State-sponsored anti-Semitism: Kremlin’s threat to shut down Jewish emigration service echoes Soviet era

Today, the Russian Ministry of Justice is threatening the organization that helps emigrants to leave. A Moscow court held a preliminary hearing on July 28, 2022 regarding the ministry’s request to disband the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The Jewish Agency, a non-profit organization with ties to the government that predates the country itself, helps Jews around the world who want to immigrate to Israel. The decision to shut down its operations in Russia has raised alarm bells – especially among people who see it as a throwback to a time, not so long ago, when Soviet Russia forced Jews to endure the state-sponsored anti-Semitism while trampling on their right to emigrate.

Soviet antisemitism

On paper, the Soviet Union was committed to creating an egalitarian society. In reality, he denied the rights of minority populations, including Jews.

The government closed Jewish schools and cultural institutions, criminalized the teaching of Hebrew, murdered Jewish leaders, orchestrated anti-Jewish campaigns in the press and in the courts, and created glass ceilings that blocked the ability of Jews to progress in school and in the workplace. In 1966, during a telephone address to American Jews, Martin Luther King Jr. called it “a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide”.

Cold War politics made the situation worse. The internal persecution of Jews by the Soviet government was linked to its foreign policy towards Israel. When the country declared its independence in 1948, the United States and the USSR each raced for its allegiance. However, after Israel’s alignment with the West, the Soviet Union became patron of Arab states and severed diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967.

During the series of Arab-Israeli wars from the 1950s to the 1970s, the USSR accompanied military support for Egypt and Syria with anti-Jewish campaigns at home. Using “anti-Zionism” as a whistle, Soviet propaganda resurrected classic anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish conspiracies for world domination.

International pressure

In the 1960s, Soviet Jews began to try to escape their predicament by applying for exit permits to emigrate. A movement for emigration rights arose among Jews in the USSR, led by activists seeking to travel to Israel. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives everyone the right to leave their country, but the Soviet government refused requests for emigration permits and caused more problems for those who dared to ask. .

Stuck in the Soviet Union, these “refuseniks,” as they were called, lost their jobs and homes and were harassed by the secret police. Leaders of the emigration rights movement – including Natan Sharansky, who became chairman of the Jewish Agency and deputy prime minister of Israel – were arrested and sent to prison camps or Siberian exile.

As Soviet Jews fought to emigrate, a global human rights campaign rallied on their behalf – a movement I have written about as a scholar of modern Judaism. Marching under slogans such as “Let them live as Jews or let them go” and “Let my people go,” political leaders, clergy, civil rights activists, labor unions and celebrities marched. joined with the Jewish people to embrace the cause.

During a Congressional delegation to Russia in 1979, then a senator. Joe Biden visited the synagogue in Leningrad to meet with Soviet Jewish emigration rights activists. In December 1987, at the start of the summit between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a quarter of a million Americans gathered on the National Mall in Washington DC, demanding freedom for Soviet Jewry. Republican Vice President George HW Bush and Democratic US Representative John Lewis shared the podium.

A trickle, then a flood

The human rights campaign succeeded, but not all at once. In 1964, the USSR allowed only 537 Jews to emigrate. In the 1970s, it let out about 25,000 on average each year, bowing to international outcry and hoping to advance detente with the West. But in the early 1980s, the Cold War cooled and the Soviet Union closed the doors again.

However, with Gorbachev’s liberalizing reforms in the late 1980s, the USSR reversed its anti-Jewish policy, reestablished ties with Israel, and opened the doors to unrestricted Jewish emigration.

Once the Jews were free to leave, most chose to leave. About 400,000 left in 1990 and 1991, when the USSR collapsed, and the flow continued thereafter. In total, between 1970 and 2022, almost 2 million Jews emigrated – mostly to Israel, but also in the hundreds of thousands to the United States, Canada and Germany.

Emigration has increased since the start of the war in Ukraine. Fewer than 150,000 Jews remain in Russia today. About 450,000 other people who do not necessarily consider themselves Jewish but have Jewish ancestry are also eligible for immediate Israeli citizenship.

political dance

Throughout all these decades, the Jewish Agency for Israel has been the main organization helping Russian Jews to emigrate – working in Russia itself since 1989, and before that, when Israel and the USSR had no diplomatic relations , from transit stations in Austria and Italy.

For most of the post-Soviet period, Israel and Russia maintained cautious friendly relations, and the work of the Jewish Agency went smoothly. This, and Russia’s military presence in Syria, along Israel’s northern border, dampened the Israeli response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, the war has fueled tensions between Moscow and Jerusalem. Increasingly isolated, Russia has also moved closer to Iran. As a result, a new relationship between Russia and Israel could take shape.

An old technique, brought up to date?

Russia’s Justice Ministry says the Jewish Agency’s collection of data on Russian citizens violates Russian law and denies the case is political. The next hearing is scheduled for August 19, 2022. The Jewish Agency ban is unlikely to end Jewish emigration, as people can still leave the country. The doors are still open, for now. Crossing them can become a little more difficult.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union knew that Jewish emigration symbolized something important to the West. He used this to his advantage, treating the Jews as “pawns”, in the words of historian Jonathan Dekel-Chen. The Kremlin let them go or held them back as a way to telegraph its interest or lack of good relations with the West.

Now it looks like Vladimir Putin’s Russia has found the old Cold War attic telegraph, dusted it off, and discovered that it still works to pick up signals today.

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