Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) listens to Russia's Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar (L) during his visit to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow February 19, 2013.
(photo credit: SPUTNIK PHOTO AGENCY / REUTERS)
On the surface, the relationship between Jews and Russians under Vladimir Putin seems well-nigh impossible to understand. How can a relationship between the two sides be possible when it has been repeatedly horrid in the past?
And yet Putin has called on Russian Jews to return to Russia, allowed the building of a 40 million dollar Jewish museum in Moscow, and regularly met with the chief rabbi of Russia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in the last three years gone nine times to a Russia that has promoted dozens of Russian Jews to become oligarchs in the new Russia.
For centuries the relationship between Jews and Russia was miserable. From the late 17th century to 1917 Russian Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement. The first major pogrom in the 19th century from 1881-1884 was nothing compared to the second pogrom from 1903-1906 that killed several thousand Jews and injured even more.
Even worse was suggested by close aides to the last czar of Russia. The aides spoke of killing over one-third of Russian Jews, forcibly converting another third and expelling the remaining third. Fortunately, this recommendation was not adopted. During the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) more than 150,000 Russian Jews, mainly in Ukraine, were mercilessly murdered. Over two million Jews went abroad from 1880 to 1924, mostly to the United States and some to what would become Israel.
During World War II, close to two million Russian Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis on Russian soil. The Red Army made no effort to push them to flee eastward and save themselves. Nor was this the end.
With the coming of the State of Israel in 1948, tens of thousands of Russian Jews wanted to fight for the new Jewish state but Stalin refused to let more than a single family go to Israel. This was a serious problem for the new State of Israel, with only 650,000 Jews, and very few with military experience. By contrast, the Russian Jews had extensive military experience.
Stalin, right before he died in March 1953, was seriously contemplating expelling the Jews of Moscow and Leningrad and pushing them off to the distant east, with or without concentration camps. Fortunately, he died before this could be implemented, and the proposal was rejected by his successors.
Under an antisemitic Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s, most of those accused of treason against the Soviet Union were Jews who made up but a tiny part of the population. Under Brezhnev (1964-1982), antisemitism turned international, as the Soviet Union provided tens of billions of dollars’ worth of arms, training and diplomatic support to the Arabs seeking to destroy Israel, particularly in the 1967 and 1973 wars. Only since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 has the powerful antisemitism of Russia been so inconspicuous.
BUT THERE is another side that has now surfaced under Vladimir Putin. Putin evidently grew up somewhat alienated from his Russian family, and was influenced by a Jewish religious teacher in high school who lived down the block. In 2005 he bought her a home in Israel.
This all started much earlier. During and after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin was putting together a Politburo and elite leadership that had numerous Jews, about one-third in all, from a population less than 3% of the Russian population. The names are familiar: Leon Trotsky, Grigorii Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Yakov Sverdlov, Maxim Litvinov, Karl Radek and Grigorii Sokolnikov. Lenin – who himself had a Jewish grandfather who had become an Orthodox Russian – was fond of Jews. He declared, “Scratch an Old Bolshevik and you will always find some Jewish blood.”
In the 1930s, Stalin launched a massive industrial and technical revolution with numerous Jewish engineers. That proved vital to overcoming the German advantage in steel in the upcoming war. Also, despite his antisemitism, Stalin in the 1930s allowed Russian Jews to have more students in state universities than Ukrainians, who outnumbered them better than 10 to 1. During World War II, Jews played vital roles in helping develop the T-34 tank and new war artillery. There were also tens of thousands of Jewish war officers. After the war, a Jew became the father of the hydrogen bomb and close to one-third of nuclear scientists were Jews.
In 1948 it was, as David Ben-Gurion once declared, the Soviet Union that came to the rescue of the new State of Israel. It mobilized the new Eastern European states under their control to help pass the November 29, 1947, vote for the creation of Israel. When Israel was floundering in its early days, with only 650,000 Jews in the fledgling state, it bought – through Russia – tanks and airplanes from the Skoda factory in Czechoslovakia. After the 1955-1982 interlude there gradually became a warming of Israeli-Russian relations. In the 1990s, almost two million Russian Jews were allowed to emigrate, 1.1 million of them to Israel, and 700,000 to the United States. Then, along came Putin at the end of 1999 and a new world emerged.
And so, as Israel has developed new relationships with key countries such as Indonesia and China and Vietnam, it has also developed a complex but very important relationship with the world’s number-two power and its centuries of past history, both positive and negative. The Israeli Prime Minister goes to see Putin, not alone, but nearly always with the Russian-born Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. He also goes with the legacy of most of Israel’s early leaders who were indeed born in Russia. Not all is good (such as S-300 missiles nearby), but relations are much better than ever before. And so the world turns for Israel.The writer is a full professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver with four degrees from Columbia University. He has written or edited 12 books and numerous op-eds for CNN, the Huffington Post, Forbes, Yediot Aharonot and Fox News.
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