Jewish life in the post-Soviet countries: review of the most important developments

Introductory word:  Why is this project?

 The more time passes since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the more difficult it is to consider the independent states that emerged as the wreckage of the  social and cultural space. The processes taking place in Turkmenistan, Lithuania, Ukraine, Azerbaijan cannot be reduced to a common denominator. The Baltic countries, Ukraine and, to a large extent Moldova are slowly but steadily integrated into the European civilization space. They are more likely to be considered as East European, rather than in the post-Soviet context.  Russia and other states failed to escape from Russia’s political and economic attraction, successfully build a peculiar Soviet-era version of an authoritarian kleptocratic model. Central Asian states are increasingly drawn into the orbit of China's influence.

  True, throughout the world, where the post-Soviet space is no exception, the Jewish diaspora demonstrates a high level of inter-communal solidarity. Consistent efforts are being made to preserve the existing ones and to establish new ties. Regional international organizations are active. The specific Jewish community of the former Soviet Union united not only by religion but also by the language and culture, as well as by a considerable degree of social origin and the commonality of historical destiny, preserved for a long time the relative unity of self-consciousness. The leaders and key activists together survived the history of underground activity in Soviet times and community rebirth.  Created thirty years ago, VAAD of the USSR, having survived structural transformations and organically integrated into the system of the world diaspora, under the name of the Eurasian Jewish Congress until recently, effectively continued to function as the international confederation of Jewish communities. The members of the Union, Sochnut, Khabar, who have arrived in the former Soviet Union, have created a network of unified structures to provide services to the Jewish population, which has adopted in the post-Soviet space forms that fundamentally differ from those existing in other regions. Researchers and students involved in Judaism from around the Russian-speaking area each year gathered in Moscow at the conference and school of the Center "Sefer." Accustomed to "thick" Soviet literary and artistic magazines, the intelligentsia in different countries with the same pleasure read "Lechaim." The Jewish News Agency, booknik, and other similar sites created and maintained a single information space in an online mode.

However, over time, it became apparent that centrifugal trends are gaining momentum. The centralized hierarchical system of organizing Jewish infrastructure began to go back to the past. The younger generation in Georgia or Lithuania already does not have sufficient Russian language to continue to remain in a single Jewish information space that is natural for their parents. The Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS became more and more a nominal association, and Dnipropetrovsk's "Menorah" was a serious competition between Moscow's Maryina Roschea in an attempt to fulfill the symbolic role of "post-Soviet Brooklyn." Kyiv and Lviv students no longer need to come to Moscow and St. Petersburg to receive a high-quality education in the field of Judaism at the best humanitarian universities and in the Ukrainian language, and for academic internships in Israel it was quite realistic to go without the mediation of "Safar." The number of history teachers who visited Yad Vashem grew not through the Russian Holocaust Foundation, but through the Dnieper Tkum and the Kiev Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies. The hypothetical Holocaust Memorial Center "Babiy Yar," although not without the Russian trace itself, looks at Jerusalem, Berlin, and Washington as images for itself, not the Moscow Museum of Tolerance.

The catalyst for natural disintegration processes was Russia's assault of Ukraine in 2014, which contributed to breaking ties between the two largest communities in the post-Soviet space. Ukrainian Jews, along with the whole society, realized themselves as "Ukrainian," and no longer wanted to conceive of themselves as part of a single "post-Soviet," "Russian," or "Russian-speaking" Jewry. The oil that was fired by the Kremlin propaganda, actively using the "Jewish theme" and speculation on anti-Semitism to justify armed aggression and the occupation of a part of the territories.

Moreover, in Russia, such a character of social relations has developed for a long time, in which practically there were not any notable "players" ready to publicly speak with the alternative Kremlin discourse of the position. The desire to protect themselves against Kremlin propaganda for the civilized world of the Jewish communities was also expressed in the sharp decrease of ties with the Russian Jewish information environment. Such processes are actively taking place not only in the post-Soviet space itself, but also in the Russian-speaking Jewish environment in Israel, Germany, and North America.

  The Jewish News Agency ceased to exist. It was disgusting to read "Lechaim" with its propagandist anti-Ukrainian philippics in Kiev and in Kharkov. Books of the same name publishers are no longer brought from Moscow - and even traveling there for the conferences has practically stopped. The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress did not escape from the deep crisis of 2014-2017, having turned after seizure by scammers into the pro-Kremlin-based Israeli amulet (a public organization). The processes of the collapse of a single cultural, informational and infrastructural space have become irreversible.

Does it make any sense in this context to continue to follow the events in the Jewish community of the post-Soviet space? In our opinion - undoubtedly.

  The community of origin, culture, mentality, to a large extent, still remains a significant factor for the development of post-Soviet Jewry. You cannot give the community a bribe to the Kremlin propagandists who claim to express the opinion of Russian-speaking "compatriots." An alternative to the creeping propaganda of the "Russian world" with a slight Jewish accent is needed.

