Voices from Russia

Monday, 12 March 2018

No, Putin Is Not an Anti-Semite

Putin at a Jewish function in Moscow

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Editor:

This piece is snarkily Russophobic and rather anti-Putin, but the author has to admit:

V V Putin is probably not an anti-Semite.

That means that he’s more honest than most… we must encourage honesty wherever we find it. Much of the rest is rubbishy Russophobia, but the main point stands clear. That makes this a good read and it makes nonsense out of the anti-Semitic filth coming out of Russian Insider and Russian Faith (our bishops should condemn Damick et al for their collaboration with known anti-Semites), along with the snarky anti-Semitism purveyed by the likes of “the Saker”.

By the way, Putin has facility in English, but he has a heavy accent, which he knows the Anglo toddlers would use to make him look stupid. Therefore, he always uses an interpreter to speak for him to forestall this. That’s wisdom, even in small matters.

BMD

In an interview with NBC in Moscow that aired on 9 March, Megyn Kelly asked President V V Putin about the 13 Russian nationals indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election with a covert social media campaign. Through a translator, Putin responded:

Maybe they’re not even Russians. Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship. We need to check that. Maybe they have dual citizenship… or maybe a green card. Maybe the Americans paid them for this work. How do you know? I don’t know.

The reaction from US and Israeli media outlets was immediate and angry, headlines focusing on one word… Jews. Slate went with Putin: Maybe It Was the Jews Who Meddled in US Presidential ElectionNew York magazine with Putin Says Jews Might Be To Blame for 2016 Election Hacking, and The Jerusalem Post with Putin: Jews Might Have Been Behind US Election Interference, as a representative sample. The American Jewish Committee called Putin’s remarks:

They’re eerily reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The head of the Anti-Defamation League also drew this parallel. Democratic lawmakers also condemned the remarks. US Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut tweeted:

Repulsive Putin remark deserves to be denounced, soundly and promptly, by world leaders. Why is Trump silent? Intolerance is intolerable.

This reaction, while understandable, fundamentally misrepresents both what Putin said and the cultural context in which he said it. This isn’t to defend Putin for his smug and condescending tone throughout the interview, his palpably dishonest statements regarding whether the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election, or his unhelpful injection of ethnicity into the debate. Nonetheless, it’s important to be accurate about what Putin most likely meant and whether it represents a deeper animus toward Jews. Anti-Semitism in Russia is a real problem, but the panicked responses to Putin’s offhand comments miss the mark.

To some extent, this was a problem of translation. There are two words for “Russian” in Russian… rossiiskii, referring to any citizen of the Russian Federation, and russkii, which refers to a specific “nationality” (in the former USSR, this means something closer to “ethnicity”), ethnic Russians, who comprise 77.7 percent of the total population, according to the 2010 census. In total, more than 200 nationalities in Russia have had official recognition since the Soviet period. Most of these are quite small in number and many are associated with specific nominally autonomous republics within Russia, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Chechnya. All of them are rossiiskii, but only the ethnic Russian majority is russkii. The term Putin used in his conversation with Kelly was russkii, presumably translated to him via headset, which accounts for why he might have differentiated between ethnic Russians and other ethnic groups within Russia. However, why did he single out Ukrainians, Tatars, and Jews, in that order? Most likely, as Tatars are the second largest ethnicity after Russians (3.7 percent of the population) and Ukrainians are the third largest (1.4 percent). As for Jews… it’s complicated.

Under the Tsarist rule, the Russian state was de jure anti-Semitic, with the Orthodox Church used to justify the confinement of Jews to the Pale of Settlement and the infamous pogroms. However, when the Bolsheviks, many of whom, such as L D Trotsky, were of Jewish background, seized power in 1917, they passed laws banning anti-Semitism, permitted mass migration of Jews into major cities like Moscow and Leningrad, and legally recognised Jews as a nationality with equal rights as citizens. The official term they (and Putin) used, yevrei, means “Hebrew” and is the standard inoffensive word for Jew in Russian. It denotes an ethnicity, not a religion, which would be iudei (“Judaic”), a useful distinction not easily captured in English. Despite achieving formal equality, Jews still endured prejudice and, like all other ethnic groups, the suppression of their religion throughout the Soviet period. Many sought to emigrate.

After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, many Jews left for Israel, the USA, Europe, and elsewhere, and the Jews who remained were split amongst 15 newly independent republics, with by far the largest number in Russia. In 1997, Russia announced it’d no longer recognise nationality on internal passports. It removed the infamous “fifth point” that designated every citizen’s nationality, including “Jew”. In the same year, Russia officially recognised four religions… Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, though it’s important to note that many ethnic Jews in post-Soviet Russia are nonreligious. As a result, since 1997, Jews can and do live in Russia without being legally identified as Jews either by nationality or religion. This makes it hard to estimate how many Jews live in Russia today, but the answer is likely in the hundreds of thousands and includes a significant number of prominent people in business, politics, and the arts. Moreover, quite a few are close to Putin.

Putin, who has effectively ruled Russia since 2000, isn’t known for anti-Semitism. At various points, he instrumentalised xenophobia against ethnic minorities, in particular from the Caucasus, as well as homophobia, and he’s notoriously politically incorrect in his public statements. Still, he’s never targeted Jews. On the contrary, Putin counts many Jews among his circle of wealthy friends, has a warm relationship with the controversial Chabad Lubavitch Rabbi Berel Lazar, and gets along famously with Israeli officials like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He’s always spoken of Jews in positive terms, and as his respected biographers Fiona Hill and Clifford Gady noted, he had close relationships with Jews dating back to his early childhood in Leningrad.

None of this means that Putin is entirely innocent when it comes to anti-Semitism, which is still widespread in Russia. In the process of consolidating his power, he did target a number of oligarchs with known Jewish ancestry, such as M B Khodorkovsky and B A Berezovsky, but he didn’t single them out for Jewishness, many other ethnically Jewish oligarchs, such as R A Abramovich and V F Vekselberg, thrived under Putin. Putin also oversaw covert support for far-right anti-Semitic political parties in various countries, including, one could argue, the USA. However, we should understand this as a strategy for destabilising those countries and not as serving an ideologically anti-Semitic agenda. Meanwhile, he’s consistently pursued closer relations with Israel and made many warm gestures to the Russian Jewish community.

Putin’s remarks to Kelly were awkward at the very least. However, we should understand them as dissembling or trolling, which, unlike anti-Semitism, the Russian president is well-known for. He was being insincere and deliberately dense, refusing to engage on the question of whether the Kremlin is responsible for the Internet Research Agency’s alleged cyberattacks against the USA. Raising the possibility that the perpetrators might be ethnically Jewish or Tatar or Ukrainian rather than Russian is immaterial to the question of whether they had Kremlin support, which is exactly why Putin said it… to demonstrate how little interest he had in answering Kelly’s questions seriously. Nevertheless, he didn’t single out Jews, and unless this is the start of a disturbing new trend, there’s no evidence that he intended to dog-whistle to anti-Semites. There are many good reasons to be concerned about Putin, but his feelings toward Jews are most likely not among them.

11 March 2018

David Klion

Forward         

https://forward.com/opinion/396337/no-putin-is-not-an-anti-semite/

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