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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Waning Anti-Semitism

The first of two articles debating whether anti-Semitism is a growing or receding threat in Russia. Tomorrow: "Anti-Semitism Menace."

The anti-Semitic policies of the Soviet Union, which were state-sponsored and totalitarian in nature, had paradoxical and ambiguous results. On the one hand, having closed off all channels of Jewish cultural continuity, anti-Semitism put in question the very existence of the Jews as a people. On the other hand, these same policies reinforced the identity of the Jews and inspired them to struggle to preserve a sense of national identity, thus serving as a guarantee against assimilation.

Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union was measured out in doses, carefully managed and, when used for propagandistic purposes, always couched in (transparent) euphemisms: The authorities claimed they were not fighting against Jews but against Zionists. Anti-Semitic policies were carried out according to specific rules worked out by the Kremlin, and any spontaneous, independent measures against Jews were cut short.

With the fall of the communist regime, the situation changed dramatically. State-sponsored anti-Semitism became something of the past. Social anti-Semitism took its place. Anti-Semitism was no longer planned from any central authority, expressed in euphemisms or limited by certain rules. Thus, the currently popular word "chaos" is a fairly apt description of the situation today.

Essentially, however, current anti-Semitism is in no way totalitarian, as it was in the past, and is practiced by small and marginal (although active and vocal) groups, whose effective publicity exaggerates their social significance.

There is, in the present Russian consciousness, some kind of self-destructive drive to wait in anticipation for all kinds of horrors: Tomorrow the fascists will come to power and then we shall see.

The Russian news media, for the most part, are always ready to ignore positive social and cultural events and concentrate instead on monstrous occurrences, from violent criminal acts to the threat of imminent fascism.

However, the promotion of anti-Semitism by these marginal groups not only satisfies a certain psychological need, but is used by several interested social groups for their own purposes. Thus, at times it seems that the authorities look the other way at activities that are clearly opposed to the government, in order to frighten the liberal and democratic intelligentsia into supporting them. An excellent pre-election argument is that only a strong central authority can defend the intelligentsia from the growing threat of fascism and anti-Semitism. Such an argument would hardly carry any weight if it were not widely promoted by the media. It should be noted, nonetheless, that the authorities are carefully watching to make sure that this chaotic anti-Semitic situation does not go further than just words. This is very important, given the fact that the national enmity toward Jews in the former Soviet Union caused much blood to be spilled.

It is clear that anti-Semitic publicity also serves those groups in the West who would like to advance more hard-line policies toward Russia, viewing it as an unpredictable country in which fascism is rearing its head.

The promotion of anti-Semitism and the struggle against it by the current news media has meant that the word "Jews" has too often been equated with the word "anti-Semitism." And this has distorted, to a large extent, the Jewish way of life in Russia, depriving it somehow of its own creative content, and ignored the positive changes in Jewish consciousness and social life, as well as the relations of Russian society to Jews.

Moreover, for the past 10 years, an entirely new situation has arisen in Russia and in other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Various forms of Jewish religious, cultural and social life have taken shape. A system of education from kindergarten to the university level has been created literally out of nothing. Furthermore, this has occurred not only in major cities but the provinces as well.

The third annual conference this February of the Center for Scholars and Teachers of Judaica in the Sefer (Book) Institute of Higher Education clearly showed the high level and the broadening scope of Jewish education in the CIS. The conference was devoted to a whole range of questions of Judaism. Of course, there were papers devoted to the problem of anti-Semitism at the conference, but they occupied an appropriately modest place. All this pointed to the existence of a normal, healthy national consciousness that is not defined by phobias.

Much work is being done on Jewish questions today. In particular, two large-scale publishing projects, which will have great significance for both Russian and Jewish culture, are in the works.

The first is the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia, which is an original work in three parts, entirely devoted to Russian Jewry. The first part is devoted to notable Jewish figures, the second to the history and geography of Jewish society in Russia and the third to general problems relating to the theme of "Jews and Russia." The second volume of the first part of this encyclopedia is due to appear soon.

The second project is the translation of the Talmud into Russian, with extensive contemporary commentaries. Last year the introduction to the work, which was devoted to the history and methodology of this Jewish classic, was published. This February, the first part of one of its tractates was brought out. Both these projects require serious academic efforts and both are being carried out with the cooperation of Russian academic circles. Both are being made possible thanks to the creation in Russia of a new social and psychological climate. Today, anti-Semitism is in no way dominant, and the barometer of social attitudes toward Jews in general indicates that relations are "clear."

Mikhail Gorelik is a free-lance journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.