 The post-Soviet Jewish community needs to be integrated into the "big" world. In western civilization, to which the US and Israel belong. It is necessary to choose from the quagmire of the soviet marsh, in which the Kremlin elites are tightened - deeper, to the bottom, into the company of Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

  Jewish values have always been freedom, not slavery. Equality before the law and a fair trial, not tyranny. Pluralism, not dictatorship. Dignity, not humiliation.

These are the values of a modern Western civilization based on the foundation of biblical commandments. The Jewish community is an integral part of it.

  Our view of post-Soviet Jewish life is conditioned precisely by these values. At the center of our attention are human rights, culture, freedom, and support for Israel. Hopefully, our reviews will find the reader sharing our goals.

The victory of pluralism and democracy

The number one issue in the Jewish world in April 2019 was the election of the President of Ukraine, held on April 21. More precisely, of course, not the elections by itself, but the fact that a convincing victory (73% of the votes of voters) was won by an ethnic Jew, Vladimir Zelensky. This is the first case of the election of a Jew to be  the head of state in free general elections. Moreover, the Ukrainian government is currently has a prime minister  a Jew, Vladimir Groisman. In no other country in the world except, of course, Israel, it never was that the president and prime minister were Jews at the same time.

  During the election campaign, it was repeatedly stated that Igor Kolomoisky, a runaway oligarch, was  in acute conflict with the acting president, Petro Poroshenko, and a backer  for Zelensky. If Vladimir Zelensky never emphasized his ethnic origins (although he did not conceal it), and questions about religious belonging always answered evasively, Igor Kolomoisky positions himself as the leader of the Jewish community of Ukraine. He even claimed that he and his entourage persuaded Zelensky to observe the Sabbath.

  Given the ambiguity of Kolomoisky businessman's reputation, he is an ideal figure for anti-Semitic narrative. An oligarch charged with profiteering at the expense of two tens of millions of Ukrainians (Privat-Bank's depositors), a media tycoon, pushing his candidate to defend his country from national leader aggression.  However, despite the fierce public polemics, with the exception of a couple of statements marginal personalities like the shocking showman Dmitry Korchinsky, the "Jewish" theme and, moreover, anti-Semitic hints were generally not exploited in any way against against Zelensky.

  Of course, the main thing in these elections was that they passed calmly and in accordance with the highest standards of honesty and transparency. The free expression of will and civilized transit of power is an important conquest of Ukrainian democracy, for which five years ago many Ukrainians quite literally gave up their lives.

  Ukrainian elections clearly demonstrated the connection between democracy, on one hand, and tolerance, on the other. The free and multicultural Ukrainian nation passed this exam to be rated "excellent."

Immediately after the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Vladimir Zelensky, congratulated him on his victory, and invited the Jewish state to an official visit.

 Community life

 ● On April 7, 2019, commemorative events devoted to the anniversary of the 1903 pogrom were held in Chisinau, Moldova.

● In the Dnieper, Ukraine, the City Council considered the issue of separation at the Zaporozhye Cemetery of the site for the burial of members of the Jewish community in accordance with the rules and rituals of Judaism.

● David Rebi, the author of the textbook and one of the last carriers of the Crimean language, died in Simferopol.

*Krymchaks is a unique Turkic-speaking Jewish sub-ethnic group that was formed and historically residing in the Crimea. Most of the community was destroyed during the Holocaust. During the twentieth century, following the Crimean Karaites, the national intelligentsia of Crimea developed a model of self-identity, according to which the Krymchaks are a separate, original Turkic people. At present, about two hundred Krymchaks stay on the territory of occupied by Russia peninsula. Most of the representatives of this group - about 600 people - live today in Israel, but they do not form a separate community there and gradually lose their separate identity.

 Culture and science

● On April 4, 2019, the exhibition "Modern Art of Israel and Ukraine" was held in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, within the framework of the Days of Jewish Culture in Ukraine in the exhibition hall "Vernissage."

● During April 5-26, 2019 an exhibition devoted to the life and work of the writer and artist Bruno Schulz was held at the Sholom Aleichem Museum in Kiev, Ukraine.

● On April 7, 2019, the synagogue of St. Petersburg, Russia, hosted the Day of Jewish Book - a large-scale educational event.

● During April 12-14, 2019 an international conference "Civil Society, Digital Storytelling and the History of the 20th Century Jews in Ukraine" was held in Odessa, Ukraine.

● In Tallinn, Estonia, during April 17-26, 2019 there were research archaeological works in the territory of the old Jewish cemetery. The goal was to clarify the data on burials and the location of the foundation of the gate necessary for further work on the reconstruction of the territory of the cemetery. Works were carried out at the request of the city municipality and agreed with the Jewish community.

