Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin

Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin

Professor Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin is an Israeli expert on the Russian Jewish community in Israel, the Diaspora, and Israel-FSU relations and politics. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the Moscow Institute for African Studies, at the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1989, and in 1991 completed postdoctoral studies at the Institute for Russian and Soviet Studies at the University of Oxford. Khanin teaches Political Science at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv and serves as Chief Scientist of the Israeli Ministry of Aliya and Integration. His most recent publication is called: From Russia to Israel – And Back? Contemporary Transnational Russian Israeli Diaspora (De Gruyter, Berlin/New York, 2021).

The Jewish theme is not the least among many aspects of the two recent large-scale military conflicts in the post-Soviet countries − the new stage of confrontation of Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020 and 2022, and the war in Ukraine that started after the invasion of the Russian army. While in all cases when this subject is addressed by both the authorities of the said countries and the external participants involved in the conflicts, they address it either moderately or expressly “instrumentally”, its manifestations are not identical.

Jews and Israel as a Component of Post-Soviet Wars

Russian leaders are trying to “play the Jewish card” as a part of ideological justification of the invasion into Ukraine, insisting that it was purportedly to stand against “the radical nationalist, fascist and anti-Semitic regime that has seized power in Kyiv”. While in Ukraine, among the leaders of which people of Jewish origin are disproportionally substantially represented (including the President, the Minister of Defence, the Mayor of the capital and some other key persons), by contrast, the narrative of Russian aggression as a “new Holocaust” is widely used in the attempt to influence international (especially Jewish) public opinion and to bring Israel to actually become a party to a military confrontation with Russia. Moscow, in its turn, expects that Israel, in view of its security priorities in the Middle East region, where it is located and where the RF still plays an important role, will not go beyond its current policy of large-scale humanitarian, diplomatic and financial support to Ukraine. And that Israel will refrain from supplying to the Armed Forces of Ukraine any weapons that may fundamentally change the situation on the battlefield, and will not officially join the sanctions of the West against Russia (though would not actually do anything that may help to escape the sanctions).  

As far as we can see, the official policy of Kyiv is fully accepted by the Ukrainian Jewish community,  almost all of it has mobilized to support military and political leaders of the country. While Russian leaders, at least for now, are satisfied with the minimalist option − a formal display of loyalty by the official leaders of Russian Jewish organizations, which continue to maintain adequate relations with their peers in Ukraine − both bilaterally and through international Jewish organizations. However, they have to take into account the situation of over half a million (compliant with the Law of Return) Jewish community of the country, which, in a sense, remains a “hostage” of the RF leaders’ goodwill.

The last message of the kind was communicated in the beginning of December 2022, when, according to CAN 11 of Israeli TV, the Kremlin’s representatives made it clear to Jerusalem that “the defeat of Russia in the war with Ukraine will immediately result in a surge of anti-Semitism (the search for a “scapegoat”), which is so far being prevented only by Vladimir Putin”, thus, according to the Russian party, “Israel should not oppose to the withdrawal of Russian weapons from Syria in order to use them in other places, as the Russian army needs”.[1] (The similar pattern in relations between rather small, bur still the third in number among the former-USSR countries, Jewish community and the government authorities can be seen in Belarus, which is de facto an ally of Russia in this war. 

In other words, both Kyiv and Moscow view Russian Jews, and the Jewish world as a whole, as a positive asset for achievement of immediate and strategic goals. Of course, a “latent” or every-day anti-Semitism did not vanish in both countries upon public anti-Semitism “cancellation” in the USSR just before its collapse, and occasionally comes out as rare cases of hate crime, more often — as a hate speech, and most often — as anti-Semitic proclamations in social media. After 24 February 2022, such cases were registered in Russia and Ukraine after anti-Semitic rhetorics of Russian politicians (such as the sensational statement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about Hitler, who allegedly “also had Jewish blood” and that “the Jews themselves are sometimes the most vehement anti-Semites”).[2] They may also appear as a response to criticism (which, we should note, is not always appropriate) of Israel by some Ukrainian public persons and discussions of the support by Ukraine of some expressly anti-Israel UN resolutions. 

