Yeltsin has failed to stem upsurge of anti-Semitism

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For those of you who support the re-election of incumbent President Boris Yeltsin, just remember his track record these past few years.

He and his administration have evinced no response to the unleashing of anti-Semitism. His human rights record is tarnished by the Chechen debacle — especially his appointment of fascist Alexander Nevsorov as his propagandist during the invasion. And his inability to gain the support of any significant leadership within the country has resulted in discontent and near-anarchy on Russia's streets.

With soaring inflation, the rise of the Russian mafia and mob rule and a crumbling welfare infrastructure, it is not surprising that Russians are wary of continuing Yeltsin's reforms.

If Yeltsin is to succeed in the second-round runoff elections next month, he must gain the support of the nondemocratic nationalists. Yet a coalition between Yeltsin and the nationalists could result in an extremely dangerous situation for Russia's Jews.

The anti-Semitism and racism of the nationalists is well-known and widespread — it is almost impossible to ignore the distribution of hate literature such as "Mein Kampf" and "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is difficult not to see the overtly anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas scrawled on apartment buildings throughout Russia's cities. It is hard not to hear the appeals of Russia's Jews for their security and welfare.

And what has Yeltsin done to assuage the very real fears of Russia's Jewish community? Profound silence and inaction.

Human rights observers fear a return to various state restrictions on freedoms — such as limitations on emigration — should Yeltsin kowtow to the nationalists. Just weeks ago, a new law on state secrecy was introduced making it easy, once again, for a spiteful bureaucrat to deny exit visas to Jews in positions of responsibility. As a result, the relatively low number of refuseniks today could well increase in the future. And the Yeltsin government has pulled licenses for several Jewish Agency offices in Russia that encourage emigration, claiming the agency was violating local laws.

If one argues that Yeltsin is impotent, that he does not have the support of the government or of key Russian leaders — that he should therefore not be held responsible for the enormous groundswell of hatred towards Jews and other minorities during his presidency — then who is responsible? Who should be held accountable? To whom should the Russian Jewish community turn for support and protection? With whom can America's leadership negotiate for effective change in Russia?

The Bay Area Jewish community's response to the needs of Jews in the former Soviet Union stems from 1967, when the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal (then "on Soviet Jewry") was formed. Its leadership mobilized the community to stand up for Jews in the then-Soviet Union. Many of us remember the days of picketing the Soviet consulate, twinning with a bar-bat mitzvah child of a refusenik, writing letters of protest, shouting "Let My People Go" and "We Are One".

Today the issue has slid from the communal agenda, perhaps because almost all Jews who want to emigrate can. But the fact is that the majority of Russian Jews are not planning to leave — many are elderly, many fear the unknown of Israel, many simply do not see the threat of anti-Semitism around them and many hope that the cloud of uncertainty will soon pass over.

So what are we supposed to do for the hundreds of thousands remaining? Leave them on their own, isolated and unprotected? Or are we, the American Jewish community, once more to take responsibility and lend a hand, connecting ourselves again with our family in Russia? The choice is ours.

Please God, let us hope the situation facing Russia's Jews will not require us to return to the days of demonstrations and hunger strikes. But there is so much we can and must do to help Jews in the former Soviet Union secure their well-being. The Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal once again invites you to become involved in this vital mission. We cannot turn our backs on them now.

Whatever happens after these elections, we must remain vigilant. Will anti-Semitism remain unchecked? Will Jewish communities continue to organize and grow? Will emigration continue? Will international organizations, such as the Jewish Agency and the BACJRR, be permitted to operate in Russia? At best the scenario is uncertain.

Yeltsin may well be the better of the two candidates in the coming election, but that does not mean we should support him at any price. It would be unrealistic to expect that, when Russians return to the ballot box next month, they will be considering the fate of Russia's Jews. But I do expect that our community will be ready to provide Russia's Jews with whatever support and resources are needed.