Western European Jews fleeing anti-Semitism are welcome to take refuge in the Russian Federation, which is “ready to accept them,” President Vladimir Putin told a visiting delegation of Jewish community leaders on Tuesday.
In an exchange with Dr. Moshe Vyacheslav Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, in the Kremlin, Putin reacted to reports of stark increases in anti-Semitic violence by stating that Jews “should come here, to Russia. They left the Soviet Union; now they should come back.”
In response, Kantor called Putin’s proposal “a fundamentally new idea” that he plans on raising for discussion among European Jewish leaders at the EJC’s upcoming general assembly, adding that he hopes they would support it.
Kantor also came out in favor of Russia’s involvement in Syria, where it supports dictator Bashar Assad, stating that the congress “decisively supports the actions of the Russian Federation against Islamic State.
“Why are Jews running from a Europe that was recently safe? They are fleeing, as you rightly said, not only because of terrorist attacks against our communities in Toulouse, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, and now Marseille, but because of their fear to simply appear in the streets of European cities,” Kantor said, citing research that indicated that anti-Semitic violence surged 40 percent worldwide in 2014.
A recent study in France indicated that 43 percent of that nation’s Jews are interested in emigrating.
Kantor complained both of “an explosive growth in nationalism, xenophobia and racism, with radical right movements sprouting up like mushrooms” as well as “Islamic fundamentalism and extremism” in Europe.
“The continent has not outlived the age-old disease: During times of socioeconomic crisis, it is struck again by the virus of anti-Semitism. That is why the Jews who carry the ‘genetic’ memory of the horrors of the 1930s are leaving Europe,” he said.
Several days before the meeting, Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Jewish News website he understands that Putin had called for the meeting.
“Our meeting was strikingly friendly,” Arkush subsequently said. “As someone with a background of activism in the campaign for Soviet Jewry, I see the encounter as a clear sign of warming relations and trust between Russia and the Jewish people and Israel. I do not believe it will be the last such meeting.”
Putin’s comments were generally well received, with the World Israel Beytenu Movement calling Putin’s words an example of “his positive approach toward the Jewish community in Russia and the Jewish state” and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia calling Putin’s invitation part of a “Jew-friendly position.”
Ukrainian Jews were less well disposed toward Putin’s call, however, with Eduard Dolinsky, who directs the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, telling The Jerusalem Post that “It’s like a call from an Egyptian pharaoh for Jews to come back.”
Putin’s administration has consistently accused the Ukrainian state of anti-Semitism since pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovich was toppled in a popular revolution two years ago, leading to intense anger toward the Kremlin by many Ukrainian Jews, who believe they have been made into propaganda pawns in the conflict.
Noting that the Putin meeting took place only weeks before Kantor is slated to run for reelection as head of the EJC, Dolinsky said he believes the goal of the meeting was two-fold, “to show EJC members that he has support of Putin and show Putin that he controls European Jewish organization.”
“I think this trip and Kantor remarks about the Congress supporting Russia operation in Syria will cause a deep disagreement inside of EJC and European Jewish organizations.”
While Kantor and Putin railed against the strengthening of far-right parties in western Europe, critics have accused the Kremlin of collaborating with some of these groups. France’s National Front was given a multimillion- euro loan by a Moscow bank in 2014, while Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik Party was included in the list of observers who oversaw elections in the Russian-backed separatist enclave of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Putin, The Economist reported two years ago, “has some curious bedfellows on the fringes of European politics.”