However, the scale of the phenomenon should not be exaggerated, nor there are any grounds to speak of systematic instrumental and political anti-Semitism of the Russian, let alone Ukrainian, authorities.  

The situation in the South Caucasus looks fundamentally different in this respect: the Jewish theme in the political discourse of the confronting states — Azerbaijan and Armenia — can be heard quite clearly, but it is promoted entirely by external stakeholders, among which the radical Islamist regime of Iran plays the leading role.

It is well-known that the declared goal of the Ayatollah regime is to “wipe Israel off the political map”, and they see Israel as one of the main obstacles to the expansion of the radical Shiite “Islamic Revolution” and the establishment of Iranian hegemony in the “Greater Middle East”. So, it is no surprise that anti-Semitism is traditionally a substantial element of ideological justification of the said strategy. However, while in the past the official Iranian propaganda used mainly the constructs of the “new anti-Semitism”, including the criticism of “Zionism as an instrument of Muslims oppression” and denial of Holocaust, in the recent years, some classic anti-Semitic clichés have begun to emerge clearly (“the Jews rule the world”, etc.).

E.g., the recent tweet of Iranian Embassy in Australia showing that the Jews have ever controlled the US government under various presidential administrations.[3]. And Iranian Jewish Studies Center has published over 1,000 pieces of anti-Semitic content.[4]

Such stories, which have already proven to be rather effective[5]  in promoting the interests of Iranian Islamists in several Arab and Muslim countries, have also become a part of the propaganda efforts supporting Iran’s geopolitical activity in the South Caucasus. As regards to the region, Tehran is interested, on the one hand, to weaken as much as possible the Jewish state’s close ally, Azerbaijan, Israel’s leading oil supplier and a large-scale buyer of Israeli military and civil technologies. On the other hand, Tehran is interested to enhance the dependence on Iran of its own strategic partner — Armenia (and the chances of such enhancement grow up in view of the drastic reduction of the Russian presence in the South Caucasus)[6], including thwarting the plans for the Zangezur transport corridor, designed to connect Azerbaijan with Turkey through the Azerbaijani enclave Nakhichevan, bordering with Iran and surrounded from the north and east by Armenian territory.  

It is evident that anti-Semitism in one of it forms was intended to become a part of the efforts of Iranian secret services to destabilize Azerbaijan [7] through enticement of ethnic and sectarian religious separatism. However, it is most probable that Tehran was aware of narrow prospects of “classical” anti-Semitic slogans promotion in the country that has traditionally shown a highly tolerant attitude to Jews. So, the Iranians had to limit their activities to the attempts to delegitimize “the Zionist regime of President Aliyev” (speaking, inter alia, on behalf of Khomeini-oriented allegedly human rights protection organizations). However, in the light of explosive growth of Israel’s popularity with Azerbaijani society as a reliable ally playing a critical role in security and technological development of the Caucasian republic, the effect of these efforts of Tehran was minimal.

Armenian Scenario

Along with the surge of anti-Israeli propaganda against Baku, which accompanied, as noted above, the manoeuvres of Iranian troops near Azerbaijan’s borders and the activation of disruptive local detachments of Tehran within the country, a significant escalation of anti-Semitic rhetoric is also observed in Armenia. The almost perfect concurrency of these two trends, including the sharp increase in the weight of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist[8] stories appearing in the electronic and other Armenian media, that used to be much more sluggish in discussing these subjects, makes it highly likely that Iran is playing a significant role in this case as well.     

It also looks probable that, unlike Azerbaijan, Iranian agents clearly see no problem in using not only anti-Zionist clichés, but also the entire spectrum of anti-Semitic narratives. The presumption that such messages may be accepted in Armenia with sympathy, is supported, at the first glance, by the two studies often cited: World Antisemitism Index 2014 of the powerful supranational Jewish organization Anti-Defamation League, and the survey of anti-Semitism in 18 European countries, including Armenia, conducted two years later by the reputed Pew Research Center of Washington.

