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As Vladimir Putin’s war rages for the fifth month in Ukraine and repression stifles civil liberties at home, Russian Jews fear they will soon become targets of the Kremlin.
Jews fled Russia en masse; those who remained are terrified of directly criticizing the war, which Putin cynically claimed to have launched to “denazify” Ukraine.
“In our congregation we don’t talk about any political issues,” said a Moscow rabbi who requested anonymity. He added that after a 2011 crackdown on protests linked to Putin’s re-election, he ordered politics to stay out of his synagogue, which has about 300 members.
“All the words we speak publicly [about the war] can be used against us as a Jewish community,” the rabbi said.
Vladimir Khanin, an associate professor at Israel’s Ariel University and an expert on the Russian Jewish diaspora, said he estimates that about a third of Jews living in Russia are currently “actively” expressing their opposition to the war; most “are not happy” with the situation, but are too scared to speak out. He estimates that only 10-15% of Jews in Russia support the war — in part because 70% of Russian Jews live in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and most are “more liberal, more modernized” and better educated than the average Russian, he said.
Unlike Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill, whom the EU was considering sanctioning for his support of Putin’s war, Jewish religious figures have been more critical. Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi who was previously known to be friends with Putin, called for “peace” and offered to mediate in the conflict. Other prominent Jewish figures have made similar calls, including Federation of Jewish Communities chairman Alexander Boroda.
Meanwhile, Chief Rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt, under pressure from the authorities to support the war, fled the country two weeks after the start of the conflict. He now lives in exile in Israel and has said he has no intention of returning to Russia, although he will remain in his post.
The longer Putin’s war drags on, the more likely he is to look for scapegoats, and Russian Jews are only too aware that the lesson of their country’s bloody pogrom history is that these scapegoats can often end up being them. In the most notorious case, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 sparked a wave of anti-Semitic mob violence.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a taste of what might come, comparing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Adolf Hitler, who he said “also had Jewish blood.” Putin later backtracked on those comments, offering a rare personal apology to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, but Russian Jews have been warned.
“Due to the constant negative attitude towards us, hatred…we are used to keeping quiet, adapting to the current government and [we] always keep a foreign passport handy,” said a 23-year-old Jewish woman from Derbent, southern Russia, who works in retail (she asked that her name not be used). “You never know when you’ll have to run again,” she added. “We understand that none of us are really protected.”
While academics and pollsters say life for Jews in Russia has improved since the fall of the USSR in 1991, it is starting from a low base. In a Levada Center poll, for example, 45% of Russians said they had a positive attitude toward Jews in 2021, up from 22% in 2010. Russians said Jews were the minority group they were most concerned about. comfortable being around – but only 11% said they would be willing to have a Jewish friend, down from 3% in 2010.
Ilya Yablokov, a professor of digital media at Britain’s University of Sheffield who has written about anti-Semitism in Russia, said anti-Jewish xenophobia could erupt at any time if the Kremlin wanted it to.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, the brutal anti-Semitism of politicians was a reaction to Russia’s social polarization,” Yablokov said. “In the 2000s things improved economically, so the level of anti-Semitism went down,” he continued, with the Kremlin targeting other minority groups and making the West its No. 1 boogeyman.
But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and retaliatory sanctions from the West have Russian Jews fearing they will once again be targeted by the Kremlin.
“It’s back to the 1990s,” Khanin said, referring to a time when anti-Semitic conspiracy theories proliferated and far-right extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky hurled vitriol at Jews.
Start from nothing
Fearing the writing on the wall and horrified by the war, many Russian Jews seek to flee the country.
In response, Israel has stepped up its specialized diaspora immigration program, sometimes known as Aliyah, which grants citizenship to those who can prove their relatives are Jewish up to the third generation. Wait times at local consulates have been reduced from nine months to a few weeks, according to an Israeli government official involved in the immigration process, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Tel Aviv also allowed refugees to apply for citizenship after arriving in Israel, which the official said he chose for “a large majority”.
An estimated 165,000 Jews lived in Russia in 2019, making it the sixth largest Jewish community outside of Israel at the time. In the first three months since Putin launched the February 24 invasion, around 10,000 of them were granted Israeli citizenship, the official said, compared to just 800 in as many months before.
But adjusting to life in Israel comes with new challenges.
Olga Bakushinskaya, a 56-year-old Russian journalist who moved to Israel in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, started a Facebook group to help Russian newcomers integrate into the country in 2016. She has said requests for help had skyrocketed in recent months. , with more than 3,000 Russians (and Ukrainians) joining the group since February – mostly middle-class and middle-aged parents with children, who worked in academia or computer programming.
“Many didn’t make any plans and just came,” Bakushinskaya said, adding that Russians had no idea of the practicalities of life in Israel. “We have helped hundreds of people who come to see us every week.”
Bakushinskaya said she now spends up to three hours a day helping newcomers, whether it’s making friends, paying rent or enrolling their children in school. The group has also held webinars on topics such as opening bank accounts.
While many Israelis have welcomed the new arrivals, not everyone is so friendly. Bakushinskaya said she helps Russians who have been greeted with suspicion by some older Israelis who emigrated from Russia in the 1990s, who label them “non-Jews” since most are secular, and clash with those who criticize Israel.
Artem Budikov, a 29-year-old Moscow-born and raised actor with a Jewish mother, left Russia for Israel on May 9. Without close ties to his new homeland, Budikov, who has said he will not consider himself deeply religious, has been living with a distant childhood friend since his arrival. He said he received a monthly allowance of around €700 from the Israeli government, as well as subsidized Hebrew lessons, and was now looking for work.
Budikov said he made the decision to leave Russia the day after Putin announced his “special operation” in Ukraine. “It made no sense in my head how this was possible and I didn’t understand how I could continue to work with my mouth closed,” Budikov said. It took him a few weeks to save the €900 he needed to buy his plane ticket.
He gives what will be his last performance of his favorite play, “Le Tartuffe” by Molière, in a theater in Moscow, then goes directly to the airport, where he flies to Sri Lanka, then to Israel.
“No one knew I was [acting in] my last piece,” Budikov said. “It was very hard psychologically… when we took off, I was alone in my row [on the plane] and I just started crying – and I cried until I fell asleep.