The evolving identities of FSU Jews

In new survey, 75 percent say they are proud to be Jews, but poll reveals paradoxical attitudes.

kremlin 88 (photo credit: )
kremlin 88
(photo credit: )
For Jews in the former Soviet Union, being Jewish is "cool," intermarriage is not considered problematic, and Zionism is not a significant factor in their Jewish identity, according to a new study on the Jews of Russia and Ukraine released this week. The study, initiated by the Institute for Jewish Studies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which is headed by prominent scholar Adin Steinsaltz, offers a snapshot of the unique attitudes of Jews in the FSU to their Jewish identity. "If we don't understand them, we will lose them," said Steinsaltz in a statement. "All the resources we have put in to date will be for naught, and any future investment will be wasted." The study surveyed 806 Jews 18 and older, 45 percent of whom participate in organized Jewish communal activities. No margin of error for the study was cited. The findings point to several contrasting beliefs and opinions, sometimes paradoxical, that include: Objection to assimilation but acceptance of intermarriage; well-developed Jewish pride accompanied by a resentment towards the Jewish establishment; preference for informal ties of individuals to Judaism over formalized ones; a desire to gain in-depth knowledge of Israel while at the same time viewing Zionism as a marginal component of Jewish identity; and a rise in Jewish pride among the youth alongside continued concealment of their Jewish identity. Though 49% of respondents said they had been subjected to verbal anti-Semitism, the majority of younger respondents claimed they had never experienced the outright anti-Semitism of their parents' and grandparents' generations. On the contrary, being Jewish, they said, provides them with an advantage and is even considered "cool" and fashionable. Seventy-five percent said they were proud to be Jewish and 68% said that if given a choice, they would choose to be born Jewish. Their relationship to Israel, however, is more ambivalent. Only 9% said it was necessary to believe in the principles of Zionism, 37% said it was desirable, and 42% said it does not matter. At the same time, 26% said it was necessary to learn more about contemporary Israel, 53% said it was desirable, and 21% said it does not matter. According to official statistics, there are 232,000 Jews in Russia and 104,000 in Ukraine, though Jews interviewed estimated that the actual numbers are much higher. Russian respondents placed the number of Russian Jews between 400,000 and one million; Ukrainian respondents estimated there are between 200,000 and 500,000 Jews in Ukraine. Two-thirds of interviewees agreed that anti-Semitism, sparked by Russia's recent surge in nationalist sentiments, has caused Jews to conceal their heritage, resulting in a withdrawal from Jewish activism. But findings indicate that active participants in communal Jewish life do not differ significantly from non-activists in their conception of themselves as Jews. Discussions held in focus groups of the non-activists indicate that many Jews fear that the communal institutions would not consider them Jewish enough, or else they do not sufficiently identify with the worldviews that these institutions represent. A large majority (69%) of those who do not participate in communal life see themselves as part of the Jewish people, and almost half of them (45%) identify themselves as "Jews," as opposed to hyphenated identities such as "Jewish-Russian" or "Jewish-Ukrainian." Fifty-five percent of the non-activists said that if given a choice, they would choose to be born Jewish. The study was a joint international effort of The Guttman Center in the Israel Democracy Institute and the Levada Institute with the assistance of The Jewish Agency. The project was funded and guided by UJA-Federation of New York. The results will be presented today in an international video conference, led by Steinsaltz.