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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Anti-Semitism Ignored

The leader of Russia's Jewish community, Misha Chlenov, has met Helmut Kohl of Germany, Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, and is hoping to meet Bill Clinton when he comes to Moscow this week.

But he can't get in to see the leader of his own country, Boris Yeltsin.

Since he took office, President Yeltsin has made a point of avoiding Jewish issues; his blanket silence on burgeoning anti-Semitism and racism here has repercussions not only for the more than 1 million Russian Jews, but for all those invested in the idea of democracy in Russia.

While institutionalized anti-Semitism greatly decreased in 1993, the government's hands-off approach to racism resulted in a bumper-crop of individual anti-Semitic acts. Moscow's central Jewish synagogue, the Chorale synagogue on Ulitsa Arkhipova, was twice attacked in broad daylight by vandals who smashed windows with rocks and drew swastikas; the synagogue now has posted a full-time guard.

Historic Jewish cemeteries in Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg were leveled by vandals during Orthodox Easter. And in a suburban Moscow court, a local judge indicated she was afraid to issue an opinion denouncing the infamous, widely disseminated forgery "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" -- which originated in Russia -- as anti-Semitic for fear of turning a civil libel case into a political spectacle.

This year is already off to an ominous start with a fire that virtually destroyed Moscow's Marina Roshcha synagogue, a wooden structure that had stood for 70 years and the only Jewish house of prayer erected in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution. Anti-Semitic graffiti, including the slogan "Death to the Jews" and a drawing of an ax were found nearby.

Firefighters and the synagogue's Lubavitch rabbi, Berel Lazar of New York, are now convinced the blaze was the work of an arsonist. But the city of Moscow seems loath to undertake a full investigation. The synagogue blaze came only a week after a fire started in a Lubavitch Jewish day school in Moscow.

One can imagine the outcry by public officials in New York, for example, had the Park Avenue synagogue been torched by arsonists. But in Russia, at all these critical moments, Yeltsin and his aides have remained silent and aloof, a sin of omission that sends a message throughout the country that acts of violence toward Jews will go unpunished.

If he sanctioned the renewal of Jewish life here after years of forced atheism under the Communist regime, Yeltsin, like his counterparts in the West, surely would have spoken up. Instead, unlike Francois Mitterrand, who led a massive protest march after the desecration in 1991 of the Jewish cemetery at Carpentras, France, Yeltsin opted for invisibility. His fear of confronting these issues, however, leaves Russia's Jews with the feeling that they are sitting ducks and certainly will propel greater emigration to Israel and America.

Those who are determined to stay in Russia and fight for the revival of the Jewish community here are hassled. The first Jewish woman to be elected to parliament, Alla Gerber, who started her term in the Duma this week, reports she is continually receiving threatening phone calls from extremists asking: "Are you still alive?"

Gerber, along with other human rights activists, is convinced that Yeltsin's silence paved the way for the increased popularity of fascist groups here, as evinced by the results of last month's parliamentary elections.

Clearly, the Russian president's decision to avoid Jewish issues has consequences on the political level. Yeltsin's tolerance of racism has made xenophobia accepted in political rhetoric, employed by all parties.

The word "Jew" in Russia never was and is not now a neutral term. It is an insult, meaning on the grass-roots level "alien" and on the political level "occupier" or "member of the international American Jewish Zionist Mason conspiracy that intends to subjugate the Russian people, rape the land and sell off mineral resources."

When the president's opponents want to brand him a traitor who is selling out the country to foreigners, they use short-hand.

They call him not Boris, but "Barukh" Yeltsin, implying he has sold out to Jews. They don't need to explain the nickname; everyone knows what it means.

To all of this Yeltsin has answered with three little words. Asked at a recent press conference if, in the wake of the ultranational and anti-Semitic Vladimir Zhirinovsky's advent to parliament, the president finally is prepared publicly to denounce anti-Semitism, a visibly discomfited Mr. Yeltsin replied: "I guarantee it."

What or whom Yeltsin intends to guarantee is unclear. In a country that has a history of scapegoating Jews -- from the Black Hundred pogroms to Stalin's Doctor's Plot, from the Mendel Beilis case to the blood libel charge against Hasidic Jews leveled last year by Pravda -- such ambiguity has dangerous precedents.

Perhaps the visit this week of President Bill Clinton will help Yeltsin clarify his position. Jewish leaders here have requested a meeting with Clinton and have invited him to tour the ashen wreckage of the Marina Roshcha synagogue, requests which the Russian president himself seems unprepared to honor.

If he accepts the invitation, Clinton will do more than recognize Russia's Jewish community. He will provide an example to Yeltsin that in democratic administrations, racism directed at any minority group is intolerable.

Natasha Singer is Moscow Bureau Chief of the Forward. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.