Is Anti-Semitism About to Engulf Russia? // The war, the Jews and the future

For much of modern Russian history, anti-Semitism has hardly been restrained. From the pogroms under the czars to the anti-Jewish policies of the Soviet Union to the dangerous undercurrents of the initial post-Soviet era, Jews felt oppressed and threatened.
All of which made Vladimir Putin such a shock for the Jews. After he came to power in 1999, they began to feel more comfortable in Russia than ever before. Jewish cultural institutions flourished, and Putin showed a personal interest in a way that no other Russian leader had. He was also friendly towards Israel and became the first Russian leader, in any of its previous incarnations, to visit it.
That friendliness may have been due to his early life. Two of his closest friends from his youth, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, were Jewish. (Under Putin they became oligarchs, making billions in the construction industry.) Putin’s personal assessment of Jews was positive, so the government, which became more and more a reflection of Putin himself, was friendly or at least benign towards them.
However, there has been concern in recent months that that may be changing. Media reports have pointed to various incidents as signs that the genie of anti-Semitism has been released from the bottle. The war with Ukraine has created many stresses in Russian life, and an anti-Semitic pushback may be one of them. But how far will it go?

Many Jews leaving the country
One of the triggers for recent anti-Semitic rhetoric may be the mass exodus to Israel. So far this year, around 20,000 Jews have left Russia for Israel. Against the backdrop of the Ukrainian war, which involves Russia fighting a country headed by the Jewish Volodymyr Zelensky, that kind of migration may be seen as unpatriotic. Whether that will increase as people try to avoid the conscription orders issued by the Kremlin is still unclear, but if it does, it could spark even more anti-Jewish sentiment.
Several prominent Jewish oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, have left the country as well. Their prominence attracts even more attention.
Conflicts with Israel have also put Jews in the spotlight. After Israeli officials criticized the war with Ukraine (even though Israel’s support for Ukraine has been notably tepid), the Kremlin moved to shut down the Russian offices of the Jewish Agency, which helps people immigrate to Israel. The public spat resulted in a focus on Jews in general.
Jews have often served as handy scapegoats in many countries when economic, political, military or social pressures are present. Russia is currently undergoing all of these things, so perhaps it is unsurprising that anti-Semitic speech has increased.

Anti-Semitic undercurrents
How much worse has it really gotten?
There has been some prominent use of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Most famously, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked in May how he could claim that the war in Ukraine was for the purpose of “de-Nazifying” the country if its president was Jewish. He responded, “I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood. [That Zelensky is Jewish] means absolutely nothing. Wise Jewish people say that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews.”


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