On the eve of the new Jewish Year, Vladimir Putin’s “Rosh Hashana” greeting to Russia’s Jews draws attention to the way in which this long-serving leader has re-shaped political discourse in his country, nearly eliminating public expressions of anti-Semitism from mainstream politics.
Russian politics have never been for the faint of heart, and Jews have featured in them for centuries as convenient scapegoats and victims. Russian Czars enacted anti-Semitic legislation, subjecting the Jews to inferior status. They routinely made use of mob pogroms and blood libels, instigated from above, as a useful way of keeping the Russian masses happy. From this period originated the call - "beat the Jews and save Russia."
Their inheritors, the Soviets, were also quick to adopt Anti-Semitic propaganda as a political tool. Starting from Stalin’s reign in the late 1930s, Jews were barred from high positions in virtually all spheres. They were portrayed in a harshly negative way in media, literature and films, and regularly blamed for all of the many shortcomings and failures of the Soviet System. The Jewish State, Israel, was constantly the subject of hate propaganda identical to that used by the Nazis.
Against this background, and with strident nationalism, xenophobia, and the search for scapegoats such a regular aspect of Russian political life, it is quite surprising to see that anti-Semitism has failed to rear its ugly head in recent Russian elections.
Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, the recipient of Putin’s Jewish New Year greeting, says Putin should be credited for driving anti-Semitism out of Russian political discourse.
Politicians in today’s Russia “would not risk taking anti-Semitic or a so-called anti-Zionist stand,” Lazar said. “Any impartial observer should acknowledge Putin’s big role in this.”
As president and prime minister, Lazar said, Putin “paid great attention to the needs of our community and related to us with a deep respect.”
The early years of Putin’s presidency were marked by a bitter power struggle against Russia’s oligarchs - Russian business tycoons who wielded immense political power alongside their fabulous wealth. Despite the fact that many of those oligarchs were Jewish, Satanovsky notes that Putin never let his political, business and even personal battles “translate into anything anti-Jewish.” The oligarchs he took down set themselves up as political rivals and at the same time, many of the oligarchs currently in favor within the Kremlin are also Jewish.
Echoing traditional Jewish sensibilities, Yevgeniy Satanovsky, head of the Institute for Israel and Near Eastern Studies, a think tank in Moscow, says :“Putin is neither an anti-Semite nor anti-Israel.”
Putin was the first Russian leader to visit Israel, where he attended an official reception. He also visited a Moscow synagogue, participated in candle-lighting ceremonies on Chanukah and reportedly had an open door for one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar.
While human rights groups reported surges in xenophobic attacks at various times during Putin’s presidency, Jews rarely were the targets.
The Putin era has been good for Jewish life in the country, which has continued to thrive. Thousands of parents send their children to Jewish schools and camps, and new synagogues and community centers are being added every year. There even are new museums opening in Moscow.
Indeed, there is a near consensus that Putin had been pro-Jewish throughout the eight years of his presidency. Even severe critics of his democratic record, such as former “Refusnik” Natan Sharansky, admit that it's hard to fault Putin's record when it comes to his attitude towards the Jewish community.
Many Jewish leaders, not all of them Putin-supporters, claim that he had little tolerance for the inbred Russian anti-Semitism.
He has said to a number of Jewish leaders who have met him that in his opinion, one of the major policy mistakes of the U.S.S.R.'s communist leaders was their crackdown on Jewish organizations and cultural activity and the deep suspicion with which they regarded any contact between Soviet Jews and their brethren in Israel and the rest of the world.
In a Russia which is facing a demographic crisis of negative growth, Putin certainly views the emigration of an estimated two million Jews, to Israel, North American and Germany, as a net loss of highly-educated and productive citizens. His government has set and supported a number of official and semi-official organizations whose objective is to maintain contact with these expatriates and if possible, persuade them to return to the “Rodina”. The Foreign Ministry has even begun financing Jewish cultural events for Russian Jews around the world, such as a Hanukah party in Berlin.
Perhaps it would be apt to describe Putin, not as being pro-Jewish, but as being released from his predecessors' anti-Semitic complexes. As a calculating politician, he understands the contribution Jews have made to Russia's fortunes over the centuries and their immense human potential.
Clearly Putin has the support of many religious Jews. As VIN News, which identifies with the Orthodox Jewish community, put it on February 6, 2008, “But, contrary to what many expected, Putin has been very supportive of Jewish issues and concerns. Taking into account all of Putin’s publications, meetings and speeches since 2000, he has said more positive words about Jews than all the Russian leaders before him except Lenin.
In his memoir, Putin did something that no other Russian or Soviet leader had done. With a high degree of warmth, he described a Jewish family that shared a communal apartment with his family in Leningrad. He talked about his Jewish wrestling coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, as a person who “probably played a crucial role in my life.”
In a meeting with Russia’s chief rabbi in June 2007, he promised to donate a month’s salary for the construction of a Jewish museum of tolerance. Speaking in Krakow on Jan. 27, 2005, in connection with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Putin urged other nations to consider the lessons learned from the Holocaust and warned against anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia worldwide.
Further insight on Putin’s relationship to Jews can be found in Wikileaks documents using American Embassy cables discussing the opinions of Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chabad Lubavitch Shliach to Moscow and Chief Rabbi of Russia, on anti-Semitism in Russia and his opinion on Putin.
On Sep 4, 2008 the American Ambassador met with Rabbi Berel Lazar, and on Sep 9 a confidential report was sent.
“Lazar called Putin the most pro-Jewish leader in Russian history, referring to his deep admiration for Israel and the Mossad, his trip to a kibbutz, and his cooperation with the Jewish community. With the recent warming of ties between Israel and Russia under Putin, Lazar noted the increase in Russian reverse immigration from Israel, estimating 100,000 Jews had returned in the past four years. He cited Putin's tolerance as a principal reason for the uptick.
On Dec 17, 2009 the American Embassy in Moscow cabled a report about anti-Semitism in Russia, including Rabbi Lazar’s opinion on the matter:
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."
In attending Jewish services in Moscow, we have observed that prominent Rabbis such as Lazar spend large portions of the service thanking a lengthy list of GOR [Government of Russia] 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, Lazar told us that the overall message is that Jews "are a part of the Russian community."
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…
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: The 1997 Law on Religions defined Judaism as one of Russia's four "traditional" religions.
Russian ultra-nationalists support the view that Putin has been pro-Jewish. They have even gone further then this – clinging to the age old Russian traditions, they have made claims that Putin himself is Jewish. In a parade on the streets of Moscow in May 2007 celebrating the victory of Russia over the Nazis in WWII, they carried signs attacking Vladimir Putin, sucha s the one below.