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As Vladimir Putin’s war rages on in Ukraine for its fifth month and repression stifles civil liberties in the homeland, Russian Jews fear they will soon be targeted by the Kremlin.
Jews have fled Russia en masse; those left behind are terrified of direct criticism of the war, which Putin cynically claimed launched to “de-nazify” Ukraine.
“We don’t talk about political issues in our congregation,” said a rabbi in Moscow who asked not to be named. He added that after a 2011 crackdown on protests linked to Putin’s re-election, he ordered that politics be kept out of his synagogue, which has about 300 members.
“All the words we say in public [about the war] can be used against us as a Jewish community,” the rabbi said.
Vladimir Khanin, an associate professor at Israel’s Ariel University and an expert on the Russian Jewish diaspora, said he estimates that about a third of Jews living in Russia are currently “actively” expressing their opposition to the war; most “are not happy” with the situation, but are too afraid to speak out. He estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of Jewish people in Russia support the war — in part because 70 percent of Russian Jews live in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and most are “liberal, more modernized” and better educated than the average russian. he said.
Unlike Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill, who was sanctioned by the EU for his support of Putin’s war, Jewish religious figures have been more critical. Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi previously known for being friends with Putin, called for “peace” and offered to act as a mediator in the conflict. Other prominent Jewish figures have made similar calls, including Federation of Jewish Communities President Alexander Boroda.
Meanwhile, Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, under pressure from the authorities to support the war, flee the country two weeks after the conflict started. He now lives in exile in Israel and has said he has no intention of returning to Russia, although he will remain in his position.
The longer Putin’s war goes on, the more likely he is to look for scapegoats, and Russian Jews are all too aware that the lesson from the bloody history of pogroms in their country is that these scapegoats can often become them. . In the most infamous case, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 sparked a wave of anti-Semitic mob violence.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave a taste of what might come next, comparing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Adolf Hitler, who he said also had Jewish blood. Putin subsequently backtracked on those comments and offered a rare personal apology to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, but Russian Jews had been warned.
“Because of the constant negative attitude towards us, hate… we are used to being silent, adapting to the current government and [we] always keep a foreign passport handy,” said a 23-year-old Jewish woman from Derbent, southern Russia, who works in retail (she asked not to use her name). “You never know when you’ll have to run again,” she added. “We understand that none of us are really protected.”
While according to academics and pollsters, the lives of Russian Jews have improved since the fall of the USSR in 1991, it comes from a low base. For example, in a poll by the Levada Center, 45 percent of Russians said they would have a positive attitude toward Jews in 2021, up from 22 percent in 2010. Percent said they are ready to have a Jewish boyfriend, versus 3 percent in 2010.
Ilya Yablokov, a digital media lecturer at Sheffield University in the UK and who has written about anti-Semitism in Russia, said anti-Jewish xenophobia could flare up any moment if the Kremlin wants it to.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, the brutal anti-Semitism of politicians was a response to Russia’s social polarization,” Yablokov said. “In the 2000s, things got better economically, so the level of anti-Semitism dropped,” he continued, as the Kremlin targeted other minority groups and made the West its No. 1 boogeyman.
But with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s retaliatory sanctions, Russian Jews fear they will be targeted by the Kremlin again.
“It’s back to the 1990s,” Khanin said, referring to a period when anti-Semitic conspiracy theories spread and far-right con man Vladimir Zhirinovsky was spraying vitriol at Jews.
Start at the beginning
Fearing the writing on the wall and shocked by the war, many Russian Jews try to flee the country.
In response, Israel has stepped up its specialized diaspora immigration program, known as Aliyah, which grants citizenship to those who can prove that their relatives are Jewish up to the third generation. Wait times at local consulates were shortened from up to nine months to several weeks, according to an Israeli government official involved in the immigration process, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Tel Aviv also allowed refugees to apply for citizenship after arriving in Israel, which the official said “a large majority” chose.
According to estimates, about 165,000 Jews lived in Russia in 2019, making them the sixth largest Jewish community outside of Israel at the time. In the first three months after Putin launched his invasion on Feb. 24, about 10,000 of them were granted Israeli citizenship, the official said, compared to just 800 in as many months before.
But adapting to life in Israel brings new challenges.
Olga Bakushinskaya, a 56-year-old Russian journalist who moved to Israel in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, started a Facebook group to help integrate new Russian arrivals into the country in 2016. She said requests for help in recent months have exploded. , with more than 3,000 Russians (and Ukrainians) joining the group since February — mostly middle-class and middle-aged parents with children, who worked in academia or computer programming.
“Many didn’t make plans and just came,” Bakushinskaya said, adding that Russians have little idea of the practicalities of life in Israel. “We’ve helped many hundreds who come to us every week.”
Bakushinskaya said she now spends up to three hours a day helping newcomers with everything from making friends to sorting rent to enrolling their children in school. The group has also held webinars on topics such as opening bank accounts.
While many Israelis have welcomed the newcomers, not everyone is so friendly. Bakushinskaya said she has helped Russians who were greeted with suspicion by some elderly Israelis who immigrated from Russia in the 1990s, who brand them “non-Jews” because most are secular, and clash with those who criticize Israel.
Artem Budikov, a 29-year-old actor born and raised in Moscow to a Jewish mother, left Russia on May 9 to go to Israel. religious, has been staying with a distant childhood friend since his arrival. He said he receives a monthly stipend of about €700 from the Israeli government, as well as subsidized Hebrew lessons, and is now looking for work.
Budikov said he made the decision to leave Russia the day after Putin announced his “special operation” in Ukraine. “It just didn’t make sense to me how this was possible and I didn’t understand how I could continue working with my mouth closed,” Budikov said. It took him a few weeks to save the 900 euros he needed to buy his plane ticket.
He gave what would be his last performance of his favorite play, Molière’s “Le Tartuffe”, at a Moscow theater, then went straight to the airport, where he flew to Sri Lanka and then to Israel.
“Nobody Knew I Was” [acting in] my last play,” said Budikov. “It was very tough psychologically… when we left I was alone in my row [on the plane] and I just started crying – and I cried until I fell asleep.”