Opinion |

'Jewish Conspiracies,' 'Israeli neo-Nazis': Is It Time to Leave Russia?

It's no coincidence that state-sanctioned expressions of antisemitism are on the rise in Russia these days. The Ukraine war has revived an antique form of far-right nationalism, in which the Jews have always been the enemy

David E. Fishman
David E. Fishman
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Russia, April 27, 2022.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Russia, April 27, 2022.Credit: Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP
David E. Fishman
David E. Fishman

Russia’s war against Ukraine and its conflict with the West have taken a turn toward antisemitism. It has been decades since so many attacks on Jews and Israel have appeared in the Russian press, television, social media and official pronouncements. This is in part a by-product of the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish, with the Russian media seeking to smear Zelenskyy in any and all ways possible. But the roots of this upswing in public antisemitism are much deeper, and its consequences are larger.

At the top of the list of incidents is the interview that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave to an Italian television journalist in early May. Lavrov was asked how he could claim that Ukraine was governed by a Nazi regime when its president, Zelenskyy, was Jewish. Lavrov responded that “Hitler also had Jewish blood” and that “the most ardent antisemites are as a rule Jewish.” His comments drew widespread condemnation globally and sparked a brief crisis in Russian-Israeli relations. Many pointed out that blaming the Holocaust and antisemitism on Jews was itself crudely antisemitic. It took an alleged telephone apology by President Vladimir Putin to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to calm the storm.

Lavrov’s comments were not off-the-cuff improvisations. Observers had noted Zelenskyy’s Jewishness and its incongruity with the Russian claims regarding Ukraine’s supposed Nazism since the war began on February 24. The Russian Foreign Ministry had more than two months to formulate a response, and this was it. Lavrov was articulating a prepared official position.

Lavrov’s remarks strike us as bizarre only because we assume that the Russian foreign minister was addressing a Western audience. In fact, Lavrov and other Russian officials know that they have lost Western public opinion, and are not really trying to win it back. Lavrov may have been speaking with an Italian, but his remarks were intended mainly for a domestic Russian audience. They were a signal that the lexicon of the Russian far right – a motley crew of monarchists, Stalinists and imperialists who before the war languished on the margins of public life – a lexicon that includes the berating and vilifying of Jews, was now endorsed as mainstream Russian discourse.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, 2nd right, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021.Credit: Evgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

As if to drive home this point, the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, doubled down on Lavrov’s argument. She produced a brief historical “study” intended to show that Jews had collaborated with the Nazis in perpetrating the Holocaust. It stated that the heads of the Nazi-imposed ghettoes and Jewish councils (Judenraten) had cooperated with the Germans in sending Jews to their deaths. Zakharova characterized the official Israeli condemnation of Lavrov’s remarks as “anti-historical.” She also criticized Israel for supporting “the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine,” and warned that Israeli mercenaries were fighting alongside the allegedly neo-Nazi Azov Brigade. In other words, Zelenskyy and the Israeli fighters in Ukraine were continuing the tradition of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis.

There was nothing new in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s argument. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a staple of Soviet anti-Zionist literature to claim that Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis. Accordingly, the State of Israel was the heir to Nazi Germany. One of the classics of this genre of writing, “Fascism Under the Blue Star” (Moscow, 1971), proclaimed: “The kapos of the death camps and the special police in the ghettos were recruited by the Gestapo from among the Zionists. […] The tragedy of Babi Yar [the mass murder site outside Kyiv] will remain forever an embodiment not only of Nazi cannibalism, but also of the indelible disgrace of their accomplices and successors, the Zionists.” The Russian Foreign Ministry has revived this ugly myth from a half-century ago, with one change. It has replaced the word “Zionists” with open use of the word “Jews.”

One needs to bear in mind that, for the Russian reader, Nazi Germany was first and foremost not the perpetrator of the Holocaust, but the country that attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and was responsible for the deaths of 27.5 million Soviet citizens, most of them civilians. By portraying Hitler as a Jew and linking other Jews to the Nazis, Lavrov and Zakharova were identifying Jews as enemies of the Soviet people. And their progeny, Zelenskyy and the Israelis, are now likewise enemies of the Russian people, for supporting the Ukrainian neo-Nazis. Once the connections have been made, the vilification of Jews has been legitimized.

Ironically, Israel has gone to great lengths to maintain a low profile, and to retain near-neutrality, in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, much to the chagrin of many American and Jewish observers. It has not sent any arms to Ukraine, other than helmets and vests. But the Putin regime needs to portray Israel as supporting the “Nazi” regime in Ukraine, because it must satisfy the Russian far right, which is the country’s most militarist and imperialist constituency. The far right sends volunteers and fighters to the Ukrainian front, and in those circles, antisemitism is de rigueur.

Interestingly, the report that Vladimir Putin apologized for Lavrov’s remarks in a telephone call with Naftali Bennett had its origin in the Israeli read-out of the Putin-Bennett phone call, but it was nowhere to be found in the official Russian one. When pressed on the matter, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to confirm that there had been an apology, and nothing about an apology appeared in the Russian press. This leaves matters exactly where the Russian authorities would want them – with many in Israel and the West believing that an apology was extended, thus assuaging their concerns, but nothing has been conceded to the Russian public, which sees Lavrov’s and Zakharova’s statements as the official word: Hitler was a Jew, the worst antisemites are usually Jews, Jews collaborated with the Nazis in World War II and continue to collaborate with the Ukrainian Nazis today.

