Russias Frank Sinatra protests anti-Semitic remarks

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MOSCOW — A Jewish member of the Russian parliament is trying to force his colleagues to punish a Communist lawmaker for making anti-Semitic remarks.

Yosef Kobzon walked out of a session of the Duma last week, saying he would not return until Albert Makashov was reproached.

Kobzon, a popular singer who is often referred to as "Russia's Frank Sinatra," was elected to the Duma, the parliament's lower house last year. Given his fame, Kobzon's action attracted media attention here while also stirring debate about the efficacy of his personal protest.

"His behavior does not make any practical sense," said Pyotr Shelisch, a Jewish member of the liberal Yabloko faction. "I don't think this can be a boost to the debate" on anti-Semitism in parliament.

But other Jewish leaders hailed Kobzon after he walked out of the Duma on Wednesday of last week.

"It was exemplary behavior," said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow. "I wish other liberals followed him."

The Communist-dominated Duma last month failed on two occasions to censure Makashov, who has been making anti-Semitic remarks at public rallies and in interviews with the media.

Kobzon, an independent lawmaker, was the first member of the Duma to criticize Makashov after he made anti-Semitic remarks at a rally in October. Kobzon was also a signatory to a letter sent by a small group of legislators to the Russian prosecutor general demanding an investigation of Makashov's remarks under a law that prohibits inciting racial and ethnic strife.

Kobzon said the lack of an adequate response from the prosecutor's office, which has not brought any charges against Makashov, as well as the broad support Makashov received in the Duma, prompted his walkout.

"I can't sit in the same room with Makashov and those holding views similar to his," Kobzon told the Duma before leaving.

A group of liberal lawmakers met Kobzon's statement with a standing ovation.

Kobzon, 61, retired from performing last year and easily won a seat representing a tiny Siberian district that borders Mongolia.

Born into poverty in Ukraine, Kobzon began his artistic career 40 years ago while in the Soviet Army, singing patriotic Soviet hymns and Jewish folk songs. He later became one of the most popular — and wealthiest — performers in the country.

Kobzon, whose rich baritone voice used to bring Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to tears at public functions, was a household name for generations of Russian music lovers.

Jewish songs in Russian, Yiddish and, more recently, Hebrew have become an important part of the singer's repertoire.

Kobzon said anti-Semitism was never a problem for him personally, but that after he publicly condemned Makashov in October, he was regularly targeted by supporters of the Communist legislator who would taunt Kobzon with anti-Semitic insults outside the Duma.

"I have not heard so many insults in my entire life as I have heard lately," Kobzon said, adding that part of Russian society is riddled with anti-Semitism. Makashov's disease "has unfortunately penetrated deeply into society."