Russian envoy, Jewish activist dialogue at JCRC event

Speaking in San Francisco last week, two prominent figures in Russian-Jewish relations painted slightly different pictures of the future. One saw nothing but blue skies ahead, while the other saw storm clouds gathering.

Featuring Yury Popov, the Russian consul general, and Pnina Levermore, the executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, the discussion was called both a "historic first" and a "lovefest."

But if the brief dialogue during the Jewish Community Relations Council's monthly board meeting afforded little time for the guest speakers to state their viewpoints, it offered plenty of lingering food for thought.

While Popov waxed optimistic, saying, "There is no official anti-Semitism" in Russia today, Levermore saw the situation in a different light. Isolated outbreaks of anti-Semitism are occurring in regional outposts, she said, and the government appears to be powerless to stop them.

After an introduction by Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC, who said the event represented a "historic opportunity to build bridges," the podium was turned over to Popov.

Visibly nervous, the consul general apologized for not having a speech prepared and vowed to speak "from the heart."

Popov began his talk by noting the recent developments of last year, when the BACJRR held its annual reception inside the Russian Consulate.

"I am much more qualified to speak about the situation of Russian Jews living here than I am about Jews living in the [former] Soviet Union. But I don't think there is as much of a problem as there was in the past."

Popov urged JCRC board members to consider the plight of all Russian citizenry, along with that of Russian Jews.

"I think it's beneficial to talk about all of the problems facing Russia, not just anti-Semitism," Popov said. "There are many difficult situations in Russia, and focusing on just one of them misses the point."

Levermore promptly agreed with most of Popov's comments. It was what was left unsaid, however, that Levermore took issue with.

"Our ability to engage in dialogue really shows how far we've come," she said, as Popov nodded his head in agreement. "Russia's come a remarkable distance in just over 10 years, and that deserves to be noted.

"There seems to be a new willingness on the part of the Russian government to address religious and ethnic divisions. One of the most promising signs of the evolving Russian democracy is the ability of ethnic groups to rediscover their cultural ties."

Levermore agreed with Popov's statement that Russia has no "official anti-Semitism," and cited the Russian government's efforts to regulate the activities of the National Unity Party, an anti-Semitic group that wears Nazi regalia.

But in an interview following the dialogue, she expressed some reservations.

After moderator Daniel Grossman, the JCRC president, asked the board members if they had any questions, Levermore said she "was surprised" that there weren't any, "because I think there were a lot issues that weren't addressed."

While she restated her opinion that Popov painted an accurate picture, she felt there were some details that were left out.

"There is no official anti-Semitism is Russia, that's true," Levermore said. "But that misses the very real issue that most of the ant-Semitism comes from regional sources, and not the national government."

How that manifests itself, according to Levermore, is that there are regions of Russia inherently more hospitable to groups such as the Russian National Unity Party. She mentioned the province of Krasnodar, whose governor, Nikolai Kondratenko, has the reputation of being virulently anti-Semitic.

Levermore quoted from a recent Kondratenko speech that accused prominent Jews throughout Russian history of "blowing up Orthodox churches, starving our mothers and fathers to death and destroying our ancestors in the gulag."

"He's very popular in his region — something which the Russian government has no control over," Levermore said.

Responding to Popov's plea that the concern for Soviet Jewry be viewed in a larger context, Levermore agreed — albeit for different reasons.

Noting the economic peril facing the country, Levermore said that "the well-being of Jews can't be seen independent of the environment.

"In the [former] Soviet Union, as well as in other parts of the world, during times of economic misery, people look for scapegoats. And given the current economy, and given Russia's history, that spells trouble for the Jews."