Cablegate: Anti-Semitism On the Wane in Russia
DE RUEHMO #3033/01 3511520
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 171520Z DEC 09
FM AMEMBASSY MOSCOW
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5688
INFO RUCNCIS/CIS COLLECTIVE
RUEHXD/MOSCOW POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MOSCOW 003033
E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/06/2019
TAGS: PREL PHUM PGOV KREL SOCI RS
SUBJECT: ANTI-SEMITISM ON THE WANE IN RUSSIA REF: MOSCOW 2586
Classified By: Ambassador John R. Beyrle for reason 1.4 (d)
1. (C) Summary: Russia has recently shown clear signs of throwing off its long and tragic history of anti-Semitism. In the past several years, official GOR policy has involved an aggressive campaign against anti-Semitism, coupled with positive official statements towards the Jewish community. Societal attitudes have also improved, with a resulting decrease in the number of anti-Semitic attacks or incidents. Increasing ties between Russia and Israel, including the new visa-free regime between the two countries, have also added to the improved atmosphere. While some ingrained suspicions of Jews remain among Russians, Jewish contacts with whom we spoke painted an optimistic picture of the current situation for Russian Jews, though they warned that the situation could easily change back again quickly. End Summary.
From "Oy, Vey" to OK --------------------
2. (C) As the country that a century ago produced "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," saw state-sponsored pogroms that prompted the emigration of millions of Jews under the Tsars, and saw the development of anti-Semitism as a policy under Stalin and his predecessors, Russia for many years was synonymous with anti-Semitism. After the notoriety of both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union in this area, the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed yet a new threat to Jews in the form of violent neo-nationalist groups. However, in recent years both societal and official attitudes towards Jews have showed a marked improvement, and contacts of ours in the Jewish community, whose current population is approximately one million, tell us that they have never before felt this comfortable living in Russia. Although occasional incidents of vandalism and attacks still occur, racist groups have shifted their focus from Jews to Central Asian and other dark-skinned immigrants and migrant workers.
Some of the GOR's best friends are Jews ---------------------------------------
3. (C) Not surprisingly, the most prominent Jewish leaders have scrupulously maintained friendly relations with the GOR. Rabbi Berel Lazar of the Chabad community, one of Russia's two Chief Rabbis, has for years maintained the line that life is good for Russian Jews. In a November 30 statement to Interfax, Lazar cited "dozens of Jewish schools" that have opened up over the past few years, as well as new synagogues and community centers each year. He also noted that in the first nine months of 2009, forty-seven people were prosecuted on charges of anti-Semitism -- a notable increase, he said, over 2008 -- and that all of them were convicted. Six of those were sentenced to prison terms of five to ten years. In a November meeting with us, Lazar asserted that these sentences were "much harsher than they could have been."
4. (C) Some of positive Lazar's statements must be taken with a grain of salt. This same Interfax statement also contains the dubious -- and servile to the GOR -- claim that anti-Semitism is now worse in the rest of Europe than in Russia. Lazar's relationship with the GOR and with wealthy patrons has been the subject of controversy; he has received funding from oligarchs such as Putin supporter Lev Leviev (himself a Chabad member), Roman Abramovich, and Boris Berezovsky, and his close ties to Putin (including his support for the arrest of rival oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky) have enabled him to shoulder aside other contenders for the Russian Jewish throne such as Russia's "other Chief Rabbi," Adolf Shayevich of the Moscow Choral Synagoguge. Lazar claimed to us that his Chabad community comprises 80 percent of Russia's Jews (a figure that likely refers to regular synagogue attendees, not population), but other reports indicate that this figure could be as low as 3 percent. (Note: In a December 16 conversation with us, Shayevich pointed out that of Russia's prominent Rabbis, he is the only one who is actually Russian. He also noted that his rivalry with Lazar has frozen him out of invitations to the Kremlin; however, he said that his relations with the GOR remained cordial. End note.)