According to the ADL’s study, more than half (58%) of the adult population of Armenia actually had some kind of anti-Semitic stereotypes. 72% of respondents were sure, or did not rule out, that Jews have too much power in the business world; 68% believed that Jews have too much power in international financial markets; and an equal number agreed to some extent that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the countries they live in”.

63% (i.e., almost two thirds) and over half (53%) of respondents, respectively, shared the most odious anti-Semitic stereotypes — that “Jews are guilty of anti-Semitism themselves”, and that “Jews always believe they are better than others”, and 45% thought that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust”. Finally, the traditional accusations that Jews “control the U.S. government” and have “too much control over global affairs” were shared by over half of the national respondents (51% in each case), while 38% believed that “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars”.[9]

32% of Armenian respondents, interviewed by the Pew Research Center in 2015-2016, in their turn, would be hardly ready to accept Jews as fellow citizens, which was the highest percentage of any of the 18 European countries included in the survey. Only 18% of Armenian respondents were ready to accept Jews as their family members – one before the last in the list of two dozen European countries under the research (however, Armenia with 7% of respondents was also the last in the list among those who were ready to also accept Muslims as such). [10]

However, the leaders and activists of the very small local (no more than 280 households) Jewish community insist that the that the perception of Armenians’ anti-Semitism is greatly exaggerated: in their opinion, these are latent sentiments, rarely developing into an active phase, and mainly fuelled by the defence partnership of Jerusalem and Baku annoying Armenia, and, as it is believed, by the unwillingness of Israel to recognize the 1915-1916 massacres of Armenians by Turks as an event similar to the Holocaust of  Jews.[11]

Israel believes that these claims are not justified, and not only because the official adoption by Israel of the wording of the Armenian genocide, satisfactory to Yerevan, would cause a negative reaction not only in Turkey but also in Azerbaijan, which ranks first among Muslim countries in the volume of trade with Israel, has actually replaced Turkey as Israel’s main strategic ally in the Turkic world and stands with the Jewish state as regards to the fears concerning the Iranian threat. While Armenia (whose volume of trade with Israel is very small), by contrast, is a close strategic partner of Iran.

And it is so not because of a political cynicism of Israeli government, and not because Israeli consider historic memories and national catastrophes of other nations to be none of their business (actually, it is quite the opposite).[12] The reason is the existing conscious or unconscious opposition in Israeli society to the phenomenon, named “the trivialization of the Shoah of European Jews”, especially as related to instrumental, i.e. pursuing political and ideological purposes, attempts “to mirror” the Jewish catastrophe.  To put it as simply as possible, few people in Israel are ready to equate the Armenian tragedy with the Holocaust. E.g., Turks slaughtered the Armenians in the territory they occupied in the course of their military actions, and there may be no justification for this, but it is unlikely that their program goal was to exterminate all Armenians in the world, similar to the goal pursued against Jews by Hitler’s regime.

In its turn, among the present-day Armenian leaders and public persons there are those who are aware of rather low diplomatic and geopolitical prospects of a never-ending discussion of the “non-recognition of the Armenian tragedy by Israel and the Jews” and are ready to admit that in the market of historical memory there is the more productive narrative of “two brotherly peoples united by centuries of cooperation, similar national tragedies, and similar prerequisites of nation and state building”.[13]  But, though such  a shift could become a way out of the ideological “clinch” hindering the development of bilateral relations, not only radical nationalists but also the mainstream Armenian political and cultural establishment are not currently ready to accept it. This, in turn, is easily communicated to broader Armenian public circles, and opens up great opportunities for Iranian propagandists and the pro-Iranian lobby, both in Armenia itself and in Armenian diaspora communities, i.e., in such countries as France[14] and the United States.[15]

All this, in the current situation, becomes especially important for Tehran seeking to strengthen its status of one and only patron of Armenia, and, therefore, sparing no effort to damage the country’s reputation in the West and to “trample” the yet unstable sprouts of Yerevan and Jerusalem drawing together. As well as to prevent, on the backdrop of the attempts of Armenia and Turkey to settle their long-standing disagreements, disturbing Iranian leaders, joining by Armenia the Israeli-Azeri-Turkish vector of understanding and consideration of mutual interests, which is carefully constructed on Aliyev’s initiative and could greatly harm Iran’s regional ambitions and interests.   

