Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin

Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin

Professor Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin, ISGAP Research Fellow; Lectures in Political Studies and leads the research program on Post-Soviet Conflicts at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University. Additionally, he serves as the Academic Chairman of the Institute for Euro-Asian Jewish Studies in Herzliya.

The current war in the Middle East has already had, and will obviously still have, a variety of consequences. For example, it seems that media coverage of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) counter-terrorism operation Swords of Iron in the Gaza Strip has much to offer in terms of putting an end to one of the long-standing debates. Namely, whether anti-Zionism and biased criticism of the policies of the Jewish state is “legitimate criticism of Israel” or poorly disguised modern-day anti-Semitism.

Legalization of anti-Israeli anti-Semitism after October 7, 2023

The fact that we are dealing with anti-Semitism proper became clear to many already at the beginning of the decade, when an unprecedented number of high-profile anti-Semitic incidents, disguised under anti-Israeli slogans were recorded in regions where they were considered impossible. For example, in the United States, home to the world’s largest Jewish community, and in Europe. Thus, monitoring of anti-Semitic manifestations conducted in five EU states — Germany, France, the UK, Spain and Ireland — from late 2019 to late 2020 by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), in cooperation with the Jewish Agency, showed a gradual strengthening of anti-Semitic radical factions (both right-wing and left-wing) of the local political class at the expense of diluting its “moderate core.” As a result, anti-Semitic views, once the domain of fringe political groups, are becoming almost part of the mainstream.

Against this background, previously accepted views on Holocaust remembrance and the inadmissibility of anti-Semitic xenophobia are giving way to the distortion and rewriting of history by right-wing radicals and the anti-Israel discourse of left-wing extremists. Social media, which disseminates xenophobic and anti-Semitic content widely and almost without restrictions, only catalyzes this process. The result of the events of October 7, 2023 (and the 4.5 months that followed) is that the need to at least verbally separate negativism toward Jews (which is still considered somewhat inappropriate in Western countries) from the hatred and rejection of the Jewish state has virtually disappeared among open or latent anti-Semites in local ultra-leftist and Islamic circles.

We are talking, of course, about the majority of rational and unbiased people, not “professional (and well-paid) anti-Zionists” like the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the “Palestinian territories,” Francesca Albanese, according to whom the victims of October 7 were killed not because they were Jews, but in response to Israeli oppression (of Palestinians).” Or UN Relief chief Martin Griffiths who, against all odds, continues to claim that “Hamas is not a terrorist group [….] it is a political movement. And certainly not the leaders and official propagandists of the regimes of the “global South” (and their sympathizers in progressive and immigrant circles in Europe and America), for whom Israel both in itself and as a symbol of the “world Jewry” is a convenient target for an “anti-colonial narrative” that serves as ideological support for their geopolitical interests in confrontation with the “global West”.

Large-scale studies on the nature of the current wave of anti-Semitism around the world published in recent weeks may dispel the last doubts about it (if anyone still harbored any). Thus, the joint annual report of the Ministry of Jewish Diaspora Affairs (MDA), the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the Jewish Agency (JAFI) on the state of anti-Semitism in the world in 2023, presented to the Israeli government on the eve of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, states that the events of October 7 raised the level of anti-Semitism in the world to unprecedented heights. According to the data, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the world between October and December 2023 was 6 times higher than in the previous 9 months, and the total number of such incidents in 2023 increased more than 2.3 times (235%) compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, last year also saw a 43% increase in acts of anti-Semitic violence and vandalism compared to 2021.

Geographically, nearly half (46%) of such events occurred in the United States, according to the Ministry of Diaspora and National Institutions’ 2023 study. Thus, the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) report “The State of Antisemitism in America 2023,” published in mid-February, which includes a representative survey of the Jewish and non-Jewish population of the United States, showed that the proportion of American Jews who rated the situation in the U.S. as not at all or not very safe for Jews in 2023 (63%) increased by one and a half (41%) and two times (31%), respectively, compared to 2022 and 2021. And the share of those who directly linked the feeling of decreased personal security for them as Jews in the U.S. to a Hamas terrorist attack on Israel was 78% (sic!).

