Thanking the oppressor

In a departure from reality, Peres sidesteps centuries of anti-Semitism to thank Russia for its hospitality.

President Shimon Peres 370 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
President Shimon Peres 370
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Last week President Shimon Peres participated in the inauguration of a new Russian Jewish museum in Moscow. In a country infamous for its anti-Semitism, Peres chose to focus on the positives. While his desire to improve Israeli-Russian relations is commendable, the president went too far in sacrificing historical truth for political expediency.
Speaking in Hebrew "in the name of the Jewish people and the state of Israel," Peres remarked, "I came here to say in your ears, and in the ears of the Russian people — thank you. Thank you for a thousand years of hospitality. A thousand years of existence that Great Russia granted to my little people."
This statement is a blatant and incredibly offensive distortion of history. The briefest of summaries will suffice to show how far Peres departed from reality in his attempt to ingratiate.
Over the centuries, Russian national "hospitality" toward Jews has been characterized primarily by rejection, exclusion, pogroms, discrimination, and repression. And Jews have actually lived in Russia only for about 200 years, not a thousand.
The country we know as Russia did not even exist a thousand years ago. At that time, some Jews probably did live in the East Slavic state centered in Kyiv (Ukraine). After the destruction of Kyivan Rus' by the Tatar-Mongols, successor states gradually arose to fill the void. One of these, the principality of Moscow, eventually grew into the massive Russian Empire.
For most of its history, Moscow/Russia intentionally excluded Jews from living within its borders. Many Jews had settled in rival Poland, and their exclusion from Russia became the subject of treaty negotiations between the two sides in the 16th and 17th centuries.
At the end of the 18th century, the Russian empire appropriated about half of Poland-Lithuania, and in so doing became home to the world's largest Jewish population. Not knowing what to do with so many Jews after excluding them for so long, the Russian government instituted the "Pale of Settlement," meaning that Jews had to remain within a specific part of the empire (roughly the areas where they already lived). In his speech, Peres called this severely discriminatory act "a recognition of Jews as a people and Judaism as a religion."
The late 19th and early 20th century brought such an explosion of violent anti-Semitism in Russia that millions of Jews fled to North America and elsewhere — not least to the historic Jewish homeland, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, where they hoped to reestablish Israel.
Over the next several generations, the Soviet Union carried out mass repressions of Jews (and others) and established official anti-Semitism. Quotas restricted the number of Jews who could enter universities and other institutions. Most Jewish learning was forbidden. When many Jews attempted to move to Israel, they were suppressed and often imprisoned (the refuseniks).
Deception and lies are endemic in politics. Yet we Jews, of all peoples, must be especially intent on guarding against this tendency. The politically convenient lies that have been invented throughout history to destroy us and to remove us from our land are without number.
Many of those lies, such as the still-popular Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were invented in Russia — where Jews were usually forced to lead a precarious existence as unwelcome "guests," rather than equal citizens.
President Peres, despite his presumably good intentions, owes an apology to generations of Jewish recipients of Russian "hospitality." Let us hope he does not consider the million Russian-speaking Jews who now live in Israel as "guests" in their own land.
Dr. Isaiah Gruber, an American-Israeli, is the author of Orthodox Russia in Crisis: Church and Nation in the Time of Troubles and other works on Russian and Jewish history.