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Russia: Jewish Community Leaders Concerned About Anti-Semitism

Washington, 14 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Jewish community leaders gathered in Washington last week to express their fears about recent anti-Semitic incidents in Russia.

Moderator Paul Goble, Communications Director at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said "we at RFE/RL would prefer that we didn't have to have this discussion," which comes in the wake of anti-Semitic comments by Russian Duma member Albert Makashov.

Participants in the seminar, sponsored by RFE/RL, expressed their fears that Makashov's statements may spark a wave of hate crimes against Jews. Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said Makashov has "waged a highly publicized hate campaign against Jews, culminating in death threats and calls for quotas on the number of Jews in Russian industry, media, and government, and in the aftermath of the devaluation of the Russian ruble, the General laid full blame at the feet of the Jews."

Naftalin went on to say that while Makashov's actions are alarming, the Russian Duma's response has been even more frightening. "On November 4, the Duma officially endorsed Makashov and his hate-filled rhetoric, by voting to defeat a resolution of censure," he said.

Participants also mourned the shooting death of democracy advocate and Duma member Galina Starovoitova. Goble said: "One of the people who led the effort to denounce Makashov and all that he stands for was Galina Starovoitova, who was assassinated, as you know, on the streets of St. Petersburg several weeks ago."

Naftalin, just returned from a trip to Russia, described several recent possible hate crimes. He said: "Two Jewish brothers were murdered in Nalchik, and we are investigating the circumstances. Alexander Lokshin, a 35-year-old Jewish engineer, was murdered in Moscow on November 20. Jewish leaders in Borovichi have been the target of mail and telephone death threats from fascist youth groups."

Naftalin added, "I must report to you that the consequent level of direct physical and political threat to Jews has grown in the past two months to a level not seen by our activists and monitors there since the collapse of the USSR."

The problems have been exacerbated by Russia's financial crisis, said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the director of European Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. In a time of severe economic dislocation, he said, many local political leaders are discovering they can gain power by blaming hard times on the Jews.

Naftalin added that the hard times may be driving Russia away from democracy. He said that the West views Russia as an emerging democracy. "If so, say the communist and fascist leaders, who already control the Parliament and many provinces, the cold, starving, and unemployed workers have had enough of democracy," said Naftalin.

Lest the picture seem too dark, Rabbi Baker pointed out a few positive developments. He said, "In less than a decade, we have seen, it must be noted, a remarkable renaissance of Jewish life in Russia. In spite of the fact of significant and steady Jewish emigration, Jewish religious, communal, social, and cultural institutions continue to grow."

Baker added that Makashov's anti-Semitic comments have had no clear impact yet. He said that while more Russian Jews have begun inquiring about emigration in recent months, they have been prompted more by the deteriorating economy than by anti-Semitism.

Baker said: "There's a frequently-told joke in the Jewish communal world, about the telegram that is sent to all of the Jewish community offices. It reads something to the effect of, 'Start worrying now, details to follow.' And it may not be out of place in talking about the current situation, particularly in examining events in Russia, to make reference to this."

The seminar participants called on Western governments to champion the cause of human rights in the former Soviet Union. Continued support, they said, would give democratic leaders the power to stem the tide of fascism and anti-Semitism.