But the Lavrov-Zakharova outbursts were just the tip of the iceberg.

Conspiratorial thinking regarding the Jews is back in various Russian media outlets. An article in the right-wing newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow) warned that an international Jewish clique was waging a global campaign against Russia. That clique is said to be made up of Zelenskyy, the Chabad chief rabbis in Russia and Ukraine (Rabbis Berl Lazar and Shmuel Kaminetsky), Jewish oligarchs from Russia and Ukraine (including Roman Abramovich, a businessman close to Putin and the Kremlin), and was run out of Jerusalem. As for Chabad, the author of the article in Zavtra added: “I would characterize Chabad’s attitude toward non-Jews as fascist… Chabad adheres to the idea that only Jews are human beings… Isn’t that Nazism?”

Zavtra has been the organ of the hard-core Russian right, and its penchant for antisemitism is well-known. Not so Russia’s top political propaganda talk show, hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, who has boasted that he is Jewish. In late April, a guest on Solovyov’s TV show railed against the rise of global Russophobia, spread by liberals back home in Russia and abroad. The guest identified the chief Russophobes as Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum, Russian opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman, and former Echo of Moscow radio host Tatyana Felgenhauer. A second guest interjected: “Just listen to the last names that have been mentioned” (Applebaum, Roizman, Felgenhauer). In other words, they are all Jews. No one else on the panel objected.

Thus the most popular political talk show in Russia gave voice in prime time to the canard that Jews are the enemies of Russia. A few weeks later, Solovyov, who despite his self-proclaimed Jewishness is first and foremost a servile propagandist, delivering up whatever his superiors tell him to say, wrote on his Telegram channel: “We are liberating a part of Russia, Kievan Rus’, from its German, Anglo-Saxon and Jewish colonizers.” Thus, the Jews are partners in the Western effort to seize Ukraine from Russia.

As if to highlight the point that Israel and the Jews are now in the enemy camp, the Russian Foreign Ministry received a high-ranking delegation of Hamas officials a few days after Lavrov’s and Zakharova’s remarks. Hamas frequently takes credit for terrorist attacks in Israel, and lately for launching rockets at it.

The Russian newspaper Zvezda (The Star), owned and operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense, joined in the pile-on. It published an article reviving an old conspiracy theory that Israeli soldiers interfered militarily in Russia back in 1993, when pro-Western President Boris Yeltsin ordered the shelling of the parliament to fend off a coup by the legislature. According to Zvezda, Yeltsin invited Israeli special-ops commandos to Moscow to conduct the attack on the Russian Duma. This fantasy of the Russian far right is now being spread by an organ of the defense ministry, which added: The Israeli commandos are back, and this time they are fighting alongside the Ukrainian Nazis.

In the newest iteration of Russian antisemitism, Jews and Israel are inseparable and indistinguishable. And there is a straight line between what Jews allegedly did hundreds of years ago and what Israel is allegedly doing now. An article in Pravda (yes, that Pravda!), the organ of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which is Russia’s second largest political party, recently connected the dots: In the early 17th century, the Jews “occupied all markets, imposed duties on all Russian products, and taxed the performance of religious ceremonies in Orthodox churches. It was in effect a genocide.” Then, moving seamlessly from the alleged Jewish genocide against Russians in the distant past to the present, the article concluded that the same genocidal impulse was behind contemporary Israeli policy. The Israelis’ position was that “the more the Russians and Ukrainians kill each other, the better.”

The Jewish community in Russia has observed these developments with alarm. The week after the Lavrov and Zakharova comments and the visit by the Hamas delegation, Boruch Gorin, director of community relations at the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, commented in his weekly online show: “Many people with whom I talk believe that this is the beginning of a new anti-Semitic campaign in Russia.” While Gorin himself rejected this suggestion, he did add: “Everything taken together creates a very dangerous picture. The picture forces Russian Jews to ask once again: ‘Is it time [to leave]?’, ‘Has it already started?’ Unfortunately, the events of the last week seem to answer these questions with a plus sign, ‘yes, it’s time’. The situation of the Jewish community of Russia has significantly worsened.”

Since February 24, when the war in Ukraine began, more Russian Jews, and descendants and relatives of Jews, have emigrated to Israel than have Ukrainian Jews, descendants and relatives. While the Ukrainian refugee aliyah has recently slowed to a trickle, the exodus from Russia is ongoing.

Surging nationalism

Why is this upsurge in public Russian antisemitism happening now? What on earth does the war in Ukraine have to do with supposed Jewish conspiracies and Israeli neo-Nazis? The answer lies in the character and history of Russian nationalism. Russia is now going through an intense wave of nationalist fury, one that is both anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western. But whenever Russian nationalism is ascendant, it is accompanied by a rise in antisemitism.