It is indicative that such a dramatic increase in the perception of threat to Jewish existence in the United States worries not only the Jewish community of the country, but is also perceived as a challenge by American society as a whole — which, as we know, demonstrates a high level of support for Israel as an ally of America and an important value symbol. Thus, according to the same poll, the percentage of Jews and non-Jews who agree that the statement “Israel has no right to exist” is anti-Semitic was almost identical (85% and 84%).

The second highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in the world, caused by Hamas aggression and Israeli retaliation, was recorded in the United Kingdom, where, according to the Community Security Trust (the UK’s Jewish security body), 2023 saw the highest number of such incidents in nearly 40 years. The total number of anti-Semitic hate incidents that year (4,103) was 81% higher than in 2021 (2,261) and 147% higher than in 2022 (1,662). And two-thirds (66%, to be exact) of those incidents in 2023 occurred between October 7 and the end of December — 589% more than the same period the previous year. In addition, there were 2,185 potentially or actually aggressive actions against Jews and Jewish sites and/or anti-Israel demonstrations that were not recognized by the investigation as anti-Semitic — although this was the background of the events that few doubted at the time.

Next in the ranking of violent anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, according to the MDA-WZO-JAFI report, comes Germany with nine percent; France and Canada each accounted for six percent and Australia with two and a half percent.

Anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union: from latent to explicit

The situation in the former Soviet Union, compared to a number of European and Middle Eastern countries, looked more favorable for a long time. It is generally believed that with the collapse of the USSR, the cessation of anti-Jewish policies and practices of discrimination, and the fact that Jews lost their status of “the main internal enemy” in the mass consciousness, the post-Soviet space became a “continent of security” in terms of manifestations of “accentuated” anti-Semitism.

Thus, the review “State of Antisemitism in 2021” by the Jewish Agency and WZO, showed that nine of the 20 most high-profile anti-Semitic incidents at that time occurred in the United States, three — in Great Britain, two — in France, one each in Argentina, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Germany and Austria. At the same time, post-Soviet countries did not appear on the list. At the end of 2023, judging by the above-mentioned report of these organizations and the Ministry of Diaspora, the situation has already changed dramatically. This time, out of the 10 most serious anti-Semitic incidents in the world, two occurred in the former Soviet Union: in the Russian Dagestan (fifth place) and in the Armenian capital Yerevan (ninth place). Overall, according to the authors of the report, Russia, Belarus, Armenia and post-Soviet Central Asia saw the highest increase in anti-Semitism over the past year in general and related to the war in the Middle East in particular. In other words, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiments that seemed to have been left in the Soviet past returned in full force with the start of the IDF’s operation against the Palestinian Islamist terrorist enclave.

While Israel’s war against pro-Iranian and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, on the border with Lebanon, in Syria, and in Judea and Samaria did provide a common denominator for the causes or occasions of the current anti-Semitic wave in these post-Soviet regions, unprecedented in the past 30 years, the underlying motivations in each of them were different.

For example, observers suggest that high-profile incidents of this kind in the Muslim republics of Central Asia, where previously anti-Semitic manifestations were almost the exception, can be attributed to incitement by local and external Islamist actors. In addition to an unprecedented wave of anti-Semitic publications in the media and especially on social networks, 2023 was marked by scandalous demands to close the country’s only Jewish school in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, there were threats of violence against Jewish communities (including an attack on Chabad envoys in Tashkent and vandalizing of two local synagogues, one Ashkenazi and one Bukharan).

The seeds of massive anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda of these actors, in a certain sense, fell on the good soil of “Islamic solidarity” of the population of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are also experiencing a period of economic and political instability. However, there was no mass public demand or interest on the part of the authorities (it should be noted that they quelled this wave rather quickly). This factor played an even smaller role in Kazakhstan, where both the authorities and the majority of society are not too concerned with Middle Eastern affairs and prefer not to support either side. 

