The History and Future of Russian Jews

Russia has a rocky relationship with Judaism. Things may be better than they ever have been, but a dark and unfortunate history weighs heavily on the present. Plagued by anti-Semitism and, at times, direct confrontation, Russian-Israeli relations seem tense at best. Despite this though I sometimes question how solid the American-Israeli alliance is; is it plausible to argue that Israel’s posture may change? Answering this question requires a brief look at the history of Russia, Russian Jews, and the state of Israel. I apologize for doing another fairly general post this time but I have been entertaining ideas of a Russia-Israel partnership all week and I need to get it out of my system.

Russia and Its Jews

A while ago a man called Lenin apparently said that Russia was the “prison house of nations.”

Russia has housed a large Jewish population for much of its history, but this did little to dampen discrimination. For much of Russian history the operative word in Russian-Jewish relations was “pogrom.” The term refers to a sudden violent uprising motivated by ethnic or religious hatred. Jews were often the default victims of such violence. Pogroms occurred throughout Russian history well into the modern era. The regimes in power proved to be enablers, or perhaps accomplices; Tsars simply refused to quell such riots. Radzinsky writes in the Last Tsar that pogroms were regarded as useful by Tsars since they deflected anger away from the regime.

One would think that with the arrival of Communism, anti-Semitism would have fallen by the way side. Was not anti-Semitism just another wedge used to drive apart the working masses? Sartre argued this point in his 1946 book Anti-Semite and Jew, and it is likely that doctrinaire Marxists in the decades prior would have thought along similar lines. While the Bolshevik Revolution may have claimed lofty internationalist goals aimed at doing away with the past order, it did little overall to remedy the tension between Russians and Russian-Jews. Even if the political order changes, history and national culture remain.

The survival of anti-Semitism may also be attributed to Stalin who seems to have harboured a deep mistrust of Jews. Such feelings may have manifested in his persecution of prominent Russian-Jewish revolutionary and rival, Leon Trotsky. Such prejudice reached an apex in the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, which saw Stalin’s paranoia reach new heights. There were open campaigns against “rootless cosmopolitanism” (read: Judaism) at a time when the Cold War was beginning to coalesce. In his memoirs, Khrushchev loves to point out Stalin’s anti-Semitism, perhaps to detract from his own prejudice. He recounts a story of how Stalin’s paranoia led him to exile Molotov’s Jewish wife. Perhaps the most heinous epitome of Stalin’s racism though came at the very end of his life when he accused the Jewish doctors in the Kremlin of being traitors. These accusations, comprising the so-called “Doctor’s Plot,” were thankfully cut short by the death of Stalin in 1953 before they turned into another purge.

The Modern Era: Russia and Israel

For all his prejudices Stalin did have a few things to offer to Jews. The USSR did of course defeat Nazi Germany, and the Red Army liberated most concentration camps and saved countless Jews from potential slaughter. Stalin, who we must remember used to be the Commissar of Nationalities, also oversaw the creation of a Jewish autonomous region in the USSR (it was around Korea), and when Israel hit the international scene the Soviets were the first to grant it official recognition. It may be that Stalin was just trying to push Jews away or encourage emigration, although such decisions seem to be in line with his overall stance on handling the sordid nationalities of the USSR (ironically the USSR would fall apart along national lines, but that is another post).

Regardless of why Stalin may have granted Israel recognition, he must have been disappointed to see that Israel chose the American camp in the Cold War. This would lead to  tensions throughout the Cold War, with the Soviets frequently backing Arab/Palestinian claims (such as in the Suez Crisis) and threatening to enter into several Arab-Israeli conflicts (such as the Six Day War). Israel has long complicated the Soviets ability to play politics in the Middle East. A key example of this can be found in Soviet-Egyptian relations, which started warmly but were eventually cut off once Egypt and Israel brokered peace.

The creation of Israel also created problem within the Soviet Union that would soon become a foreign policy liability. Israel welcomes Jews from all over the world, and many Russian-Jews sought to leave persecution and hostility behind forever by emigrating. The Soviets generally opposed this trend and limited the amount of Jews who could leave, which attracted fierce international criticism. Indeed, this attempt to restrict freedom of movement was one of the main contentions that American conservatives had with detente, and strong American support for Russian-Jews would come to be embodied in the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which hampered trade agreements between the USA and USSR so long as emigration was discouraged. Eventually restrictions lifted, and Jews left in droves, but bitter memories remain.

A Russian-Israeli Axis?

With such a contested history is it even feasible to talk of a Russian-Israeli partnership? Despite hundreds of years of animosity, I believe that it is not impossible. Putin has been generally very positive towards Jews. He framed his meddling in Ukraine in terms of anti-fascism and language, hinting that Russia has an obligation to protect both Jews and Russian speakers. With a massive population from the Russian-Jewish diaspora, Israel is home to many Russian speakers. Could Putin feasibly extend a doctrine of linguistic based protection to cover Israel? Netanyahu, in a recent meeting with Putin, also expressed support for Russia’s involvement in Syria, and the two countries have been working together in this regard.

Russia and Israel may also be increasingly drawn together over feelings of marginalization by the West. Russian-Western relations are obviously strained, but Israel is also experiencing some difficulty with the West over its treatment of Palestinians, particularly in its colonization of the West Bank. Countries like France are increasingly supportive of Palestine over Israel, and at every turn Israel seems to be losing ground in the hearts and minds of its allies. With growing friction from the West, Israel and Russia may turn to each other to reinforce their mutual and individual interests.

But nothing is so simple, and there is still a great deal of contention. Russia’s providing of technology to Iran is unlikely to gain points with Israel. The Russians also continue to provide support to Palestinians, perhaps merely as token resistance to a perceived American stronghold. They gave arms and other support to the PLO and enjoyed generally cool relations. Arafat even attended Brezhnev’s funeral in 1982. Russia may continue to lend support to Palestine or, seeing opportunity, may make a shift towards Israel.

I do not believe that a shift of this magnitude would be very likely however, at least not without Russia dramatically shifting its perspectives on terrorism. Terrorism is an intensely politicized issue, with varying countries distinguishing between “terrorist” and “non-terrorist” simply on the basis of national interest. Russia, for example, does not acknowledge Hezbollah as a terror group while Israel and many in the West do. The reason is obvious: Hezbollah acts as a thorn in the side of one of the United States’ most valuable allies. The same applies to Palestine: Russia is unwilling to criticize Palestine, even if Israel and the United States are wary of increasingly frequent attacks by disgruntled Palestinians. Russia can alter its terror designations at any time, but once again history and political culture remain difficult to change.

Any chance of a Russia-Israel alliance forming is unlikely to occur unless Israel and America get a divorce. Israel’s treatment of Palestine is coming under increasing skepticism in the States, but most Washington politicians remain firmly committed to the alliance and the Israel lobby remains exceptionally powerful and influence. Since both Trump and Clinton have spoken out in support of Israel I think we can count on continued American-Israeli cooperation. Ironically Bernie, himself a Jew, has offered criticism of Israel, but I doubt even he could change our posture. If I know anything about Russian foreign policy I would daresay that it may be more strategically sound for Russia to continue to support Palestine and simply use the USA’s support of Israel as a wedge between America and her allies.

Ultimately a Russian-Israeli pact is unlikely, although there is a conceivable chain of events that may bring it about. It’s still fascinating to theorize on, and the fact that a case can be made for this point stands in sharp contrast to the bitter, bloody history of Russia and its Jews. Politics can still make strange bedfellows.

 

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