5. (C) Notwithstanding Lazar's possible ulterior motives for praising the GOR, other Jewish leaders have confirmed this rosy assessment of official relations. Shayevich told us that "there is no doubt of any kind" that life has significantly improved for Russian Jewry, and that relations with the GOR are "completely different" from those of the Soviet period. He noted that he had just received Hannukah greetings from members of the State Duma, as well as from Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov, who attended Hannukah services at the Synagogue. In attending Jewish services in Moscow, we MOSCOW 00003033 002 OF 003 have observed that prominent Rabbis such as Lazar or Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt spend large portions of the service thanking a lengthy list of GOR officials for their support, while both Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev make a point of publicly sending holiday greetings to Russia's Jewish population, although thus far they have stopped short of donning yarmulkes and attending services themselves. Lazar told us that the overall message is that Jews "are a part of the Russian community."
6. (C) More substantively, Lazar told us that two years ago, GOR officials brought him a list of anti-Semitic books and publications that they promised to eliminate, and that they had since made good on this promise, based on his people's examination of stores and book expos. In a November 6 conversation, Svetlana Yakimenko, who runs the Jewish women's rights NGO Project Kesher, agreed that "at the official level, the attitude towards Jews is the best ever." She said that the GOR has announced that it will do anything necessary to fight anti-Semitism, and that police have standing orders to close down any known anti-Semitic groups.
7. (C) Many other Jewish leaders in the NGO world have also striven mightily to establish good relations with the GOR, and the effort has paid dividends. Natalya Rykova, whose Moscow Bureau of Human Rights (MBHR) has such a close relationship with the GOR that she and fellow MBHR denizen Aleksandr Brod inspire disdain among most of the human rights community, has shared with us her chilling memory of emerging from her apartment in the early 90s to see threatening graffiti from the anti-Semitic group Pamyat. MBHR's habit of toadying up to the GOR on matters such as the Georgia conflict and North Caucasus policy is designed to provide its members with iron-clad "cover" against anti-Semites, a point that Rykova readily acknowledges.
Social attitudes also improving -------------------------------
8. (C) Alexander Axelrod of the Jewish Anti-defamation League explained to us on October 23 his belief that, while in the past official anti-Semitism was more of a problem than social anti-Semitism, now it was the other way around. However, he added that he did not see social anti-Semitism as a significant problem at this point. Other contacts agreed that anti-Semitism has become increasingly marginalized in the social sphere. Shayevich said that, although there is still some "street" anti-Semitism, the number of attacks had decreased in the past several years. Lazar asserted that Judaism is now "on a par with other religions" in most people's minds, and said that "if the trend continues, we will be wholly integrated." (Note: Thanks to the 1997 Law on Religions which defined Judaism as one of Russia's four "traditional" religions, Judaism enjoys special status relative to less established religions. End Note.) He described an experiment that he carried out for several days during the Jewish High Holidays in September, in which his employees, clearly dressed as Chabad followers, conducted man-on-the-street interviews regarding people's views of Judaism. According to Lazar, the response was overwhelmingly positive, with very few exceptions. Lazar added that this activity received uniformly friendly media coverage as well, including on state-run television.
9. (C) Anti-Semitism has been a part of Russian culture for such a long time that it would be unrealistic to expect it to disappear overnight. Russians, including those with entirely friendly attitudes towards Jews, routinely distinguish between a person who is "Russian" and one who is "Jewish," something that would be inappropriate in the United States. Lazar acknowledged that this had not changed, although he noted that it is in the GOR's interest to maintain the idea of Russia's diversity, in order to keep the country from disintegrating. Kesher said that, although hate groups have shifted their attention to Central Asians (who, unlike Jews, "have no system to protect themselves"), "if I were a rabbi in rabbinical clothing, I wouldn't like to meet them."
