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July 12, 2022 10:42 am

The Kremlin’s Eternal ‘Jewish Question’

avatar by Lev Stesin


Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting in Sochi, Russia October 22, 2021. Sputnik/Evgeny Biyatov/Kremlin

On Tuesday, July 5, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Russian government had sent a letter to the Jewish Agency regarding its activities in the country, claiming certain violations of Russian law and demanding that the Jewish Agency’s activities on the Russian Federation’s territory cease.

Since the news broke, there have been many denials and counter-denials by all sides of the controversy. The only undisputed aspect of the story is the letter itself; yet the exact wording or whether it was retracted or clarified by Russia’s government and in what way, does not really matter. The letter is a warning, a threat, and a clear indicator of grim things to come for the Jewish Agency operations in Russia, and the bleak and inevitable prospects for Russia-Israel relations.

Among the constant threads traversing the last 250 years of the history of Russia, either under the tsar or the Bolsheviks, is the official government’s antisemitism. The years since the breakup of the Soviet Union had been the only break from that centuries old tradition. Yet this much welcomed respite seems to be coming to an end.

There is a well established misconception about Russian government antisemitism. In reality, it is religious in its origin and personal in its nature. Indeed, the Russian Orthodox Church had played an important role in transplanting this ancient hatred over to Muscovy. And until the First Partition of Poland in 1772, its manifestations, with a few minor exceptions, had only religious undertones as there was almost no Jewish population permanently residing within the Russian Empire. But once almost the entire Jewish population of the Kingdom of Poland and the Great Duchy of Lithuania became the subjects of the Russian Empire, the practical struggle against the Jews began. That struggle was not mainly against the Jews as individuals, but against the Jews as a collective. The government considered the self autonomy that the Jews enjoyed under the Polish crown as a direct threat to its absolute authority.

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It was extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Russian government authorities to accept the concept of Russian Jews. The tsar and his government could embrace, though grudgingly, the idea of Russian Poles, Russian Ukrainians, or Russian Tatars. They could accept dual identity, but if, and only if, the other identity was geographically rooted in the territory under their direct control. On the other hand, the Jews were not rooted in any land, thus making them a dangerous subversive element. The only hope to crush them as a collective was to destroy their communal self identification. And the most barbaric attempts at solving the s0-called “Jewish question” — such as infamous Kantonist schools, where boys as young as 8 would be sent away to military schools with a subsequent 25 years of military service — were directed at the community as much as the unfortunate individuals directly involved.

The Bolsheviks had a view of the Jews not too dissimilar from the previous tsarist government. In the first decades after the revolution, it seemed the Russian “Jewish question” would be soon solved for good. Judaism, by internal dynamics of the community and due to the pressures from the Bolsheviks, was disappearing from daily life. And with that, the hope was that the Jews as a group would follow. Then came Israel.

Joseph Stalin’s idea of loyalty for Soviet citizens was even stricter than the one exposed by the old imperial bureaucrats: Soviet citizens had only one country they could call their home. That approach worked well as the vast majority of the Soviet citizens resided in their historical lands that at one point or another became part of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union. Those people belonging to other groups were either expelled back to their native lands or displaced across the vast Russian lands to disappear as communities. Yet the Jews were everywhere, and had another country they could, though most would not dare to, call their homeland. That was not to be tolerated and perhaps only Stalin’s death saved the Jews from another campaign of mass murder.

Vladimir Putin appeared to have learned the lessons from the past. Or so it seemed. Everyone assumed the attempts at “solving the Jewish question” were a thing from the past, and that the Russian Jews would be left to their own devices with a generous patronage from the Kremlin. As in many other instances, lately becoming more and more apparent, that was a major misreading of Putin’s intentions. What Putin was trying to achieve in this new Russia, rebuilt from the ashes of the fallen Empire, was to distance the Jews of Russia from Jews outside, particularly those in the US and Israel.

The resignation of the recently-reelected Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, was a major marker of that effort; the letter sent to the Jewish Agency is the latest. The Kremlin’s vision may have zero chance of succeeding, but has a huge potential for creating long-lasting damage for everyone involved. What is clear is that it is the most recent chapter in a very sad and eventful history of the Jews of Russia.

The author lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.

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