kinte of "Roots" and Barack Obama. Toward the end of the discussion one of the participants even mentioned that according to King Solomon, the world will experience major shocks when a slave becomes king, "exactly the situation at which we have arrived today."

Channel 9 is not the only Russian-language media outlet that used biblical metaphors for political purposes to bash Obama. Vesty, the leading Russian-language newspaper, which is published by Yedioth Ahronoth, headlined one article about Obama "Ibn Hussein," and published a long essay dealing with the issue of "a slave who becomes king." Its author, Dov Kontorer, one of the leading columnists writing in Russian, decided that the earth really will tremble under the man Obama, who even in king's clothing will remain a slave.

Haters, not racists

The verse "a slave who becomes king" has appeared recently in the right-wing media in Hebrew as well, which expresses legitimate political views of protest against Obama. But the Russian-language media in Israel differ in their vehement style and the use of racist declarations. "The next president of the U.S. will be a lesbian Hispanic woman," said Edward Kuznetsov, the first editor of Vesty, not necessarily joking. "We are all racists, only the Russians think it's legitimate to express that without the prohibitions of political correctness. Or, as we tend to say in a paraphrase on anti-Semitism, 'we aren't racists, we simply hate blacks.'"

From her professional experience his wife, Larissa Gerstein, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, knows that the Russian-speaking community in America has internalized the rules of political correctness. Every week Gerstein conducts two hours of conversations with listeners to Radio Davidson in Russian. The broadcasts cater to a public of about 600,000 Russian speakers on the East Coast.

In the conversations, which are conducted from her home in Israel, Obama is the main subject. Not necessarily because of his skin color but because of his Islamic roots. "They curse him from morning to night," says Gerstein recalling the conversations. "It is clear to the Russians that what's important is the religion into which you were born, rather than the formal religion you have adopted. That's how it was in Soviet Russia, and that's the ingrained viewpoint. The listeners naturally speak about Hussein Obama, and the rest is clear."

In America the Russian romance with Obama died out even before it started. While about 80 percent of American Jews voted for the Democratic candidate, about 80-85 percent of the Russian-speaking Jews there voted for Republican John McCain. Now there are only signs of a further deterioration in relations - Gerstein says that many listeners attribute to Obama and his Jewish staff a conspiracy to destroy Israel.

Similar sentiments are heard from Avigdor Eskin, who speaks from Jerusalem with Russian speakers in Chicago. Eskin, who long ago returned to religion and has changed his political orientation as well, enlists the Jewish sources to analyze the situation that has been created: "A Pharoah has arrived who does not remember Joseph," he says of Obama.

From things that have been written in Russian in America, what emerges mainly is fear of Obama the Muslim. If in Israel they are afraid that Obama's administration will undermine the special relationship with Israel, the Russian-speaking Jews in America express open fear that Obama will turn into what they call "a catalyst for a new wave of anti-Semitism." Because of Islam, because of his policy.

In advance of Obama's visit to Russia, large "babushkas" have been distributed all over Moscow: One of them bears the faces of Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, others bear those of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and former U.S. president George W. Bush. Beneath the pictures of Putin and Bush, which were published on the Internet, a Russian talkbacker who identified himself as a Jew wrote: "A dream that will not return."

Channel 9 responds

In response to a question regarding the nature of its program, Channel 9 said: "We emphasize that the moderator only asked a question regarding the validity of the curse of Ham, and did not establish any facts. The purpose of the tradition programs is to explain the viewpoint of Jewish tradition on current events of all kinds. On the program under discussion we tried to clarify whether according to Jewish tradition there could be prejudice against Obama because of the fact that he is the first black president."