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Putin’s Russia Returning to Soviet-Era Antisemitism, Former Chief Rabbi of Moscow Asserts

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avatar by Ben Cohen

Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt. Photo: Reuters/Sven Simon

Russia is returning to the days of the former Soviet Union when it comes to antisemitism, fired by the need for a “scapegoat,” the former Chief Rabbi of Moscow asserted in an interview published on Thursday.

“Russia is returning to the Soviet Union, not in terms of communism, but in terms of its isolation from the rest of the world, antisemitism, general mobilization, repression of dissidents, and economic hardship,” Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt said in an interview with the Spanish Catholic news outlet Alfa & Omega. “It has become a very unpleasant place to live.”

Goldchmidt said that 50,000 Jews had left Russia for Israel since President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, a process he emphasized he had “encouraged.”

“Russia has a very difficult history of government antisemitism,” Goldschmidt observed. “When things go wrong, they look for a scapegoat.”

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In July, Goldschmidt resigned from his post, declaring that he “could not remain silent” in the face of the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine and claiming that the Jewish community in the Russian capital would have been “endangered” had he stayed in the position.

Goldschmidt is reported to have left Russia just two weeks into the invasion, moving first to Hungary and then to Israel. At the time, Goldschmidt cited the illness of his father, who lives in Jerusalem, as the reason for his absence.

For much of the Soviet Union’s 73-year existence, the authorities actively persecuted the Jewish population, operating discriminatory quotas against Jewish citizens and preventing them from emigrating to Israel. Goldschmidt cited the infamous 1953 “Doctor’s Plot,” when a group of largely Jewish doctors were falsely accused of attempting to poison Soviet leader Josef Stalin, as an example of this historic antisemitism.

Crude antisemitic rhetoric had surfaced again in the context of the invasion of Ukraine, Goldschmidt noted, for example in the claim of Russian propagandists that the war is an operation to “denazify” Ukraine — a stance the rabbi dismissed as “utter nonsense.”

In that regard, Goldschmidt also mentioned the false claim made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood”, the allegation made by Russian Security Council  Aleksei Pavlov that the Orthodox Chabad movement is a “sect,” and the authorities ongoing attempts to shutter the local operations of the Jewish Agency, which assists those making aliyah to Israel.

Goldschmidt also talked extensively about his own odyssey from Russia to Jerusalem, where he and his family now live. He explained that he had left the country rather than bow to pressure to support the invasion.

“When the war began, we expected there would be pressure to support it,” he said. “The communications from the government were very clear; they expected Russia’s religious leaders to support the war. Many did.”

Goldschmidt recalled that he had initially decided to stay silent. “But once I heard about the thousands and thousands of refugees, I realized that being silent was not enough,” he explained.

Goldschmidt said that his priority now was to assist Ukrainian refugees, both Jews and non-Jews. He warmly praised the efforts of Jewish communities in western Europe, noting that “in any Jewish community center in Germany people can go to eat, and no one asks if you are Jewish.” He singled out the small Jewish community in the Swiss city of Basel as another “wonderful” example, pointing out that its 800 members had “welcomed 100 Ukrainians.”

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