Vladimir Putin and his allies against the United States and Israel
Jewish Life in FSU: an Overview (April 2019)
24.05.2019, Communities of Eurasia
The more time passes since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the greater are doubts about the reasons to considering the new independent states as a common social and cultural space. It’s just impossible to generalize different processes taking place in Turkmenistan and Lithuania, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. The Baltic States, Ukraine, and partly Moldova and Georgia as well are integrating slowly but steadily into the European civilization space. They are more likely to be considered in the Eastern European context than in the post-Soviet one. Russia and the states that failed to break out of its political and economic influence have successfully build a kind of “re-Soviet” version of the authoritarian kleptocracy. Central Asian states are increasingly being drawn into the orbit of Chinese economic and partly political influence also.
However, all over the world, the Jewish Diaspora demonstrates a high level of international communal solidarity. The post-Soviet space is not an exception. Conscious efforts are constantly being made to preserve the existing ties and to establish new ones. Regional international organizations are active. The specific Jewish community of the former Soviet Union, united not so much by religious tradition as by language, culture, social origins, and common historical fate also, has maintained the relative common self-identity. Leaders and key activists went together through an underground period during the Soviet times and a community renaissance after the collapse of Soviet Union.
Thirty years ago, the Vaad of the USSR, an umbrella structure, has been created. After some structural transformations under the name of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC) it was organically integrated into the system of the world Diaspora. In 2002 – 2013 EAJC more or less successfully played a role of an international confederation of Jewish communities in FSU. JDC, JAFI, Chabad have come to the post-Soviet space during 1990s and have created a network of unified structures for providing services to the Jews. Such kind of community centers all over the post-Soviet space are radically different from those in other regions of the world, but more or less similar in Saint Petersburg, Odessa, Almaty and Tbilisi. Researchers and students engaged in Jewish Studies from the entire Russian-speaking area used to gather every year in Moscow at the conferences and schools of the Center “Sefer”. The Jewish intelligentsia in different countries, accustomed to the “fat” Soviet literary and art magazines, read with equal pleasure “Lechaim”. The Jewish News Agency, booknik.ru and other similar web-sites created and maintained a single information space online.
However, over time it became obvious that centrifugal trends are gaining more and more power. The centralized hierarchical system for organizing Jewish infrastructure has become a thing of the past. The younger generation in Georgia or Lithuania no longer speaks Russian sufficiently to continue to remain in a single Russian-speaking Jewish information space, which was (and still is) natural to their parents. The Chabad Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS has increasingly become a nominal union, and the Menorah Center in Dnipropetrovsk (Dniepro) has seriously challenged the Moscow’s Marina Roshcha in its attempts to fulfill the symbolic role of the “post-Soviet Brooklyn”. Students from Kyiv and Lviv no longer need to come to Moscow and St. Petersburg to get a high-quality education in Jewish studies at the best humanitarian universities and in the Ukrainian language, and it turned out to be quite realistic to participate in Israeli academic internships without the mediation of Sefer Center. The number of history teachers who visited Yad Vashem not through the Russian Holocaust Foundation, but through the Dniepro-based Tkuma Institute and the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Center for the Holocaust Studies, grew up. Hypothetical Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, although not without a Russian trace itself, looks at Jerusalem, Berlin and Washington as models for itself, and not at the Moscow Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.
The catalyst of those natural disintegration processes was, of course, the Russia's aggression against Ukraine in 2014. The war contributed to the breakdown of ties between the two largest communities in the post-Soviet space. Ukrainian Jews, together with the whole of society, recognized themselves precisely as “Ukrainian”. They no longer want to think of themselves as a part of a single “post-Soviet”, “Russian” or “Russian-speaking” Jewry. Kremlin propaganda poured oil on the flames, actively using the “Jewish question” and speculations on anti-Semitism to justify armed aggression and occupation of part of the Ukrainian territories.
At the same time, in Russia no significant Jewish "players" are left who could be ready to represent publicly an alternative position to the official Kremlin discourse. For the Jewish communities oriented towards the free civilized world, the desire to protect themselves from Kremlin propaganda was also reflected in a sharp decrease in ties with the Russian Jewish information environment. Such processes are actively going on not only in the post-Soviet space, but also in the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Israel, Germany, and North America.
The Jewish News Agency has ceased to exist. It became disgusting to read “Lechaim” with its propagandist anti-Ukrainian pamphlets in Kyiv and Khar’kiv. Books of the “Lechaim” publishing house are no longer brought from Moscow. Ukrainian scholars refuse participation in the Sefer conferences on Jewish Studies just because they don’t want to visit Russia any more. The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress did not get out of the deep crisis of 2014-2017. After the kind of raider seizure in 2017 the Congress become a pro-Kremlin Israeli amutah (NGO). The processes of disintegration of a single cultural, informational and infrastructural space have become irreversible.
