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"We Are Ready to Accept Them"

Russia's Jewish Past and Present

“Israel was founded by people from Russia, people who brought with them the values and culture of the Russian Empire.”

So said Yakov Kedmi while answering a question about whether Israel and Russia have common interests. These values still bind Israel and Russia today, Kedmi continued, and the two countries boast common interests and enemies. Kedmi argued that both states have a commitment to fighting the rise of Nazism worldwide and that “anyone who lived in the Soviet Union, whether they live now in Israel or in the former Soviet Union, knows what it means to fight Nazism.”

Kedmi is a businessman and former head of Nativ, Israel’s government agency for promoting immigration from the former Soviet Union—and, originally, for helping Jewish people emigrate from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc to Israel.

And Kedmi, like over one million other Israelis, was born in the Soviet Union. Unlike the vast majority of Soviet-born Israelis, however, Kedmi did not come over in the large emigration waves of the 1990s, but in 1967 when emigration from the Soviet Union was nearly impossible and Zionism was considered a form of fascism. When Kedmi demanded the right to emigrate to Israel in 1967, the Soviet Union had already cut off diplomatic relations with Israel and Kedmi’s appeal resulted in his deportation from the Soviet Union. While Kedmi may see a natural partnership between Russia and Israel, the Moscow in which Kedmi was born did not know what to make of the emerging Zionist project. This is the history in which Kedmi’s comments—and those made by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has recently taken to urging Europe’s Jews to move to Russia because “we [Russians] are ready to accept them”—must be understood.

As early as 1920, the ComIntern ruled that Zionism was an ally of British imperialism and stood for the oppression of the Arab masses (Shapira, 1989). Despite these qualms, in 1948 the Soviet Union was the first superpower to recognize the state of Israel. (The United States’ recognition was unofficial at first). Soviet leaders believed that the Zionist project could help Jews living in capitalist countries, where anti-Semitism was a problem, but would not support emigration from the USSR to Israel because Jews did not need a safe haven when the Soviet Union already provided them one—in the Soviet view, of course (Pinkus 2005). However, Stalin and his administration began to question their shaky basis of support when Soviet Jews endorsed the Politburo’s recognition of Israel. Now that Soviet Jews had a homeland outside the Soviet Union—even if it was a homeland founded with the help of the USSR—could they truly be loyal?

Soon, any notions of Jewish belonging or solidarity became Zionist and subversive. It didn’t matter if it was Holocaust survivors who praised the Red Army for liberating the camps or the thousands in attendance of Golda Meir’s speech in Moscow as Israeli Ambassador to the USSR—even officially sanctioned acts of Soviet support became suspect in this heightened atmosphere. In 1952, the group that symbolized Soviet Jewish prestige—the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee—was tried and executed and anti-Semitic show trials began to spread through the Eastern Bloc. Finally, Stalin’s uncovering of the alleged “Doctor’s Plot” led to reprisals against Jews on a massive scale. At the height of these anti-Semitic campaigns, the Soviet embassy in Israel was bombed, leading the Soviet Union (and the satellite states) to cut off diplomatic relations with Israel.

It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that most of the former Soviet republics and Eastern Bloc countries reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel.

Today, Israel and Russia’s friendly relations are typically seen through the lens of diplomatic pragmatism. Both countries have no qualms supporting Assad if it means stability in Syria. Both are extremely wary of the European Union. Both have, at different points and in different ways, rejected relationships with Erdogan’s Turkey.

But this doesn’t actually mark a departure from Russia’s predecessor’s—that is, the Soviet Union’s—stance on Israel. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s view of Israel was seen to be similarly strategic—as long as the Soviet priority was securing Arab support in the Middle East against the United States and Western Europe, there would be no relationship with Israel. The relationship for the late Soviet period then and for Russia now is based on simple pragmatism.

However, these realist strategic considerations do not figure prominently in the imaginations of contemporary commentators like Kedmi. After the founding of Israel, Soviet Jews were seen differently by their government—and, consequently, some started to see themselves differently as well. The promises that the Soviet Union had made to the Jews were looking increasingly distant after the destruction of WWII, but Israel offered a new hope. The anti-Semitic campaigns throughout Eastern Europe created new feelings of Jewish solidarity that, ironically, may not have existed before. Cutting off diplomatic relations with Israel was as much about Cold War jockeying for the third world as it was about a Soviet state excising an entire community from its vision, but that it did so gave many Soviet Jews a new vision of and for themselves.

63 years later that vision has changed. Kedmi’s transformation from Soviet refusenik to Putin supporter is more common than one might expect in Israel’s Soviet-born population . Putin’s recent invitation to the Jews of Europe to feel free to find refuge in Russia from anti-Semitism—and his emphasis on Ukrainian anti-Semitism as justifying Russia’s military presence—reveals that Putin may see the same connection between Israeli and Russian values and culture that Kedmi does. If history is any indication, though, they may see similarities for different reasons. What is central and ideological to Kedmi—and to Israel, and to many Jewish people across Europe and around the world—may be a matter of politics and practicality for Putin. Putin and his friends in the Russian Orthodox Church often direct their message to an imagined audience of a “russkii Mir,” or a “Russian world” made up of the world’s Russian diaspora, bound together by religion and language. For most of Russian history, this russkii mir by definition did not include Jews—but that may be changing. Unlike the rest of right-wing Europe, Putin’s increasingly radical vision for his country includes Jews as members—but is this a fate that a community who left the Soviet Union in droves should be willing to accept? What vision does Putin have for the Middle East and what does it mean for the Soviet Jewish diaspora to be a part of it? Or, to put it another way—the Soviet leadership excluded Jews in part to be able to play pragmatic politics. One wonders if Jews today in Israel and Europe alike are being included for the same reason.

Author:

Kathryn David is a former Boren and Fulbright fellow and a current doctoral candidate in history at New York University.