Antisemitism rears again as Russia seeks scapegoats for its dismal war

Associated Press
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the world’s only Jewish head of state other than the president of Israel.

There is little new in Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s egregious unearthing of the long-discredited theory that Adolf Hitler had Jewish ancestry, followed by a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s reported allegation that Israelis were “practically shoulder to shoulder” with militants of the ultranationalist, right-wing Azov Regiment in Ukraine. These statements constitute but the latest version of the long, shameful record of supporting antisemitism that has marked Russian governments for more than two centuries.

After the several partitions of Poland in the latter decades of the 18th century, the czars herded all but a few of their millions of Jewish subjects into what was termed the “Pale of Settlement.” Even fewer Jews were permitted to live in Moscow. Under czarist rule, Jews suffered from frequent pogroms, especially in the early 1880s. Perhaps the most infamous pogroms were those in Kishinev (now the Moldovan city of Chisinau) in 1903 and 1905. Many pogroms were carried out by a group called the Black Hundreds, with the knowledge, if not support, of the czarist government. 

It was also in 1903, under the czarist sponsorship, that the infamous forgery known as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was first published, while one of the last European blood libel cases was brought by an unfortunate Jew named Mendel Beilis in 1911. (The Beilis trial became the subject of Bernard Malamud’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Fixer.”)

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Jews soon found that they fared no better under the Soviets. Initially, many Jews joined the Communist Party, having been gulled into believing that the new Bolshevik state would finally free them from their centuries of czarist oppression. They were wrong. Jews were forced to drop all traces of their religious practices. Even when totally secular, they found themselves subject to discrimination in employment, education and housing. Indeed, shortly after the extent of the Holocaust became public knowledge after World War II, Joseph Stalin in 1953 engineered what he termed the “Doctor’s Plot.” Had he not died that year, Stalin would have unleashed a brutal purge against Jewish professionals akin to his Great Purge of the 1930s.

Stalin’s demise did not result in any real improvement in the lives of Soviet Jewry, however. To the contrary, as the Soviet Union increasingly marked Israel out as a target of its enmity, Soviet Jews found themselves under constant scrutiny for dual loyalties. Those who were outspoken Zionists such as Anatoly Shcharansky quickly found themselves thrown into Siberian and other noxious prisons.

During the twilight years of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin finally gave increasing numbers of Jews permission to emigrate to Israel or the United States. When the USSR collapsed, what had once been a trickle of Jewish migrants to Israel became a flood. Once again, the change in the nature of the state gave the 800,000 Jews who remained in Russia some hope that they no longer would be treated as second-class citizens.

That may still be the case. Thus far, there has been no widespread persecution of Jews. And it is noteworthy that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who long has counted several Jews among his close associates, has not added his voice to the new antisemitic chorus that has begun to emanate from Moscow. Nevertheless, it certainly has not gone unnoticed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a Jew; indeed, he is the world’s only Jewish head of state apart from the president of Israel. Moreover, Jews are serving in the Ukrainian military, fighting the Russians alongside their Christian countrymen and women.

Finally, Israel has inched closer to the Ukrainians. After desperately seeking to remain on the sidelines so as not to irritate Moscow — whose cooperation it needs in its effort to prevent Iran from supplying Hezbollah via Syria — Israel has joined the 40-nation contact group that is organizing the steady supply of arms to Kyiv. And indeed, some Israelis are working with Ukrainian forces, though not, as Moscow alleges, nationalist neo-Nazi groups.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to sputter, Moscow may be looking for a scapegoat. Who better to fill that role but the Jews? Lavrov and company are simply reverting to an age-old czarist pattern; it fits perfectly well with Russia’s longstanding mode of governance — that of an aggressive autocracy, ever ready to swallow its neighbors. Some things never change.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Antisemitism Israel-Russia relations Joseph Stalin Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian jews Sergey Lavrov Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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