10. (C) Shayevich noted that economic factors may exacerbate suspicion towards Jews, as the crisis has inflamed xenophobia generally, and public perception of Jews as crafty money-grubbers persists. This perception was not helped by the significant portion of 1990s oligarchs who were Jewish (even though, as Shayevich noted, in the past Jews were often forced to find new, "unofficial" ways to acquire wealth because of official restrictions against them, and the oligarch phenomenon should be viewed in that context). Even some of the apparently positive attitudes towards Jews may at times tie in with this perception, as with the woman who told Lazar's researchers that she "wished she were Jewish, too."
11. (C) Kesher also alluded to examples of ingrained MOSCOW 00003033 003 OF 003 suspicion towards Jews in society; for example, at a Project Kesher roundtable on tolerance in Orel five years ago, FSB representatives appeared and advised participants not to use the word "Jewish" too loudly. Some saw an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the furor over the Alexander Podrabinek article that angered conservatives by attacking Soviet war veterans (reftel), given that Podrabinek himself is Jewish, and that one United Russia State Duma deputy made a point of counting the number of Jews among those who signed a letter supporting Podrabinek. (Note: This incident was odd given that Jews occupy important positions in the State Duma and are represented there in a greater percentage than they are in the general population. End Note.) Axelrod called the hostility toward Podrabinek "the tip of the iceberg," adding that now it is "not politically correct" to express anti-Semitic views, but "people still think and feel that way." Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine Pamyat flourishing in Russia's current environment, whether because of GOR policy or simply because of shifting societal trends. Still, all of our contacts, including Lazar, said that despite all of the progress Jews have made in Russia in recent years, everything could "change back again overnight," as Axelrod put it.
And then there's Israel -----------------------
12. (C) Another factor tipping the GOR and Russians towards a more favorable attitude towards Jews is the palpable warming trend in Russian-Israeli relations. In an April news poll, 52 percent of Russians viewed Israel favorably, a figure slightly less than that in the U.S. (56 percent). As a result of many decades of Russian immigration to Israel, Israel's Russian population, one million, now equals Russia's Jewish population. Israel's current Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, visited Russia in June to great fanfare, with widespread favorable media coverage. Lieberman announced that he felt as if we were "coming home" to Russia (he was born in Moldova), and news reports focused on his use of fluent Russian in his meetings with GOR officials. Back in Russia on December 6, Lieberman praised the visa-free system established last year between Russia and Israel -- which is expected to double the number of Russian tourists traveling to Israel to 400,000 this year -- while Putin said that Israel's Russian community "unites us with you like no other country." Axelrod dismisses the idea that rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Russian society is changing attitudes towards Jews or Israelis, but agrees that Russia is hedging its bets in the region and moving away from Arab or Muslim client states, and that this official attitude is likely percolating down to the societal level.
13. (C) Tsevi Mirkin of the Israeli Embassy in Russia told us December 17 that the positive trend in Russian-Israeli relations began in the 1990s, but has especially improved in the past five years. He attributed this to many factors, including the disappearance of "the official Soviet hatred towards Israel." He added that there is a high level of interest in Israel in Russian society, with many Russians having friends, relatives, or classmates there, and that the two countries trade 2 billion USD in products each year. Sadly, Mirkin noted, one other reason for improved views of Israel is racism among Russians; "they see Israel as a 'white' state in a non-white region." He related an encounter he had, as he was entering the Israeli Embassy, with a Russian man who told him, "The Americans don't deserve you guys," and explained that his positive feelings about Israel related to its status as a bulwark against "blacks."
14. (C) Xenophobic currents in Russian society, ever-present even in the best of times, have undoubtedly worsened since the fall of the Soviet Union, and have spiked since the onset of the economic crisis. As our contacts noted, the crisis could easily exacerbate latent anti-Semitism, as it has already exacerbated overall ultra-nationalist sentiment. At the same time, it is clear from the evidence that the overall trend for Jews in Russia is positive. As a "traditional" religion, Judaism has an established foothold, in contrast to minority religions that have encountered problems. It is therefore difficult to dispute Prime Minister Putin's assertion, offered during his televised Q and A session on December 3, that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment -- initially designed to promote free emigration in the wake of Soviet repression of Jewish refuseniks -- is now "an anachronism."