In Belarus, the situation is different: the main messages come “from above”. While official Minsk was relatively restrained in commenting on the events of October 7 and their further development, the real sentiments of the ruling class, which almost completely echo Russian narratives, seem to have been reflected by the state media and leading pro-government commentators in social networks. Quite a few statements against Israel and in support of Hamas have appeared, as well as statements along the lines of “the victory of Palestine (de facto, referring to Hamas) is the victory of Moscow and Minsk.”

Against this background, in 2023, anti-Semitic motifs that had been recorded earlier and had seemed more moderate became much more prominent. Among them is a new manifestation of the old Soviet tradition of trivializing the uniqueness of the Holocaust of European Jewry and attempts to hide it behind the facade of the “common tragedy” of the then Soviet and now Belarusian people. It is coupled with a new version of the old narrative about “liberal traitors to the homeland” with an obvious emphasis on the (alleged) prevalence of Jews among them. This narrative has been actively developing since the failed anti-authoritarian revolution of 2020.

In contrast, the Armenian model of reaction to the current outbreak of the Middle East conflict was a variant of classic everyday anti-Semitism — formally discouraged, but also not really countered by the authorities. The MDA, WZO and JAFI report essentially quotes Dr. Nati Kantorovich, head of the research department of the Nativ Bureau for Eastern European Jewish Relations at the Office of the Head of Government of Israel and an expert at the Institute for Euro-Asian Jewish Studies. According to his analysis, Armenian social media showed an enthusiastic reaction to the Hamas attack, massively disseminating graphic propaganda of Palestinian terrorists, cheering for Israel’s supposedly “deserved punishment” and explicitly calling to support Hamas, as well as spreading inflammatory comparisons of Israel and Azerbaijan to Nazi Germany. All of this is narrated in anti-Semitic terminology, which has become widespread in the country over the past three years.

Prominent public figures have also contributed to the socio-political discourse using the platform willingly provided to them by the media of Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora. For example, Vladimir Poghosyan, a former high-ranking employee of the Armenian special services, known for his anti-Semitic views, became famous for his aggressive rhetoric against Israel and incitement against Jews. It is thanks to such figures that Armenia’s tiny Jewish community has repeatedly fallen victim to anti-Semitic persecution, culminating in two attempts to set fire to the country’s only synagogue on October 2 and November 15, 2023.

Experts generally agree that the reason for this public reaction is the trauma of the defeat suffered by Armenians in 2020 and 2022 in the armed conflict with Azerbaijan over Karabakh (Artsakh), an Armenian autonomy within the Azerbaijani SSR, unofficially annexed by Armenia as a result of the first Karabakh war immediately after the collapse of the USSR. And this irritation is poured out on Israel, Baku’s close ally and the main arms supplier to the Azerbaijani army. An additional point is Armenia’s strategic dependence on Israel’s existential enemy Iran, which prompts a certain part of Armenian society to sympathize with the opponents of the Jewish state. Against this background, other Armenian-Israeli disagreements, which otherwise would look like minor misunderstandings — for example, the land dispute in Jerusalem involving members of the local Armenian Diaspora — also add fuel to the fire.

Naturally, all this ricochets on the Jewish community of Armenia, which, in fact, tries its best to stay out of these geopolitical clashes and even actively participates in public diplomacy in the interests of Yerevan. However, it seems that neither the patriotic sentiments of local Jews, nor the fact that Israel is not the only supplier of arms to Azerbaijan (among others Turkey and Russia stand out, and with the latter Armenia, despite its declared turn towards the West, continues to maintain rather close partnership), makes little impression on that part of Armenian society, where, as the authors of the report by the Ministry of Diaspora and National Institutions note, “anti-Semitic sentiments are deeply rooted.”

