Anti-Semitism in former USSR harder to spot but still growing

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MOSCOW — Dealing with the situation in the former Soviet Union used to be relatively simple.

Few doubted the discrimination and peril faced by Soviet Jews, and the goal of Jews worldwide was to help as many as possible emigrate.

In the chaos of the post-Soviet days, however, the causes, solutions and even the extent of anti-Semitism in the former USSR are all up for debate.

The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews has just released a report, "Anti-Semitism in the Former Soviet Union, 1995-1997," that it hopes will clarify the issue.

The 250-page report contains chapters on anti-Semitism and human rights abuses in 12 of the former Soviet republics where sizable Jewish populations exist. Lithuania, Estonia and Armenia are excluded.

The report finds that while Jews, in general, now enjoy freedom to emigrate and freedom of religious expression, anti-Semitic acts are still widespread.

Despite official rhetoric, the report maintains, governments in the former Soviet Union fail to combat anti-Semitism effectively; in some cases, they encourage it.

Anti-Semitism and other human rights violations are difficult to prosecute because laws are unevenly enforced, the report notes, adding that the Clinton administration should press governments in the former Soviet Union to budget resources for education and to link trade policy to improved human rights in these areas.

The UCSJ decided to undertake the project, said the group's president, Yosef Abramowitz, because it believed that neither American Jewish leaders nor the U.S. government were taking anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union "seriously enough."

The group also hopes to pressure Congress to keep refugee slots open for Jews who want to emigrate from the former Soviet Union and to provide evidence for those currently seeking asylum in the United States.

The just-published report documents anti-Semitic and human-rights abuses, describing extremist groups, crimes against individuals, anti-Semitic statements by political leaders, attacks on Jewish communal property and anti-Semitic publications that have arisen during the past few years.

The report quotes one Western expert that "the threat of anti-Semitism in the post-Soviet states is greater today than at many points in the last decade."

Local Jewish activists who are involved in monitoring anti-Semitism, however, differ over the accuracy of the UCSJ's assessment.

"Anti-Semitism still remains the major concern of Russian Jews," said Mark Krasnoselsky, head of the Center for Monitoring Anti-Semitism of the Va'ad, the umbrella group for Jewish organizations in Russia.

According to President Boris Yeltsin's Judicial Chamber on Information Disputes, in Russia alone about 130 periodicals regularly print ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic articles.

But Alexander Osovtsov, executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, disagreed, saying the situation requires a "more balanced, well-founded approach."

According to Osovtsov, the increased number of anti-Semitic publications does not reflect a rise in anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union.

"What it does illustrate is the absence of any kind of censorship we used to have over decades."

The lifting of censorship, he said, "resulted in the emergence of openly anti-Semitic newspapers and groups which we didn't have just a few years ago."

Other reports on the situation also appear to contradict the UCSJ report's largely dire tone.

According to the section on Russia in the American Jewish Committee's world report on anti-Semitism, which will be released later this summer: "It is encouraging that the increased number of individuals of Jewish extraction prominent in [Russian] government and commercial circles has not brought about a higher level of popular prejudice."

And while anti-Semitism remains one of the reasons behind Jewish emigration from Russia, a leading Russian Jewish sociologist maintains that "its importance for emigration today is much less than it was just five years ago."

Vladimir Shapiro of the Jewish Research Center, an affiliate of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said an increasing number of Jews are leaving the country to reunite with relatives who left earlier.

Furthermore, public opinion surveys, such as last year's survey of the Russian population by the AJCommittee, said hostility toward Jews in Russia appears to be lower than enmity toward other ethnic groups such as people from the Caucasus.

There are two major reasons for the disagreements on the subject of anti-Semitism.

The first is that, ironically, in some ways it was easier to monitor anti-Semitism in the state-sponsored and controlled USSR than it is in the post-Soviet era.

"The situation is more complex that it might appear on the surface," said Michael Chlenov, president of the Va'ad.

"It's much more difficult to watch 15 countries than it is to watch one bad monolith," agreed the UCSJ's Abramowitz.

The UCSJ report points out, for example, that the situation is particularly perilous in three of the former USSR republics: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Belarus.

The second reason for disagreement is that the root causes of current anti-Jewish sentiment are up for debate.

For his part, Chlenov said, "I don't think state anti-Semitism is present in any of the post-Soviet countries, while popular prejudices against the Jewish minority have a relatively limited base within society."

The UCSJ report, however, offers examples not only of grassroots anti-Semitism, but also of communities whose local officials have discriminated against Jewish residents.

One such community is the central Russian city of Orel. The communist-dominated administrations of the city and the region are connected to extremist political movements.

Semyon Livshitz, a local Jewish leader, said Jews in Orel fear that "things might change for the worse."

"Given that the present situation in Orel reminds [us] of the recent days of Soviet rule, many Jews are scared of expressing themselves as Jews," Livshitz said.

"The threat to Russian Jews is still there," said Yuri Stern, a former Soviet dissident and now a member of the Israeli Knesset. "Some political forces that can make use of the long-established anti-Semitic tradition are present on the political arena."