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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Jewish Voice Has Fallen Silent

During the 1970s and 1980s, the last time the Kremlin was facing regular U.S. criticism for its human rights record, some of the most trenchant internal opposition came from the country's Jewish community. The Refuseniks, as the very ardent core of these activists were known, turned the concerns of a religious and ethnic community into a potent political force.

Now the policies of President Vladimir Putin have brought back complaints about the decline in press freedoms here and the rise of nationalism. But talk to Russian Jewish leaders today and there is a conspicuous silence on the sins of the Kremlin. "There is no longer any distinctively Jewish voice in the political life of this country," Tankred Golenpolsky, the editor of the country's one independent Jewish newspaper, told me with evident regret. The silence of the Jews in these trying times says as much about the current state of Russian civil society as it does about the Jews themselves.

At the most basic level, the change of tone from the Refusenik era arises from the changed place of Jews in the social hierarchy. During the Soviet era, Jews were deemed "cosmopolitan" and thereby a threat to the state. As such, they were subjected to constant, state-sponsored discrimination, giving Refuseniks -- whose name comes from the state's denial of their right to emigrate -- a strong reason to seek exit visas to Israel or the United States.

The legal discrimination against Jews came to a swift end along with communism, and in short order a handful of Jews benefited spectacularly from Russia's booming economy. In a related development, the position of Russia's scapegoat -- a role long filled by the Jews -- was assumed by immigrants from the Caucasus. More than a few relieved Jews have told me recently: "Russia has a new Jew -- the Chechen."

All of which is not to say that Jews are feeling particularly secure. Russian Jews are still considered an alien nationality, and last year 5,000 Russian leaders, including many members of the parliament, signed a letter calling for a ban on Jewish organizations, claiming that they were extremist. Spokesmen for the Jewish community say that the authoritarian impulses in Russia today would make it foolish for the community to try to have a political voice.

"Russia is not ready for a Democratic or Republican or liberal Jewish coalition," said Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia and Putin's closest friend in the Jewish leadership. "Russia is a different mindset -- a different history, different tradition. In Russia, Jews should not be involved in politics."

Such self-censorship has not always been the rule in the post-Soviet era. In 1996, the Jewish media oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky helped found the Russian Jewish Congress as a voice for the country's 500,000 Jews. Gusinsky was accused of bringing his own political battles into his Jewish work, but he was not afraid to speak out about the government's policies toward Israel or Chechnya. Perhaps more importantly, the Russian Jewish Congress sparred with other Jewish groups about the proper positions to take. There was, in short, debate.

Then, in 2000, Gusinsky was arrested and forced to flee the country. Like oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky a few years later, Gusinsky was accused of financial wrongdoing, but opposing Putin was seen by many as the real crime. The new oligarchs who took over the funding of the Russian Jewish Congress were noticeably silent on the Kremlin's policies. It was obviously bad for business.

The changes at the Congress were not the only shift caused by Kremlin intervention. For a number of years after the fall of communism, Russia had multiple "chief rabbis" representing different Jewish traditions. In 2002, this custom changed when Putin signaled that he would only deal with one of these rabbis, Berel Lazar, as the official chief. Whatever the reason -- and it is hotly disputed -- Putin's intervention has effectively shut out the other voices of the community, leaving only the overwhelmingly friendly proclamations of Rabbi Lazar and the Russian Jewish Congress.

That Jewish organizations avoid criticizing Putin does not mean, however, that there are no Jewish people in the opposition. Alexander Osovtsov, the staff director of the Russian Jewish Congress under Gusinsky, joined the pro-democracy movement. His first job was with Khodorkovsky's Open Russia foundation, which was shut down after its leader's arrest. Now he is with The Other Russia, a group that trains opposition leaders.

Osovtsov says his years at the Russian Jewish Congress were hopeful ones, but an outspoken, independent Jewish organization is now impossible. It could function normally, he says, "only if there is a minimal degree of freedom in the country. That doesn't exist anymore."

Nathaniel Popper, a reporter at the Forward, visited Russia as a World Affairs Journalism Fellow. This comment first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.