Of course, we should not automatically discard the opinion that the real level of xenophobia and tolerance in society should be judged not by the sentiment during armed conflicts, but in more peaceful times. But perhaps those who believe that behavioral patterns during crises, including those provoked by wars, are indicators of the real state of affairs are also right in their own way. A convincing example in this sense is Ukraine, which has been at full-scale war with Russia since February 2022, and which in 2023, as in the previous year, has seen a significant decrease in anti-Semitic manifestations.

For all the significant diplomatic friction between Kiev and Jerusalem over the past two years, Ukrainian leaders have unequivocally supported Israel and sharply condemned Hamas and its patrons in Tehran. And a strong wave of solidarity with Israel and sympathy for the Israelis has risen in local society, whose worries are quite understandable to Ukrainians who have been in a similar position for almost two years now.

Russia: anti-Semitism in the context of geopolitical interests

Russia’s position in the new war in the Middle East is radically different: Moscow has quite resolutely, although so far mostly at the declarative level, sided with the opponents of the Jewish state. The contradiction between Israel’s stated goal of Operation Swords of Iron — the destruction of the terrorist regime of radical Islamists in the Gaza Strip — and Russia’s current military and geopolitical interests became apparent very soon. So did the impact of this new trend on the Russian population.

The pronounced pro-Palestinian — and therefore anti-Israeli — stance of the Russian state media played an important role in this regard, with publications often featuring anti-Israeli statements and interpretations on the verge of outright anti-Semitism, including the conflation of Zionism and Nazism (quite in the spirit of communist propaganda in the Soviet Union). It is logical that polls and discussions in social media almost immediately showed a noticeable drop in public sympathy for Israel. In the media and professional communities, concerns have been raised about the possibility of reviving the seemingly long-gone anti-Zionist narratives of Soviet times, which, in addition to publicly expressing the strategic positions and interests of the USSR in the international arena, were also a cover for the state-sponsored and “permissible” everyday anti-Semitism of the authorities.

All this despite the fact that only two years ago it seemed that anti-Semitism, with the exception of some “atypical manifestations,” had become virtually “a non-issue” in the post-Soviet space. Indeed, the annual number of anti-Semitic attacks and acts of vandalism against Jewish sites in former Soviet countries with significant Jewish populations — primarily Russia and Ukraine — ranged from isolated cases to half a dozen or two dozen incidents in “peak years.” The monitoring of public sentiment in post-Soviet countries has shown a steady improvement in public opinion toward fellow Jews. For example, regular surveys of the Russian population conducted since 1992 by Yuri Levada’s reputable Moscow-based sociological center have shown that about 10% of the population consistently views Jews “with sympathy,” more than 80% “positively-neutrally,” and only one-fifth of respondents negatively.

What happened for the situation to change so radically literally overnight?

The reason, apparently, is that neither everyday anti-Semitism nor, in a sense, state anti-Semitism (which in the post-Soviet period has acquired the “political” character) has gone anywhere — but merely shifted to a latent form. However, according to observers, traces of both, as well as related fluctuations in anti-Semitic xenophobia, are clearly visible in the former Soviet Union. This is manifested, first of all, in the readiness to support, to a greater or lesser extent (if the authorities deem it “appropriate”), a policy of ethnic discrimination or restriction of access to significant social positions for all “non-indigenous” ethnic groups, including Jews. And also in using them as a “social placeholder” in moments of political tension.

There were concerns that in the current situation the legitimization of anti-Semitic rhetoric could provoke the transition of latent anti-Semitism, which is quite widespread in Russia, into an open form. And, as the first attempt (fortunately unsuccessful) of a Jewish pogrom in late October 2023 in the cities of Makhachkala and Nalchik in the autonomous republic of Dagestan showed, this is exactly what happened.


Drawing a general conclusion from the above, it is hard to disagree with the authors of the review “Antisemitism 2023”: events in a number of countries of the former Soviet Union and across the globe show that anti-Semitic rhetoric driven by hatred of the Jewish state is no longer a separate phenomenon, but is becoming part of a more serious process of promoting violence against Jews. Curbing and eradicating these trends is relevant not only for Israel and the Jewish world, but is critical for democracies in the world at large.