Since the days of the Napoleonic wars, in the early 19th century, Russian nationalism has defined itself in opposition to the West: czarist monarchism as opposed to French Republicanism; the Russian Orthodox church as opposed to Western Catholicism and Protestantism; Russian wholesomeness as opposed to Western decadence. Even in Soviet times, when the official state doctrine was the brotherhood of nations, the authorities advanced the trope that collectivism and socialism were Slavic traditions, going back to Russian peasant communes, in contrast to the Western path of individualism and capitalism. In this Manichean world of Russia vs. the West, Jews are typically seen as an unassimilable foreign element who are the main carriers of Western ideas.

A recent pro-Ukraine demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This image is deeply rooted. In the early 20th century, when the czarist monarchy struggled against a rising revolutionary movement, the regime and its supporters spread the canard that the revolutionary movement, with its foreign ideas of socialism and popular rule, was a Jewish plot to destroy the traditional Russian way of life. Political radicals and Jews were identical in the Russian nationalist mind, even though Plekhanov, Lenin and Stalin weren’t Jews. In response to the unsuccessful Russian revolution of 1905, monarchists staged riots not against radicals but against Jews, under the slogan “Beat the Jews and Save Russia.”

Fast-forward to half a century later, and 30 years after the Bolshevik revolution. In the aftermath of World War II and the start of the Cold War, Soviet patriotism reached a new high pitch, with strong overtones of Russian nationalism. As top Soviet officials railed against the West, the charge spread that Jews were not truly Soviet and communist. They were a fifth column who admired and imitated everything Western. In 1948-49, scores of assimilated Jewish intellectuals and artists were outed as Jews, and the Jewish-sounding birth names they had shedded earlier in life were “exposed.” These intellectuals were branded as “rootless cosmopolitans” who “kowtowed to the West.” In the same period, all of the USSR’s Yiddish cultural institutions were dissolved, and its leading figures were arrested on charges of espionage for the United States. Over a dozen were executed in 1952.

The most frenzied manifestation of this anti-Western antisemitism was the Doctors’ Plot, in which a group of Soviet physicians, most of them Jews, were accused in January 1953 of plotting the medical murder of Soviet officials, on instructions from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which was, according to Pravda at the time, a front for the CIA. (They were spared only by the death of Stalin.)

The twists and turns of this equation, “Jews = the Western enemy,” have been many. In the 1970s, the Soviet press portrayed “International Zionism” as the country’s most implacable enemy. The only debate was whether Zionism and Israel were agents of American imperialism, or the inverse: Imperialist America was controlled by a cabal of Zionist financiers and ideologues.

Then in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, “openness” and greater freedom of speech made it possible for the traditional Russian nationalist right to reemerge. It directed its barbs against its new adversary, the liberals and democrats led by Andrei Sakharov and Boris Yeltsin, who spoke of universal human rights and improved relations with the West. And lo and behold, the nationalists began spreading the rumor that both Sakharov and Yeltsin were… Jews. Sakharov’s real name was said to be Zukerman (sakhar means sugar in Russian), and Yeltsin had changed his name from Eltzin. In 1990, right-wing activists staged an assault on a meeting of liberal-minded Russian writers, shouting that they were zhids. Very few of the writers were Jewish, but the equation “liberal = Jew” was deeply embedded.

The charge that Russian democrats and liberals are Jews continues to this day. Last month, vandals defaced the entrance to the home of Aleksei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of the now-closed independent radio station Echo of Moscow. They left the head of a pig on his doorstep, and wrote the words “Jewish swine” on his apartment door, to which they also affixed the emblem of Ukraine. Venediktov, who is Jewish on his mother’s side, has been critical of the war in Ukraine. His colleague Tatyana Felgenhauer, who was attacked as being a Russophobe on Solovyov’s talk show because of her opposition to the war, was also assumed by the speaker to be Jewish, because of her name and her political views. In fact, this was a case of mistaken identity. Felgenhauer had adopted the surname of her Jewish stepfather.

Needless to say, the Russian right’s thinking on Jews is at root racial in nature. It assumes that Jews have indelible malevolent characteristics that are passed on genetically, through their blood. Enmity to Russia and to things Russian are foremost among those characteristics. The fact that Venedictov is Jewish only on his mother’s side doesn’t matter. The fact that, according to Foreign Minister Lavrov, Hitler was Jewish only on one grandfather’s side doesn’t matter. They have Jewish blood. And the fact that there are several Jewish oligarchs who have been close to Putin and the Kremlin also doesn’t register with Russian nationalists. The author of the Zavtra article claimed that Russian-Jewish oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich were agents of the West and of Ukraine, who are trying to destroy Putin’s Russia from within.

Unfortunately, given the fact that Russia is at war against the West and Western ideals, we will probably see more Russian antisemitic outbursts in the months to come. And more Russian Jews deciding that “it’s time.” Just like the apartment buildings in Mariupol, Kharkiv and other cities, the Russian authorities consider the Jews to be a useful and even necessary target.

David E. Fishman is professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He directs Project Judaica, JTS’s program in Ukraine, in cooperation with Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the Ukrainian Archival Service.

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