Taking into account the context, does it make any sense to continue to follow what is happening in the Jewish community of the post-Soviet space in general? In our opinion – no doubt.
The common origin, culture, mentality, and partly language continue to be significant factors for the development of post-Soviet Jewry. You cannot give the whole community at the mercy of the Kremlin propagandists, who claim to express the opinion of the Russian-speaking "compatriots." An alternative to creeping propaganda of the “Russian world” with a slight Jewish accent is necessary.
The post-Soviet Jewish community needs to integrate into the “big” world, into the Western civilization to which the USA and Israel belong. It is necessary to get out of the mire of the “re-Soviet” swamp, into which the Kremlin elites are being dragged – deeper, to the bottom, into the company of Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Freedom, not slavery has always been a central Jewish value. Equality before the law and a fair trial also, not a tyranny. Pluralism, not a dictatorship. Dignity, not humiliation.
These are the values of Modern Western civilization, based on the foundation of biblical commandments, also. The Jewish community is an integral part of it.
Our view of post-Soviet Jewish life is determined by these very values. Our focus is on Human Rights, culture, democracy, freedom and the support of the State of Israel. We hope our reviews will find a reader who shares our goals.
So, what was important in the Jewish life all over the FSU from this perspective in April, 2019?
Victory of democracy and pluralism
● The most important news in the Jewish world in April were about the election of the president of Ukraine, which took place on April 21. More precisely, of course, it is not the elections themselves, but the fact that the ethnic Jew Volodymyr Zelensky won a convincing victory (73% of the vote). This is the first time that a Jew has been elected head of state in a free general election. Moreover, the Ukrainian government is currently also headed by an ethnic Jew, Volodymyr Groysman. In no other country in the world, except, of course, State of Israel, has it ever been that both the president and the prime minister were Jews.
During the election campaign, it was repeatedly claimed that Ihor Kolomoysky, a fugitive oligarch who is in sharp conflict with the current president, Petro Poroshenko, was behind Zelensky’s candidacy. If Vladimir Zelensky never emphasized his ethnic origin (although he did not hide it), and always answered evasively to questions about religious affiliation, Ihor Kolomoisky declares himself as the leader of the Jewish community of Ukraine. He even claimed that he and his entourage are convincing Zelensky to keep Sabbath.
Given the ambiguity of the reputation of Kolomoisky as a businessman, he is an ideal figure for an anti-Semitic narrative. An oligarch, accused of enrichment at the expense of two tens of millions of Ukrainians (depositors of Privat-Bank), a media tycoon, who is promoting his candidate from abroad against the national leader defending his country from aggression... However, despite the bitter public debate, except for a couple of statements made by marginal personalities like the extravagant nationalistic showman Dmytro Korchinsky, the “Jewish” theme and the anti-Semitic claims were not exploited at all in agitation against Zelensky.
Of course, the main thing in these elections was that they passed calmly and in accordance with the highest standards of honesty and transparency. Free will and civilized transit of power is an important achievement of the Ukrainian democracy, for which, five years ago, many Ukrainians quite literally gave their lives.
The Ukrainian elections vividly demonstrated the link between democracy, on the one hand, and tolerance, on the other. The free and multicultural Ukrainian nation has passed this exam perfectly.
Immediately after the elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Volodiymyr Zelensky, congratulated him on his victory and invited him to visit the Jewish state on an official visit.
● On April 7, memorable events dedicated to the anniversary of the pogrom of 1903 took place in Chisinau.
● In the Dnieper, the City Council considered the issue of allocating a burial site at the Zaporozhske cemetery for members of the Jewish community in accordance with the rules, rituals and commandments of Judaism.
● David Rebi, the author of the only textbook and one of the last native speakers of the Krymchak Jewish language, died in Simferopol.
Krymchaks is a name for a unique Türkic-speaking Jewish sub-ethnic group formed and historically lived in Crimea. Majority of the community were exterminated during the Holocaust. From the beginning of the XX century, following the Crimean Karaites, the national intelligentsia of the Krymchaks developed a modern model of a secular self-identity, according to which the Krymchaks are a separate original Turkic people. Currently, about two hundred Krymchaks remain in the territory of the peninsula under the Russian occupation. Rest of the representatives of this group – about 600 people – live in Israel today, but they do not constitute a separate community there and gradually lose a unique ethnic identity.
Culture, Arts and Humanities
● On April 4, in Chernivtsi, within the framework of the Days of Jewish Culture in Ukraine, the exhibition “Contemporary Art of Israel and Ukraine” took place.
● On April 5–26, an exhibition dedicated to the life and work of writer and artist Bruno Schulz was held at the Sholom Aleichem Museum in Kyiv.
● On April 7, the Day of the Jewish Book was held in the Synagogue of St. Petersburg. It was a really large-scale educational event this year.
● On April 12–14, the International Conference “Civil Society, Digital Storytelling and the History of the 20th Century Jews in Ukraine” took place in Odessa.
