- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

In czarist Russia, there was an old synagogue custom that was rigidly enforced, paradoxically, by the local Russian police chief.

Even though czarist Russia was an anti-Semitic stronghold, the regime nevertheless insisted that a Hebrew prayer blessing the czar, the czarina, the czarevich and the whole Romanov clan be recited aloud by the entire congregation at Sabbath services. No matter the pogroms and the "blood-libel" trials instigated by the czar's ministers, the congregation and the cantor intoned the "M'sheh berackh," the ritual prayer calling upon Jehovah to bestow his goodness on the Romanov dynasty. In the back of the synagogue listening was the uniformed police chief.

My father told me the story. He was an emigre to the slums of New York's East Side from Kolk, a Ukrainian shtetl (Ukraine was then part of Russia) near the city of Zhitomir. He even showed me a "siddur" which contained the printed prayer with the royal family's names transliterated into the Hebrew alphabet. What I couldn't understand was how the czar's policeman knew for sure that the congregation was calling for a blessing, not a curse, on the Romanovs. My father said the Jews of Kolk got along well with the "prizev" and his deputies, a sort of "Fiddler on the Roof" scenario.

I was reminded of this old custom as I read in the Aug. 1 issue of a a Russian publication, Rossiskaya Gazeta an interview with Yonya Gorin, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. He was full of praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the government itself, regional governors and urban mayors for what he called "their broad support" of Jewish educational and religious activities. Why Mr. Gorin is so upbeat is hard to understand in the light of so much negative news in Mr. Putin's Russia.

Mr. Gorin had just returned from a meeting in Israel of representatives from Jewish communities in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus, Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. Jewish communities exist in Russia not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg but also in Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk, Novgorod, Samara, Saratov and Yekaterinburg.

Russia's Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar is quoted in the article to the effect that Russian Jews no longer are packed and ready to leave the country at a moment's notice. Mr. Gorin told the interviewer there are "fewer people wishing to leave now [because] Jewish cultural and religious life in Russia itself is sorting itself out. A few years ago there was a a very big flow of people to Israel. Few are leaving Russia now."

Such cheerful news is shared but cautiously by a U.S.-based watchdog organization, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. And the reason for the cautiousness? Here we go again with Russia exhibiting its apparently ineradicable anti-Semitic and, more broadly, xenophobic culture:

• On Aug. 10, Mr. Putin granted a meeting to the editors of the two main communist and nationalist newspapers in the country Sovietskaya Rossiya and Zavtra. Both are anti-semitic newspapers, distinguished only by the openness and frequency of the anti-Semitic articles they run. Details of what was discussed at the meeting are not known. (See below for Zavtra's relationship to David Duke).

• In April, Mr. Putin awarded Nikolai Kondratenko, the blatantly anti-Semitic governor of Krasnodar Kray, a medal for "service to the motherland."

• The Communist Party has revived anti-Semitism as part of its platform. Communist politicians defame Jews and incite violence against them.

• Jews cannot count on the police for protection from hate crimes.

• Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke began on Aug. 26 a one-month tour of Russia, his second in two years, on the invitation of Alexander Prokhanov, the chief editor of the influential anti-Semitic newspaper Zavtra, and Konstantin Kasimovsky, the head of the anti-Semitic organization Russian Action. Speaking to a capacity crowd at Moscow's Mayakovsky Museum, Mr. Duke called for action against "the Aryan race's main enemy world Zionism" and added that, "It is the Jews who have brought us to our knees." He called for all dark-skinned people to be forced out of Moscow. The crowd responded with cries of "Glory to Russia" and "White Power."

• At 11:20 p.m. on Aug. 2, 2000, city-owned Petersburg Television broadcast a report for the show "Between the Lines" titled "Who Rules Russia?" The answer was the Jews. The broadcast was reported to the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) by Leonid Lvov, director of the Harold Light Center for Human Rights in Petersburg. Said Mr. Lvov: "There is a definite pattern at work here the stronger the security services get, the greater the danger not just for the Jewish community, but for all minority groups. This contributes to an atmosphere of intolerance in the region."

Can Russia change?

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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