Yeltsin to come down hard on anti-Semitism, extremism

MOSCOW — Russian President Boris Yeltsin promised this week to launch a "major offensive" against anti-Semitic and extremist statements.

And Russia's Justice Ministry has pledged to send parliament the draft of a new bill against political extremism and anti-Semitism.

Experts believe that such a bill has little chance of passing the Communist- and nationalist-dominated parliament, but Yeltsin's statement could indicate that he intends to enact the law by presidential decree.

The actions come after a slew of anti-Semitic incidents in Russia in the past three months placed the issue onto Yeltsin's agenda.

"In this law, we will have to get tough on these issues and toward all those people, from government representatives to ordinary citizens," who reflect anti-Semitic and extremist ideas, Yeltsin said in his first television interview in four months.

Russia's criminal code prohibits inciting racial and religious hatred, but the laws have rarely been applied.

This fall, the Kremlin vowed to fight political extremism and ultranationalism in response to earlier anti-Semitic statements by Communist lawmakers. No concrete actions have been taken, however.

Yeltsin's vow to "get tough" came a week after Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov sent a letter to the Justice Ministry in which he blamed the "spread of Zionism" for the collapse of the Russian economy and the poverty of the ethnic Russian population.

But at the same time, Zyuganov said he was condemning anti-Semitism, drawing a distinction between Jews and Zionism, which he called "a blood relative of fascism."

The manifesto was released in response to a request from Yeltsin's administration and the Justice Ministry, which wanted to clarify the Communist Party's position on anti-Semitism.

In the document, Zyuganov said the only difference between Zionism and Nazism is that Hitler attempted to subjugate the world openly, while Zionists, "appearing under the mask of Jewish nationalism, act secretly."

Zyuganov wrote that, according to his party, Jews in Russia have three options: Leave the country, live in Russia as members of the Jewish community while considering Russia their "only motherland," or assimilate into the ethnic Russian population or any other ethnicity living in Russia.

Jews in Russia certainly didn't believe his distinctions.

The manifesto "declares anti-Semitism as the official policy of the Russian Communist Party," said Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt. "No one is going to question anymore what ideology this party represents."

Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va'ad, an umbrella group of Russian Jewish organizations, said, "Zyuganov has shown the most ugly prejudices of anti-Semitic mythology."

During the years of Soviet rule, authorities often drew the same distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that Zyuganov made in the manifesto.

From the late 1940s on, the Soviet propaganda machine worked hard to spread the myth of a worldwide Zionist plot. The campaign was especially intense after 1967, when the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Israel.

The situation changed in the late 1980s, during the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev. Still, Zionism remains a topic to avoid for many Russian media outlets, and recent opinion surveys showed that the majority of Russians do not have an understanding of Zionism.

With all of this tension building, Russia's Jewish leaders are grappling with how best to ensure the Jewish community's safety.

In November, the governing board of the Russian Jewish Congress decided it would lobby the international community to halt contacts with Russia's Communist Party because of its failure to censure a member of Parliament, Albert Makashov, who made several public anti-Semitic statements this fall.

But some members of the umbrella group are saying that the move does not go far enough, while others believe the threat of anti-Semitism has been overstated.

Most leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress, which unites leading representatives of the business community, public figures and prominent rabbis, agree that the Russian Jewish leadership should carry out a low-profile political offensive against anti-Semitism.

"Our mission is not about loud public statements, but about pragmatic work inside and outside of Russia," Yevgeny Satanovsky, a member of the group's board, said after the closed meeting.

It was with this goal in mind that a majority of participants at the meeting supported the initiative of Vladimir Goussinsky, the group's president, to ask the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament and legislative assemblies of major European nations to halt all contact with the 121 Communist and nationalist lawmakers who rejected the censure resolution, according to Goldschmidt, a board member.

But some board members are questioning what positive impact these moves will have on Russian Jews.

"I don't feel that everything that could have been done was done," said Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief emissary of the Lubavitch movement in Russia. "All this activity doesn't reassure the Jewish population and doesn't change the minds of the people on the street."