Russian election may stir anti-Semitic passions again

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Some say that the election of Vladimir Zhirinovsky would be the worst disaster because he makes no secret of his dislike for Jews, and his election would show that the tide of Russian anti-Semitism is high.

On the surface, the results of a recent American Jewish Committee survey seem to indicate there is nothing to worry about. The mass of Russians do not rank as highly anti-Semitic. When asked which ethnic groups deserve hostility, each of four groups is named by at least one out of five Russians: the Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Gypsies, and Baltic peoples.

The Jews are named as deserving hostility by fewer than one out of 20 Russians, only the Ukrainians and Russians ranking more favorably.

When asked to name groups that have "too much influence," only one out of 10 Russians point to Jews, while four out of 10 name the ethnic Caucasians. Only 5 percent say they would vote for political candidates who are openly anti-Semitic.

But that question is fundamentally flawed. As it stands, the question asks whether a political candidate's anti-Semitism would make that candidate more desirable. About 5 percent of Americans also have answered "yes" to that question. But at the same time, more than one-third of Americans have said that if they otherwise support a candidate because of his program, the candidate's anti-Semitism "wouldn't make any difference."

The survey shows there is very little difference between Zhirinovsky supporters and supporters of other Russian parties on anti-Semitic attitudes. There is just a 7 percent spread, for example, between the proportion of Zhirinovskyites and Yeltsinites who believe the Jews have too much influence — a small minority in both parties.

To draw from past experience, the majority of those who end up voting for Zhirinovsky will not do so because he is anti-Semitic, but they will go along with any anti-Semitic program he devises because "it won't make any difference to them."

And as the sophisticated analysts of the AJCommittee point out, "the large percentage of `don't know' responses to a number of items dealing with attitudes toward Jews points to a possible anti-Jewish potential."

Over one-third of the Russians say they "don't know" whether Jews have too much influence. If they support Zhirinovsky for other reasons, it would certainly be easy for the "don't knows" to go along with Zhirinovsky's anti-Semitism.

The same would apply to Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party, which is apparently leading the field at the moment. There are still many who refer to opponents of Soviet ideology as "cold warriors" rather than "human rights activists," which most of them were. And the fact remains that Jews and Jewish institutions were among the most notably brutalized victims of the old Communist leadership.

More important than whether Russians show up with anti-Semitic attitudes is that three-quarters of them are either worried or uncertain about their future, and two-thirds think Russia is "going in the wrong direction." If, in their hopelessness, they elect leaders who also have an anti-Semitic agenda to which so many Russians are indifferent, then there could be serious trouble — for Israel as well as Russian Jews. Even if neither Zhirinovsky nor Zyuganov wins, they could be more influential than ever in a fevered and splintered Russia.

San Francisco Jews remember how crucial it once was to get the U.S. government to press the Soviet Union on behalf of Soviet Jews. Russia will still need American and Western help. We must gear up again to alert our public officials to apply such pressure again at the first sign of official human rights problems after the election.