The international crisis created by Putin’s military incursion into Crimea has also served to highlight again Russia’s relationship to the Jews. The Russian President has included radical nationalism and anti-Semitism in the Ukraine as major justifications for his intervention.
I have personal experience of the feral anti-Semitism which pervaded the region from my direct dealings with senior Soviet authorities in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry which was the central focus of my public life for many years. I have no doubt that both in the Ukraine and Russia, a substantial proportion of the population continues to hate and fear Jews.
Yet today it is almost surreal, particularly when recalling the major contribution of Soviet Jewish dissidents towards the downfall of the Evil Empire, to observe President Putin, the authoritarian, former KGB official, displaying overt friendship towards Jews and Israel.
We are under no misapprehensions. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a democracy. But on a relative scale, the corruption and xenophobia currently dominating Ukraine is more extreme than in Russia where Putin has suppressed anti-Semites and repeatedly made friendly gestures to the Jewish community. For example, he provided $50 million of state funding for a Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow in addition to which he symbolically personally donated a month’s salary. In this he displayed total indifference to enraging the powerful anti-Semitic elements in Russian society.
Putin is a nationalist and his primary motivation is to restore Russia as a global power. This is what propelled him to intervene in Georgia and now in Ukraine to what he regards as a threatening NATO intrusion in his sphere of influence and on his borders. Russians compare this reaction to that of Kennedy’s 1962 response to Khrushchev’s effort to introduce missiles into Cuba.
Ukraine, like Russia, has a long history of violent anti-Semitism that dates back to the 1648 Khmelnitsky pogroms and continues through the Beiliss blood libel – still an issue of contention amongst many Ukrainians – and the Russian Civil War when tens of thousands of Jews were butchered.
The existing Ukrainian Jewish community, estimated to be around 200,000, has good reason to be fearful. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has spawned thriving xenophobic right-wing parties which are alleged to have spearheaded the revolt against the corrupt President Viktor Yanukovich. Although only gaining 10% electoral support, these are genuine neo-Nazis who even employ swastika symbols and are openly anti-Semitic. Successive Ukrainian governments have ignored or condoned their extremist activities and made no effort to prosecute them.
Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Svoboda, the largest right wing extremist nationalist faction, which holds 37 seats in the government, has called for the liberation of Ukraine from the “Muscovite-Jewish Mafia” and refers to his opponents as “Zhids”. His deputy, Yuri Mykhalchyshyn, founded a think tank initially called “The Joseph Goebbels Political Research Centre”
The party activists have circulated translations of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They revere Stepan Bandera, a onetime ally of Nazi Germany whose troops murdered tens of thousands of Jews. Their anti-Semitism is overt and has led to the desecration of synagogues and brutal acts of violence against Jews.
In an attempt to portray himself as a moderate, Dmitry Yarosh, leader of the ultra-nationalist leader “Right Sector”, currently Deputy Director of Ukraine’s Security Council and a candidate for president, has sought to dissociate himself from anti-Semitism. He even opened up a hotline with Israel’s ambassador in Kiev. But Yarosh, a renowned expert in firebombs, made it clear that he has no intention of disbanding his black garbed paramilitary units.
Not surprisingly, President Putin is exploiting these Ukrainian fascist and anti-Semitic groups in order to discredit the new government.
However a number of Ukrainian Jewish oligarchs and the Jewish umbrella body known as the Vaad, insisted that anti-Semitism posed no threat and called Putin a liar.
One of the “Chief Rabbis”, Rabbi Yaacov Bleich, a Karliner-Stoliner Hasid from New York, even accused the Russians of dressing up as Ukrainian nationalists and engaging in anti-Semitic provocations. In what may come to haunt him, Bleich also downplayed the influence of the anti-Semitic parties in the new government, saying that he received assurances that the safety of Jews will be protected.
Jews who engage in the politics of an unstable country in which successive governments condoned or ignored nationalist anti-Semitic groups, are playing with fire. Chabad Chief Rabbi Reuven Azman gave sound advice when he urged his community to leave the country, although after subsequent pressure he was obliged to tell the media that he was “unaware of any new anti-Semitic acts since the downfall of Yanukovich”.
Despite pressure from the Obama administration to condemn Russia, Israel has acted in its own interests and avoided taking any position.
Long before the confrontations with the US, Putin indicated that he respected Jews and made great efforts to display friendship to Israel. He has already paid two state visits to Jerusalem, the most recent immediately after his reelection in June 2012. He repeatedly expressed pride that former Russians make up Israel’s largest immigrant group. He visited the Kotel – the Western Wall, even donning a yarmulke which would have made his Bolshevik predecessors turn in their graves. He seemed utterly indifferent to the fact that this outraged Islamic groups in Israel and abroad.
This does not mean that Putin is a philo-Semite. He is above all, a Russian nationalist. Nor is Putin an ally. He has provided lethal weapons to those seeking our destruction and is considered an ally of both Iran and Syria.
Yet he is also far more of a realist than President Obama and must be under no illusion that Islamic fundamentalism represents a real threat to his country. He must also be concerned about the repercussions facing Russia should Iran become a nuclear power.
As a result of his disastrous foreign policy, President Obama has now paved the way for Russia to reassert itself into a possibly more dominant position in the Middle East than at the height of the Cold War. US support for the Moslem Brotherhood even alienated Egypt, which now seems to have also joined the Russian camp. Unlike Obama, whose partners no longer feel he can be relied upon, Putin has also demonstrated his ability to stand up and deliver on behalf of his allies.
Yet, despite Russia’s current support for Iran and Syria, our leaders communicate with Putin on a regular basis and seek to convince him that radical Islamic countries also pose a threat to Russia.
Thirty years ago, I would never have visualized myself supporting closer relations between Israel and Russia. We remain overwhelmingly dependent on the support of the United States and above all cherish our alliance and shared democratic values with the American people. Yet we are also obliged to develop relations with authoritarian, undemocratic countries like China. It is thus clearly in our national interest, without being under any idealistic illusions, to nurture ties with a Russia whose leader seems to have dramatically broken with centuries of Tsarist and Bolshevik anti-Semitism and now displays friendship towards the Jewish people.
The article was first published in The Jerusalem Post.