Anti-Semitism in the Former Soviet Union

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Remarks at their annual Board of Governors of the NCSJ (Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia)
Washington, DC
June 28, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, NCSJ Board of Governors and members - I thank you for the invitation to speak here today about anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union.

As a child of a Holocaust survivor, anti-Semitism is something very personal to me. My father was arrested – on Kristalnacht, the unofficial pogrom that many think started the Holocaust – and sent with many of his congregants to prison and then to Buchenwald. He was the lucky one – every other person in his family perished at Auschwitz. I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only my father could give me.

I have seen six significant trends in anti-Semitism around the world:

First of all, anti-Semitism is not History, it is News. I run into people who think anti-Semitism ended when Hitler killed himself. More than six decades after the end of the Second World War, anti-Semitism is still alive and well, and evolving into new, contemporary forms of religious hatred, racism, and political, social and cultural bigotry.

This stems from the fact that traditional forms of anti-Semitism are passed from one generation to the next, updated to reflect current events. We are all familiar with ongoing hostile acts such as the defacing of property and the desecration of cemeteries with anti-Semitic graffiti. For example, in May of this year, a synagogue in Barnaul, Russia was defaced with the phrases, “the Holocaust is a myth,” “Adolf was right,” and “Death to the Jews.” And in December 2010, neo-Nazi youths painted swastikas on 89 gravestones in the main Jewish cemetery in Riga, Latvia.

There are still accusations of blood libel, which are morphing from the centuries-old accusations by the Church that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood for rituals, to accusations that Jews kidnap children to steal their organs. Conspiracy theories continue to flourish, such as supposed Jewish control of the U.S. media and the world banking system, or that Jews were involved in executing the September 11 attacks. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” continue to be best sellers in many, many countries, and taught to religious students as truth. The ‘old fashioned’ anti-Semitism is alive and well.

This past year, the Russian Duma roundtable “On the Question of Recognizing the Genocide of the Russian People” issued a declaration which exemplifies the continued presence of traditional forms of anti-Semitism in Russia. The declaration blamed the “international Zionist financial mafia for genocide against the Russian people.”

In Belarus, President Lukashenka and other Belarusian government officials are known for making anti-Semitic statements. The government does not provide tolerance education and acts of vandalism go unpunished, while the state press and other government agencies continue to publish anti-Semitic literature.

A second phenomenon is Holocaust denial. It is being espoused by religious leaders, heads of State, such as in Iran, in academic institutions, and is a standard on hateful websites and other media outlets. As the generation of Holocaust survivors and death camp liberators reaches their eighties and nineties, the window is closing on those able to provide eyewitness accounts and thus we have a heightened sense of urgency to promote Holocaust education, create museums and memorials, and carry the memory and lessons of the Holocaust forward.

Ironically, we also see the antithesis of this as there is a third, disturbing, parallel trend of Holocaust glorification which can be seen in events that openly display Nazi symbols and in the growth of neo-Nazi groups. In Latvia recently, a notorious neo-Nazi made blatantly anti-Semitic statements, including incitements to violence against Jews, on a Latvian television talk show. Holocaust glorification and the growth of neo-Nazi groups is especially virulent in a variety of Middle Eastern media – some of which is state owned and operated - calling for a new Holocaust to finish the job. Truly bone-chilling.

A fourth concern is Holocaust relativism – where some governments, museums, academic research and the like are conflating the Holocaust with other terrible events that entailed great human suffering, like the Dirty War or the Soviet regime.

For example, in December of last year, Foreign Ministers from Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic issued the Prague Declaration, calling on the European Commission to introduce a so-called double genocide law. This law would associate Nazi crimes with Soviet ones and would criminalize the denial of Soviet crimes in the same way as Holocaust denial. The European Commission rejected the proposal, recognizing that a double genocide law would trivialize the Holocaust.

No one, least of all myself, wants to weigh atrocities against each other, but to group these horrific chapters of history together is not only historically inaccurate, but also misses opportunities to learn important lessons from each of these historic events, even as we reflect on universal truths about the need to defend human rights and combat hatred in all of its forms.

The fifth trend is the increasing tendency of blurring the lines between opposition to the policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism. What I hear from our diplomatic missions, and from non-governmental organizations alike, is that this happens easily and often. I want to be clear – criticism of policies of the State of Israel is not anti-Semitism. But we record huge increases in anti-Semitism whenever there are hostilities in the Middle East. This form of anti-Semitism is more difficult for many to identify. But if all Jews are held responsible for the decisions of the sovereign State of Israel, when governments like Venezuela call upon and intimidate their Jewish communities to condemn Israeli actions – this is not objecting to a policy – this is anti-Semitism. When individual Jews, such as academics or experts from Israel are effectively banned or their conferences boycotted, or are held responsible for Israeli policy – this is not objecting to a policy – this is anti-Semitism.

