Knowing the past, exploring the present, protecting the future

Following the International anti-Semitism conference held last week in Russia, is the position of Jews in the post-soviet countries really strong and stable as it seems?

Burning Jewish star (photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)
Burning Jewish star
(photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)

The 3rd International Conference on Combating Xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Racism "Protecting the Future" was held in Moscow last week. In Russia, where Jews have suffered for centuries from lawlessness, oppression and persecution, today the Jewish community publicly initiates and conducts an interfaith dialogue on tolerance and coexistence. Is the position of Jews in the post-soviet countries really that stable and what are the dynamics of modern anti-semitism? The newly published report by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress answers these questions.

In 1903, finishing his visit to the Russian Empire, Theodor Herzl was overwhelmed by what he saw. Tough policy against Zionist activities, the Kishinev pogrom, anti-Semitism raging among the common people and the highest political circles, the overall plight of the Jews in Russia. All of this played a major part in Herzl's decision to put on the Sixth Zionist Congress agenda the question of temporary resettlement of the big part of Russian Jewry to the territory previously proposed by the British government, known as the Uganda proposal.

A little over a century later, after decades of terrible Soviet state anti-Semitism, Jewish life is flourishing in modern Russia, and an annual international Jewish conference on countering anti-Semitism and other forms of xenophobia is being held in the very center of Moscow. Despite obvious progress, anti-Semitism still very much exists in the public mind and requires careful monitoring and analysis.

The conference "Protecting the Future" was firstly initiated in 2016 by the Euro-Asian and Russian Jewish Congress. It traditionally brings together many scientists, public and political figures. This year, the conference was attended by the Israeli Minister of diaspora affairs Nachman Shai, Israeli ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben-Zvi, President of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder, OSCE high commissioner for national minorities Kairat Abdrakhmanov, OSCE special representative for combating anti-Semitism Andrew Baker and ambassadors of states, heads of international research centers and other speakers.

At the conference we presented a new report "anti-Semitism, tolerance and historical memory in the post-Soviet space", published by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. The report offers a detailed analysis of anti-Semitism in the largest post-Soviet countries in a series of articles written by leading Russian, Ukrainian and Israeli scholars. The articles present the studies and opinion polls results of different years, which reflects the dynamics and makes up the overall picture or even a mosaic of this complex phenomenon.

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of antisemitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. The writing on the sign reads: People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of antisemitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. The writing on the sign reads:

The monitoring results in recent years show that acts of physical violence motivated by anti-Semitism in the former USSR countries are very rare. Still, there are dozens of cases of vandalism against Jewish sites every year. However, most anti-Semitic acts in modern Russia and other post-Soviet countries usually take place in a verbal form: in the form of anti-Semitic judgments, the spread of conspiracy theories, denial or belittling of the Holocaust. Household stereotypes and prejudices against Jews are still strongly expressed in post-Soviet societies.

According to one of the polls in which Jewish and non-Jewish respondents were asked to determine whether some statements are or are not manifestations of anti-Semitism, the non-Jewish population in Russia is significantly less sensitive to the detection of anti-Semitism. For example, only about 30% of the respondents consider phrases such as "The Holocaust is a myth, its scale is exaggerated" or "Jews are exploiting the Holocaust for their own interest" as a manifestation of anti-Semitism. The majority of the respondents (about 70%) also do not attribute openly anti-Israel statements to anti-Semitism, such as, for example, "The world would be better if there were no Israel."

The Jewish population in Russia is more sensitive to such expressions. About 70% on average define such statements as a manifestation of intolerance towards Jews. The discrepancy with a similar survey in EU countries, where Jews are almost unanimous on this issue and about 90% on average condemn these statements, should be noted.

Sociologists also mention the scale of "latent" anti-Semitism phenomenon, which reveals prejudices against Jews when answering indirect questions. For example, 64% answered that they consider it undesirable to elect a person of Jewish origin for the presidency in Russia. At the same time, the majority answered a direct question about the attitude towards Jews in a positive-neutral way: 78% said they treat Jews evenly, like any other nations, 12% - with sympathy or interest.

Despite the fact that the overall situation in the post-Soviet countries looks favorable, we cannot deny the level of "latent" anti-Semitism in the polls responses and actual verbal expressions. Of particular concern is the growing spread of anti-Semitic rhetoric and theories in new media channels. History tells us that rhetoric, even if it is just rhetoric, can once provoke physical violence.

That is why the Euro-Asian Jewish congress and its experts closely monitor the state of public sentiment, process and analyze data from various agencies and reports. We are also active in the diplomatic sphere, calling on government leaders to take a firm stand against anti-Semitism and lobbying for the adoption of a working definition of anti-Semitism developed by the International alliance in remembrance of the victims of the holocaust (IHRA).We hope that the positive dynamics regarding anti-Semitism in the countries of the region will continue, but we are closely monitoring the situation and are always ready for potential threats.

Dr. Haim Ben Yakov, is the writer is director general of the Euro-Asian Jewish congress and head of the Institute for Euro-Asian Jewish studies