A new report on anti-Semitism in Russia for June-September 2020 was published in Moscow in October by the independent Center for Information and Analysis, SOVA. A month earlier, another study by a Russian think tank specializing in public opinion polls, the Levada Center, analyzed Russian attitudes to national minorities as well as to labor migrants. The quarterly report on anti-Semitism, as well as monthly monitoring by SOVA, indicate that Russia will register a similar number of anti-Semitic displays as in 2019 and 2018. In general, offenses related to anti-Semitism have been declining in the country for almost 10 years in a row.
Indeed, judging by this latest data, from January to September, there have been no attacks on Jews in the country, with only a minimal number of anti-Semitic statements made on social media and in the mainstream press. The attempted murder of Rabbi Yuri Tkach, the head of the Jewish community in Krasnodar, would probably be the hate crime of the year. The plot was hatched by activists of a cartoonish and unregistered organization, Citizens of the USSR, who do not recognize official Russian documents, carry old Soviet Union passports and refuse to obey Russian laws. The core of its activists are retired women. All of this has contributed to the fact that the police and the wider society did not take the group seriously.
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Nevertheless, according to the investigation, two Citizens found a potential assassin in September, providing Tkach’s personal data as well as an assembly knife and promising a high position in their organization in case of a “successful liquidation of the rabbi.” Although the assassination attempt was interrupted at this stage — the “killer” turned out to be an operative working undercover — the order itself can be considered real, given that the Soviet Citizens in Krasnodar had previously been distinguished by aggressive anti-Semitism and marginality.
In late July vandals damaged over 30 tombstones in the Jewish section of the January 9th Memorial Cemetery in Petersburg. In September, a drunken hooligan shouting anti-Semitic slogans failed to enter the premises of the Shamir community in the east of Moscow, threw a Hanukiah from the porch, tore down the sign with the name of the organization, broke the mailbox and knocked the license plate off the rabbi’s service car. To put these attacks in context, over the same time period, dozens of vandals attacked World War II memorials, monuments to Vladimir Lenin (that still decorate many squares in Russian cities) and even the statue of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in Orsk.
Overall, the number of anti-Semitic incidents is lower than over the same period last year. All indications are that in 2020, there will also be fewer convictions for crimes previously committed on the grounds of anti-Semitism. On average, this picture is consistent with the previous two years.
The September report by the Levada Center shows that Jews are becoming a more desirable minority compared to other groups like the Chinese, Ukrainians, Chechens, immigrants from Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Roma and migrant workers. The social distance between Jews and the ethnic majority is steadily shrinking. Its coefficient, in which higher values indicate social distrust, is 4.23 points. For comparison, Ukrainians, traditionally close to Russians, score 4.67, with Chechens at 5.21 and 5.83 for the Roma. The positive dynamics of the different components of this coefficient are also impressive. For example, the number of people willing to see Jews as their family members increased by more than six times and as close friends by three.
Of course, there is still a domestic anti-Semitism in Russia, which sometimes slips out even in the utterances of state officials. But today, the harsh insults have been replaced by other, more subtle ones that could even be taken as a sign of respect. Russian journalist Anna Narinskaya gives an example of a Jew promoted in a commercial company “because your nation knows how to [handle] money.” This is an improvement on past attitudes when Jews were not hired or admitted to university because Russians didn’t want to study or work with the “people with such surnames.”
This is all the more surprising because the level of nationalism in Russia decreased by only 2% in 11 years. While in 2009 the number of those who would like to implement the idea “Russia for Russians” was 18% and the number of those who were ready to support it “within reasonable limits” was 36%, in 2020 these figures were 19% and 32%, respectively. In this context of a relatively high prevalence of ethnic-majority nationalism, the number of anti-Semitic crimes in Russia has been steadily declining despite the decrease in the number of convictions. Unlike the trends in the West, levels of xenophobia against the Jewish minority are also decreasing.
How can this phenomenon be explained, and why are attitudes toward Jews undergoing such a change? Have people in Russia really become kinder and more tolerant of Jews? And if so, why?
Tolerance and Democracy
The first reason behind this trend is stricter punishment for extremism crimes that has emerged over the past decade. This is an extremely important factor that has replaced impunity of hate-motivated attacks, which prevailed in the Russian public consciousness until the end of the 2000s. This led to a decrease in the number of hate crimes in the country as a whole as well as a lower level of xenophobia.
Second, Russia doesn’t harbor an anti-Israel sentiment, characteristic of Western societies — what can be called the new anti-Semitism. As Narinskaya writes, a decent person in the West cannot say “Jews are inherently bad people,” but they can easily say that “Israel is the creator of the new Holocaust, and Jews all over the world are loyal to it, so I don’t like them.” In Russia, a doctor can illegally refuse to admit a woman wearing a hijab, but the story of an Austrian doctor refusing to admit a patient wearing a Star of David “until you equip hospitals in Gaza” would be impossible, according to Narinskaya.
Finally, the third and most important reason is the position of the president. Vladimir Putin, unlike all the previous leaders of the country, has a respectful attitude toward the Jewish community. He publicly congratulates Jews on their religious holidays, has authorized the annual erection of Hanukkah menorahs in Russian cities, including Moscow, and meets regularly with Jewish leaders.
The latest study on Jewish life in Russia also points to this factor. Its author is the sociologist Alexei Levinson, the head of the sociocultural research department at the Levada Center. Levison writes that the attitude to the Jews in Russia “has become so liberal that they [Jews] have reached the highest echelons of Russian society.” However, “Jews today are not at all euphoric. The community’s fears are based on Russian history, when they were subject to the whims of whoever was running the country.”
“Anti-Semitism goes hand in hand with the history of Jews for ages and ages, and they think these days are just a short interruption of this tradition,” Levinson told The Media Line. He attributes the current decline in anti-Semitic actions by the state to Putin’s personal position, suggesting that Jews in Russia “think that if he changes his mind, or if another less tolerant person takes his place, the whole state apparatus and the public will revert to the usual anti-Semitism.”
Such an eventuality will also remove the restrictive framework in situations involving domestic anti-Semitism, the potential for which is still great and even growing insignificantly. This is indirectly confirmed by Rabbi Alexander Boroda, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. In June, he stated that he was concerned about the level of latent anti-Semitism in the country. Boroda says that the US State Department report on religious freedom indicates a relatively high level of latent anti-Semitism in Russia, stressing that in 2017-19, the number of Russians who declare themselves as anti-Semites was already at 15%-17%. However, at the moment, these people, for the reasons mentioned above, prefer not to advertise their views in public.
Nathan Sharansky, the former chairman of the Jewish Agency and a political prisoner in Soviet times, believes that “Putin is not suited to Russian democracy, so Jews and other citizens of Russia may be disappointed by the restrictions on freedom.” It is difficult to disagree with him that, in the event of a change in leadership, “anti-Semitism returns to the level it was at for 1,000 years … today’s positive societal views of Jews won’t be enough to stop it. The democratic composition of the country has to be strong enough to fight these pressures.”
*[Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that a doctor in Russia can legally refuse treatment to a woman wearing a hijab, whereas, in fact, Russia has no such legislation in place. Updated: 23/12/2020, 11:00 GMT.]
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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