“Russian-speaking trail”

So, it looks like the motivation of Armenian publishers that have intensified the degree of anti-Semitism in their numerous publications as if they were instructed to do so (well, why “as if”?), keeps being fuelled by external sources. Starting from approximately October 2022, electronic and social media (especially Telegram channels where masses of Armenian residents have outflown from V Kontakte and Facebook) (along with the manoeuvres of the Iranian army and Iranian secret services activities on the border with Azerbaijan) were literally overflowing with declarations, forum discussions, and (pseudo-)analytics calling for a “joint struggle with Iran or Palestinians against Jews and Israel” and promoting Iran’s role as the only hope for Armenian statehood. It is notable that such stories have materially superseded the former discussions of a rather marginal volume on the “theft of the Holocaust by Jews from Armenians” and other outbursts of every-day anti-Semitism, as well as Garegin Njdeh and other sympathizers of the Nazi regime.

It is also hard not to notice that the majority of the abovementioned materials are supplied by Russian-language channels and bilingual publications, which also publish many texts in Russian. One of such sources is TG channel SpitakArch that had as of November 2022 about 10,000 followers — a considerable number for a country with an official population of less than 3 million people (https://t.me/archiuja/). Active users and topic starters do not hide at all their sentiments and thoughts.  Let us just mention that only one thread discussing enemies and friends of Yerevan included 1,064 posts of the same kind, containing the word “Yid”. 

“I am a fascist, an anti-Semite, and see the salvation of Armenians in the complete extermination of Turks and Jews,” says one of the channel’s followers blatantly (https://t.me/c/1283571554/918737).  “Hitler did nothing wrong to the Armenians. Except that he exterminated Yids f***ing poorly, e.g., Mountain Jews have survived”, echoes his sentiment another participant of the discussion. “Surely, as I am an Armenian, and every proper Armenian has an aversion to Yids”  (https://t.me/c/1283571554/913956) “Their (Iranians’) headache are Turks and Yids, and both these scams are our common enemies with the Persians”, summed it all up the third participant of the chat. “I believe that Iran should become one of our key allies”. (https://t.me/c/1283571554/829885)

The ARMENIAN RADICAL channel (https://t.me/ARMENISCH88) with almost 20,000 followers; Armenian Life channel  (https://t.me/Armenian_Life) with almost 11.000, the fascist-sentiment forum Offsprings of Njdeh  (over 7000 followers), and many other projects of similar coverage and influence are full of suchlike or similar content.  “I agree with Iran that Yidzrael should be wiped out of the Earth”. https://t.me/ARMENISCH88/37200.

Why is all this anti-Semitic delirium written in Russian, and often in quite good Russian? Maybe because of the desire to influence both a Russian-speaking audience out of Armenia (including pro-Russian separatists in the Northern Azerbaijan) and Russian migrants inside Armenia, the number of which in the recent months has exceeded 100,000.

Many of them have ended up in Armenia as a result of their business relocation or personal relocation for temporary or permanent residence after the start of the war in Ukraine and mobilization in Russia. This immigration flow including, among others, many IT professionals, has resulted in a material stabilization of the Armenian economy and drastic growth of its GDP. (According to Russian media, GDP growth forecasted by the Armenian government is breaking all records and is expected to rise from 1.6% up to 13% in one leap in 2022. It is the result of “the inflow of professionals with excellent education and professional skills who establish new companies, buy real estate, and have an indirect impact on the Armenian economy growth… What we witness today is some unreal mystic, of the “dreams come true” type.[16] 

Assuming that a substantial part of these people is likely to remain in Armenia and become part of the local business and then, inevitably, of political elite integrated into the global business, financial and diplomatic markets, Tehran’s reliance on these individuals may be strategically justified.