● On April 17–26, research archaeological work was carried out on the territory of the old Jewish cemetery in Tallinn. Their goal was to clarify the data on the graves and the location of the foundation of the gate, which is necessary for further work on the reconstruction of the cemetery. Works have been commissioned by the city municipality and agreed with the Jewish community.
● The Lithuanian organization “Matseva” has completed the work on cataloging the old Jewish cemetery in Seyrayai.
● In Moscow, in the new building of the Tretyakov Gallery on April 25, an exhibition of the artist Haim Sokol opened, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and the fighters against Nazism.
● The Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies announced the establishment of an award for the best book on Jewish studies published in Ukraine.
Manifestations of antisemitism
● The most serious manifestation of antisemitism in the post-Soviet space in April was the arson of the oldest Russian yeshiva Torat Hayim in Moscow on April 19, just before the start of the Seder (the ceremony dedicated to the beginning of Pesach). The back room where kosher products were stored burned out. The arsonists left graffiti: the words "death to the Jews", the neo-Nazi code "88", meaning "Heil Hitler", and the swastika.
● In Kyiv, in April, acts of vandalism against information stands on the territory of the National Historical and Memorial Preserve Babiy Yar were recorded twice.
Israel and the post-Soviet countries
● In April, as during the previous months, the most important aspect of Israeli diplomacy in the countries of the former USSR was the uneasy dynamics of relations in the geopolitical triangle Moscow – Damascus – Jerusalem (with some participating in this figure of Washington and Tehran).
Immediately before the elections in Israel, Russia made a gift to Benjamin Netanyahu. On April 4, the Prime Minister visited Moscow and returned the body of Sergeant Zachary Baumel, who died almost forty years ago in Lebanon, to Israel for burial. Negotiations with Moscow and the search for the body of an Israeli soldier lasted almost two years, so it is obvious that the final chord of such a long process was timed to coincide with the Israeli elections. The transfer of the body, furnished as a solemn military memorial ceremony, contributed to the formation an image of Benjamin Netanyahu as a head of state, capable of negotiating Israeli interests with the most inconvenient partners. Vladimir Putin, for his part, proved to be a leader capable of noble gestures.
However, the story had a not so beautiful epilogue. Although official Moscow claimed that the humanitarian gesture was coordinated with Damascus, and the Syrian army helped in the search for the body of the Israeli soldier, Syria strongly denied these allegations. The regime would clearly consider itself discredited assumptions that it could even indirectly cooperate with Israel.
The Israeli Prime Minister, in turn, unexpectedly announced the extradition of two imprisoned in Israel Syrian citizens to Syria, although he had previously stated that the transfer of Baumel’s body does not imply any deal and retaliatory steps. Syrian prisoners were released to bypass the usual procedure for such transactions (this step was not considered and was not approved by the government’s military-political cabinet). Russia, in turn, said that from the very beginning it was a deal, thereby putting Benjamin Netanyahu (after Bashar Assad) in a very uncomfortable position.
● At the same time, the Air Force of the Israel Defense Forces continued to strike military sites in Syria in April. In particular, the planes bombed the targets in the city of Masyaf (near Hama) on April 12 (previous Israeli air strike in Aleppo at the end of March). According to available information, the object of the attack was Iran’s manufactory produced some mechanisms for Hezbollah’s missiles. The Israel a-Yom newspaper writes about this: “It seems that Russia at this stage has come to terms with such actions, as long as they do not threaten its forces in Syria.” It should be noted that the weakening of the Iranian infrastructure may even meet the interests of Moscow, which is a competitor of Tehran in matters of influence on Damascus.
However, not all experts assess the situation as benevolent. In the Western media more and more materials appear that predict the inevitable or highly probable conflict between Russia and Israel.
Some Russian experts also suggest that the latest attacks by the Israeli air force are aimed at “probing” the Russian air defense system and testing the C-300 and C-400 missiles delivered to Syria in preparation for more serious clashes.
● Meanwhile, Russia continues to position itself as an alternative external force to the United States that can seat Israelis and Palestinians at the negotiating table and propose a “more realistic and fair” peace deal than the “deal of the century” announced by Donald Trump.
On April 15, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, during his visit to Moscow, said that Mahmoud Abbas "is ready to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without any preliminary conditions, if it takes place in Moscow." According to him, “while the proposal comes from Putin,” the Palestinians are ready for negotiations with Israel.
The last time Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu met in 2010.
The Palestinian side also declared, that will reject the US proposal for a peace agreement (“deal of the century”) beforehand.
Also in April, in a joint statement with Iran and Turkey, Russia condemned the recognition by the United States of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Among other foreign policy news unrelated to Russian politics in the Middle East:
● The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine submitted to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) a draft law on ratification of the Agreement on a Free Trade Zone between Ukraine and State of Israel, signed by the heads of both states earlier this year.
The report was written for Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ)