Russia must confront its old hatreds

“The past is not dead,” wrote novelist William Faulkner. “In fact, it’s not even past.”

Tragically, those words still ring true when it comes to anti-Semitic violence in the former Soviet Union.

As a recent attack in Moscow’s Bronnaya Synagogue shows, anti-Jewish hatred is alive and well in that part of the world. On Jan. 11, a knife-wielding attacker entered the sanctuary shouting “I want to kill Jews,” and then stabbed eight Jewish worshippers. Though the suspect was arrested, two days later a copycat criminal attacked Jews in a Rostov-on-Don synagogue.

What’s going on? According to Pnina Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, ethnic violence is on the rise in Russia despite tough laws on the books and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated statements of good will toward Russia’s Jews.

“It’s happening more and more often,” says Levermore. “Since the collapse of the USSR, there’s been a shrinking of Russian power in the world. The neo-Nazis there think it’s somebody’s fault.”

We agree with her analysis and would agree with her that hatred of Jews is an traditional feature of Russian culture. It goes back centuries, flourishing in the Czarist era and persisting into modern times.

Obviously, we condemn those attacks in the strongest possible terms. More importantly, we urge the Russian government to put real teeth in the enforcement of its own laws and start cracking down on hate groups and individuals.

We are realistic. We know hatred and anti-Semitism will not easily be eradicated in the former Soviet Union: It is too ingrained as a cultural norm. But the Putin government can and must wield a heavy stick to at least make the haters think twice before they resort to violence.

Beyond the Russian response, we also urge Russia’s allies in the West, including and especially the United States, to consider tying future bilateral relations to progress on this front. America can never turn a blind eye to anti-Semitic violence.

As Levermore says, “The difference between them and us is that there is an unambiguous message sent out that hate is not tolerated here.” Solutions there, she adds, must come “from the top down and the bottom up.”

Since the fall of communism, Jewish life in Russia began to flourish like never before. We cannot allow that nation to regress. Rather, it is incumbent upon the world Jewish community to help vouchsafe the Jews of Russia.

After all, it could have been us in that Moscow synagogue.