● The Matseva Lithuanian organization has completed cataloging of the old Jewish cemetery in Seyryai.

● In Moscow, Russia, in the new building of the Tretyakov Gallery on April 25, 2019, an exhibition of the artist Khaim Sokol dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and fighters with Nazism was opened.

● The Ukrainian Jewish Association announced the establishment of a prize for the best Jewish book published in Ukraine.

Manifestations of anti-Semitism

The most serious manifestation of anti-Semitism in the post-Soviet space in April 2019 was the burning of the oldest Russian Yashivah "Torat-chaim " in Moscow on April 19, just before the start of the Seder (a ceremony dedicated to the beginning of Pesach, the main holiday of Judaism). The utility room in which kosher products were stored was burnt out. The firefighters left the inscription "Death to the Jews," the neo-Nazi code "88," meaning "Heil Hitler," and the swastika.

  In April 2019 vandalism against information stands in the territory of the National Historical and Memorial Reserve "Babiy Yar" in Kyiv, Ukraine was recorded twice this month.

 Israel and post-Soviet countries

  In April 2019 as in previous months, the most important aspect in Israeli diplomacy in the countries of the former USSR was the uneasy dynamics of relations in the geopolitical triangle Moscow-Damascus-Jerusalem (with Washington and Tehran participating in this figure).

  Just before the elections in Israel, Russia made a gift to Binyamin Netanyahu. On April 4, 2019, the current prime minister visited Moscow and returned from there to Israel to bury the remains of Sergeant Zakaria Baumel, who died nearly 40 years ago in Lebanon. Negotiations with Moscow and the search for the body of an Israeli soldier lasted almost two years, so it is obvious that the final chord of such a long process was timed to the Israeli elections. The transfer of ashes, furnished as a solemn military memorial ceremony, contributed to the formation of Benjamin Netanyahu as the image of the head of state, able to negotiate the observance of Israeli interests with the most uncomfortable partners. For his part, Vladimir Putin has shown himself capable of noble gestures by the leader.

  However, the story had a less beautiful continuation. Although official Moscow claimed that a humanitarian gesture had been agreed upon with Damascus and the Syrian army helped search the body of an Israeli soldier, Syria has firmly denied these allegations. The ruling regime would clearly find itself discredited by assumptions that it could even indirectly cooperate with Israel.

  The Israeli Prime Minister, in turn, unexpectedly announced the surrender of Syria to two Israeli prisoners in Syria, although he had previously argued that the transfer of the Baumel ashes does not imply any deal and reciprocal steps. Syrian prisoners were released bypassing the usual procedure for such transactions (this step was not considered and not approved by the government military-political office). Russia, in turn, said that it was from the outset that it was a deal, thus making Benjamin Netanyahu, following Bashar al-Assad, in a very uncomfortable position.

 In the meantime, the Air Forces of the Israeli Defense Forces continued to strike at military facilities in Syria in April. In particular, planes were bombed for targets in the city of Madyaf (not far from Hama) on April 12 (the Israeli air strike was attacked by Aleppo at the end of March the previous time). According to available information, the object of the attack was the Iranian production of mechanisms for missiles intended for Hezbollah. The Israeli Ha-Yom newspaper writes about this: "It seems that Russia at this stage has resigned with such actions until they threaten its forces in Syria." We note that the weakening of the Iranian infrastructure may even correspond to the interests of Moscow, which acts as a rival to Tehran in matters of influence on Damascus.

However, not all experts estimate the situation as benign. In the western media, materials that predict the inevitable or very likely conflict between Russia and Israel are increasingly being published. Some Russian experts assume that the latest attacks by the Israeli Air Forces have the task of "probing" the Russian air defense system and testing the S-300 and C-400 missiles supplied to Syria in preparation for more serious clashes.

  Meanwhile, Russia continues to position itself as an alternative to the United States external force capable of bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table and to offer "more realistic and fair" than the "deal of the century" announced by Donald Trump, a plan for a peaceful settlement.

On April 15, 2019, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyadh al-Maliki said during a visit to Moscow that Mahmoud Abbas "is prepared to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without any preconditions if it takes place in Moscow." According to him, "while the proposal comes from Putin," the Palestinians are ready to negotiate with Israel.

Let's remind that last time Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu met in 2010.

The American proposal for a peaceful settlement has been rejected by the Palestinian side in advance.

Also in April, in a joint statement with Iran and Turkey, Russia condemned the recognition by the United States of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Among other foreign-policy news, unrelated to Russian politics in the Middle East, is the following. 

The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine handed over to Verkhovna Rada a bill on ratification of the Agreement on a free trade zone between Ukraine and Israel, signed by the heads of both states at the beginning of this year.

 Review prepared by

Vyacheslav Likhachev, UCSJ expert

Roger LernerComment