To sum up, anti-Semitism has been and remains one of the key elements of the Islamist Iran’s regime foreign policy, including its political interests in the South Caucasus, where the current rapidly changing situation creates new challenges — and new opportunities for both local and foreign players. This is where the Iranians are trying to activate agents of their influence — with the help of anti-Zionist rhetoric, pro-Iranian Islamist circles in Azerbaijan and in Armenia, where the combination of classic and new-age anti-Semitic propaganda promoted by interest groups and domestic anti-Semites has a limited, but still noticeable audience.  

[1] גילי  כהן, “הפנייה הרוסית החריגה לישראל: במוסקווה רצו לוודא שישראל לא תפריע להעברת אמצעי הגנה מסוריה לאזור החזית האוקראינית”, כאן 11  04 בדצמבר 2022, (Gili Cohen, “Russian Approach to Israel: In Moscow Want to be Sure that Israel will not Disturb Transfer of Russian Defensive Equipment to Ukrainian battlefield) https://www.kan.org.il/item/?itemid=139599

[2] See: “To Vilify Ukraine, the Kremlin Resorts to Antisemitism”, US Department of State, 11 July 2022


[3] https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=208859041524477&set=a.110323094711406

[4] https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/article-708487

[5] https://themedialine.org/by-region/iran-drives-antisemitism-in-the-muslim-world/, https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/article-723869

[6] For more details see Ze’ev Khanin, “Russia’s War in Ukraine Shifts Dynamics in the Israel-Iran-Azerbaijan Triangle”, The Wilson Center, November 3, 2022, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/russias-war-ukraine-shifts-dynamics-israel-iran-azerbaijan-triangle

[7] https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/middle-east/iran-eastern-states/1669135848-weaponized-antisemitism-of-the-iranian-regime

[8] https://eadaily.com/ru/news/2022/10/05/razvedbazy-izrailya-v-azerbaydzhane-sereznaya-ugroza-dlya-irana-i-armenii-ekspert

[9] See the full ADL research data at https://global100.adl.org/country/armenia/2014

[10] “In some countries in Central and Eastern Europe, roughly one-in-five adults or more say they would not accept Jews as fellow citizens”, Pew Research Center, 27 March 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/28/most-poles-accept-jews-as-fellow-citizens-and-neighbors-but-a-minority-do-not/ft_18-03-26_polandholocaustlaws_map/

[11] Larry Luxner, “Armenia has had few Jews and a poor relationship with Israel. That could be changing,” JTA, 17 October 2022,  https://www.jta.org/2022/10/17/global/armenia-has-had-few-jews-and-a-poor-relationship-with-israel-that-could-be-changing  

[12] Israel’s Foreign Ministry statement of April 2021: “Jerusalem recognizes ‘terrible suffering’ of Armenians in early 20th century killings by Ottomans, says nations of world must ‘ensure events like this do not again occur’”. (Quoted in: “After Biden acknowledges Armenian genocide, Israel stops short of doing the same”, The Times of Israel, 25 April 2021) https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-recognizes-terrible-suffering-of-armenians-doesnt-use-term-genocide/

[13] См. например:  “Armenians Must Awake from Delusional Comfort and Build a Mini-Israel,” Arshavir Gundjian, Armenian Mirror-Spectator, November 22, 2022, https://mirrorspectator.com/2022/11/22/armenians-must-awake-from-delusional-comfort-and-build-a-mini-israel/  

[14] https://www.panorama.am/en/news/2022/12/01/France-pro-Armenian-resolution/2763120

[15] Milich Yevdayev, “Armenian protest in Los Angeles equates Israel to Nazi Germany,” Jewish Journal (Los Angeles) October 22, 2020, https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/blogs/323425/armenian-protest-in-los-angeles-equates-israel-to-nazi-germany/

[16] Oxana Orlova, “Российские эмигранты стали «локомотивом» роста для армянской экономики”, International Wealth, 22 November 2022, https://internationalwealth.info/immigration-and-emigration-offshore/rossijskie-jemigranty-stali-lokomotivom-rosta-dlja-armjanskoj-jekonomiki/