Passive Anti-Semitism Widespread In Russia, But Active Kind Almost Nonexistent – OpEd


Aleksey Levinson, a Levada Center sociologist who had been measuring anti-Semitism in Russia since the late 1980s, says that passive anti-Semitism is almost universal in Russia but the active kind is almost unheard of and is unlikely to emerge unless prominent leaders start to promote it.

In the new Neprikosnovenny zapas, he points out that many have been surprised by and some have even challenged the findings of sociologists and pollsters like himself that there is very little anti-Semitism in Russia compared to what many, given the country’s history, might expect (

The main reasons for that, Levinson suggests, are that active anti-Semitism, support for actions intended to exclude or destroy the Jewish ethos, “has achieved these goals” – there are few Jews left and most are assimilated — and state anti-Semitism “as a policy of excluding Jewry not as an ethnic but as a social category has also achieved its goals.”

At the same time, however, there exists and is reproduced a residual but passive anti-Semitism, a set of attitudes that is not directed against the existing Jewish population” and won’t be until and unless some senior government official mobilizes people on that basis at some point in the future.

Many people in Russia and abroad are surprised by the findings of sociologists like himself, Levinson says, and in some cases actively dispute them. And consequently, he says, he wants to “make one more attempt to offer an explanation” of the findings and of why they are in fact accurate.

To do so, he says, it is necessary to discuss the history of the question. “Jews in the Russian Empire were one of the peoples/ethnoses which had the majority of the attributes of such – their own language and alphabet, faith, way of life and compact settlement and a specific niche in the economy.

            They had various kinds of relations with other ethoses ranging “from friendship and cooperation to hostility and striving to their exclusion of elimination as an ethnos and from that social space which other ethnoses supposed were theirs, the sociologist continues.

“The pogroms of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries led to the mass emigration of Jews from the Russian empire; pogroms during the civil war led to their mass physical extermination … [and] the Nazi ‘final solution of “the Jewish question” on the occupied territories of the USSR completed this solution.” The Jews left were no longer an ethnos.

“In addition to these factors, there were others which stimulated the rapid assimilation of part of the Jews to the dominant Russian culture with a corresponding rejection of Jewish culture. By the end of the 1940s, it was possible to speak about the specific non-ethnic but social category who were called and often called themselves or considered themselves Jews, but there was no basis, in my opinion,” Levinson says, to speak about the existence of a Jewish ethnos on the territory of the USSR.”

There is also a history of state anti-Semitism. The Russian Empire excluded Jews from most walks of life and actively persecuted them, supporting the pogroms. “In the Soviet Union at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s, this line was continued but in the lightly masked forms of the struggle with ‘rootless cosmopolitanism.’”

Until the end of the USSR, Levinson says, there were unpublished but very real limitations on the admission of Jews to higher educational institutions, their ability to work in state institutions and the ruling party and even their participation in public life. That led to further emigration when that became possible.

But “with the formation of Russia as a new state,” he says, “these practices as government policies ceased to exist: they could be initiated by one or another set of officials in the spheres of their authority but they remained in this sense private manifestations” rather than government policy.

As a result of all this, “the number of those who consider themselves Jews and register as such in censuses and polls has been reduced to 150,000 … Assimilationist processes continue; however along with them in the Jewish milieu have appeared successful tendencies of restoring communal and religious ‘Jewish life.’”

Research shows, he continues, “that under Russian conditions, the positions of any boss and above all the highest, on ‘the Jewish question’ have decisive importance for anti-Semitic manifestations in the masses.” If the higher ups give the signal, then passive anti-Semitism will become active in the form of “’administrative’ anti-Semitism.”

“That anti-Semitism as in the past has as its goal the driving our and exclusion of Jews from this or that social space (from ‘our’ house, enterprise, city or state),” Levinson says. The existence of that possibility is one of the reasons many resist accepting poll findings showing that anti-Semitism as a body of attitudes is relatively passive in Russia today.

Those attitudes, he continues, include “negative and long established ethnic stereotypes” and beliefs in “’a world Jewish government” and a conspiracy of Jews behind the highest offices in Russia and other countries. But such ideas, while “very important, lack at present an aggressive potential.”

At the same time, Levinson says, studies show that Russians view Jews as having qualities that they themselves lack and that they believe “Jews live ‘here’ only because things are good for them. If they become bad, then they will leave,” a notion that reflects the idea that Jews are not that patriotic. And of course, there are the ubiquitous Jewish jokes.

Many observers suggest that there are too few Jews in Russia now to spark anti-Semitism, Levinson says, but that argument isn’t convincing. There are many countries which display “anti-Semitism without Jews.” And in Russia, most people say that they know at least some Jews.

And it is no explanation for the low level of active anti-Semitism to say that anti-North Caucasus attitudes have displaced the space anti-Semitism occupies traditionally, Levinson continues. But hatred of the North Caucasians and Central Asians “cannot explain he lack of anti-Semitic manifestations” in Russia.”

According to the sociologist, there are two reasons for the low levels of active anti-Semitism in Russia. On the one hand, most Jews have so completely assimilated to Russian culture that many Russians have trouble seeing them as distinct as anti-Semitic attitudes typically require.

And on the other, Levinson argues, “at present, not one of the influential elite groups is making use of anti-Semitism as a political resource. The only ones using it now,” he continues, are “marginal and local groups” who do not set the weather for the country as a whole.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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