The global rise in racism is a strategic weapon in Putin’s arsenal

It was only 30 years ago — December 31, 1991 — when the Russian Empire collapsed. To many, it may seem like ancient history, but not to the large population of Jews alive today in the U.S. who descended from Eastern Europe during Russian rule over 15 republics, including Ukraine. 

Those memories are painful for Jews whose grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to flee antisemitic persecution in the early 1900s during Pogroms — state-sponsored acts of extreme violence directed toward Jews and other minorities, many of whom were massacred. These onslaughts were carried out over several decades within the Russian Empire, resulting in 2 million Jews migrating to America’s shores.  

But these Russian-orchestrated atrocities neither started nor ended there. For centuries, a large proportion of Russians, including Ukrainians, have held unfavorable attitudes toward Jews. Official policies that oppressed, isolated, or forced assimilation of Russian Jews were systematically enacted at least since the 1500s. Fast forward to World War II, when 11 countries were invaded by the Nazis, with a mission to eradicate Jews and other “inferior races.” Attacks hit Ukraine especially hard, as it was home to the largest population of Jews in Russia — 1.5 million of them were murdered and another 800,000 displaced

These are not just historical realities to be pondered by scholars. Antisemitism remains alive and well right here on Main Street, USA, as evidenced by prejudicial attitudes and in isolated circumstances, physical assaults directed toward Jews. Even more alarming is the mounting anti-Jewish sentiment we are currently witnessing; from 2020 to 2021 alone, there was a 34 percent increase.  

Although this trend is concerning, Jewish persecution here is not and has never been as widespread or as terrible as the discrimination that people of color and LGBTQ communities have suffered. Jews have certainly faced obstacles and persecution in this country, but Jews have not encountered systemic barriers to opportunity, or pervasive discrimination in this country as have other minorities. Even after 400 years of “enlightenment” we have yet to reckon with deeply seated racism toward Black people, in particular. 

Why does all this need to be said in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Frankly, widespread illiteracy about the enduring nature of racism, antisemitism and other forms of hate-driven isms enables dictators to lay blame on groups of people for domestic failures and ostensible threats from neighboring nations. Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine exemplifies how dictators can derive power by weaponizing racism. He keenly observed the considerable uptick in prejudicial attitudes and actions here in the U.S. — his primary adversary — where racism is increasingly expressed openly in words, deeds, and even legislative acts. This state of affairs created fertile ground for his fictional narrative to take hold, wittingly claiming that the offensive will liberate Ukraine from the Nazi threat when, in reality, White supremacists make up only about 2 percent of the population, fewer than in the U.S.  

The cruel irony is, in the same way the Nazis invaded Russia and killed millions in WWII, Putin is indiscriminately targeting all Ukrainians — ostensibly to eradicate neo-Nazism from a highly diverse, democratic country led by a Jew. But it should be no surprise. History has repeatedly exposed the proclivity of dictators (and want-to-be dictators) to derive power by exploiting racism, a powerful political tool used by those who seek to marginalize and repress entire groups of people, subjugate others’ land, or even commit genocide to impose their own warped view of the world order.  

So now, unabated by increasing public tolerance for racism, history is allowed to repeat itself.  

Hatred and discrimination toward any group of people — Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ, Asians, Jews — tears at the very fiber of our society. It threatens our democracy, our national security and our standing in world affairs. Despite persistent warnings from our intelligence community, there is inertia in politicians and the public to confront the issue.  

It is incumbent upon all of us to confront head-on the role racism has played in this war as well as other conflicts, and the extent to which it has divided and weakened us over time as a country. Racism against any group is fundamentally destabilizing, and if we do not unreservedly push back against it, waning memories of these historical events and their significance open the opportunity for rising dictators to extinguish democratic societies. Even ours. 

Diana Fishbein, Ph.D. is the co-director of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives and a senior scientist in the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Tags Antisemitism Antisemitism in Europe Antisemitism in the United States Politics of the United States Racism in the United States Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin white nationalists

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