Here are three easy ways to decide if it’s anti-Israel or anti-Semitism: “It is anti-Semitic when Israel is demonized, held to different standards or delegitimized.” This is more readily illustrated by the fact that the U.S. is often the only “no” vote in international bodies where countries seem to have an obsession with singling out Israel for disproportionate condemnation.

The sixth trend is the growing nationalistic movements which target ‘the other’ – be they immigrants, or religious and ethnic minorities -- in the name of protecting the identity and ‘purity’ of their nation. Over the past two decades, anti-Semitism has continued to form the ideological basis of many right-wing ultra-nationalist organizations in the former Soviet Union. These racist “skinhead” groups promote anti-Semitic propaganda, use anti-Semitic rhetoric, and incite racial violence, as they did during an illegal rally in December 2010 in Moscow. According to the Russian Interior Ministry’s All-Russian Research Institute, racially and religiously intolerant groups are on the rise. Indeed, more than 150 radical neo-fascist groups are currently operating in Russia.

In Ukraine, nationalist organizations have spread hate through extremist and anti-Semitic statements, and in Belarus, neo-Nazi groups continue to import and distribute anti-Semitic and ultranationalist Russian newspapers, literature, and digital media.

When this fear or hatred of the ‘other’ occurs or when people try to find a scapegoat for the instability around them, it is never good for the Jews, or for that matter, other traditionally discriminated against minorities. The history of Europe, with Russian pogroms, Nazism, and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans provides sufficient evidence.

The State Department monitors these trends and activities and reports on them in all 194 countries – in two major annual reports: The International Religious Freedom Report and the Human Rights Report. I am now involved in developing a major training initiative for State Department employees so they can better monitor what is happening in their countries, and sensitize them to the various forms of anti-Semitism. This will make our annual reports more comprehensive, and allow us to do an even better job of monitoring and confronting anti-Semitism in all its forms. These reports tell us that many countries are pushing hard to advance human rights and fight discrimination. It also tells us that there is so much more work to do. If we don’t chronicle it, if we don’t name it, we can’t fight it.

Even though the news is grim, we have seen some improvement throughout the former Soviet Union.

Russia is moving in a positive direction. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has publicly criticized anti-Semitism and helped establish the Museum of Tolerance by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

Hate-motivated and anti-Semitic vandalism is generally decreasing in Russia. In 2010, neo-Nazi and racially motivated violence was at a six year low in Russia.

Prosecution of hate-crimes and vandalism is on the rise, though it remains inconsistent. While law enforcement agencies are pursuing these acts more aggressively and the court system increasingly acknowledges the racist motive behind these attacks, impunity remains common and many perpetrators receive suspended sentences. In Latvia, for example, the City of Riga responded quickly and appropriately to acts of vandalism and desecration which occurred last December.

Ukraine’s performance has also improved over the past five years. The number of anti-Semitic acts of vandalism has decreased by more than half in 2010. Moreover, due to joint pressure exerted by the Ukrainian government, NGOs and the Jewish community on the Interregional Academy of Human Resources, we have witnessed a sharp decline in the publication of anti-Semitic articles, proving that we can succeed if we work together.

Next year, Ukraine’s ability to combat anti-Semitism and extremism will be displayed for all to see when it co-hosts with Poland the UEFA European Football Championship, also known as the Euro 2012. To combat the anti-Semitism and racism prevalent in European football, the NEVER AGAIN Association helped launch a new program, Football Against Racism in Europe, or FARE, in June of this year.

As you can see, there is some good news throughout the former Soviet Union. More will come if we remain vigilant and continue to apply pressure and promote religious freedom there.

Last summer, Secretary Clinton launched an initiative to strengthen civil society across the globe and she instructed all of us in the State Department and all our overseas posts to treat civil society as strategic partners. Partnering with opinion leaders from civil society as well as government -- as well as building bridges among ethnic and religious groups, is the way to change a culture – from fear and negative stereotyping to acceptance and understanding, from narrow mindedness to an embrace of diversity, from hate to tolerance.

So while I fight anti-Semitism, I am also aware that hate is hate. Nothing justifies it – not economic instability, not international events, not an isolated pastor burning a Koran.

Together, we must confront and combat the many forms of hatred in our world today. Where there is hatred born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire. Where there is hatred born of blindness, we must expose people to a larger world of ideas and reach out, especially to youth, so they can see beyond their immediate circumstances. Where there is hatred whipped up by irresponsible leaders, we must call them out and answer as strongly as we can – and make their message totally unacceptable to all people of conscience.