Haim Ben-Yakov and Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin

Professor Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin, a Research Fellow at ISGAP, specializes 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

Dr. Haim Ben-Yakov is the CEO of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, and Executive Director of the Institute for Euro-Asian Jewish Studies in Herzliya

             The IDF’s Iron Swords Military Operation (Iron Swords Military Operation), a response to the October 7, 2023 attack by Hamas terrorists on Israeli towns and communities, has triggered a significant wave of global antisemitism, including in Western countries. According to monitoring data from Israel’s Ministry of the Diaspora Affairs and Combating Anti-Semitism, in the first three weeks of the war (October 7th to 25th 2023) alone, the total volume of antisemitic incidents increased by 500 percent, compared to the same period last year, including a 330 percent increase in violent antisemitic incidents.

            Around a third of all antisemitic events were reported in the United States, home to the world’s largest Jewish population, mostly in areas with sizeable Jewish communities, particularly in New York, Florida, Chicago and California, but also in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. The number of antisemitic statements on the internet has increased by about 400 percent, especially in metropolitan areas: Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Santiago, Barcelona, San Francisco and Berlin. There was also an 1180 percent increase in calls for violence against Israel, Zionists and Jews (71 percent of them in Arabic).[1]

            Although the unprecedented scale of the attack shocked many observers, the event itself did not come as a surprise. In recent years, high-profile antisemitic incidents have already been recorded in the United States,[2] Europe,[3] and other regions where they were previously considered impossible. Thus, there is data from a monitoring of antisemitic manifestations in five EU states — Germany, France, the UK, Spain and Ireland from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, conducted by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University (INSS) in cooperation with the Jewish Agency (JAFI). The study reflected the gradual strengthening of the antisemitic radical factions (both right and left) of the local political class at the expense of the erosion of its “moderate core,” with the result that anti-Semitic views that were once the domain of fringe political groups have become almost part of the mainstream.

            Against this background, previously accepted views on Holocaust remembrance and the inadmissibility of antisemitic 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 antisemitic content widely and almost without restrictions, only catalyze this process.[4] The only difference in the current situation is that whereas in the past ultra-left and Islamic antisemitism in Western countries was lightly disguised as “legitimate criticism of Israel,” today it seems that these circles do not need to maintain such a disguise.

            In this sense, the situation in the former USSR in some ways looked more favorable. It is generally believed that with the collapse of the USSR, the cessation of anti-Jewish policies and practices of discrimination, when Jews lost the status of the “main internal enemy” in the mass consciousness of the public, the post-Soviet space became a “continent of safety” in terms of manifestations of “accentuated” antisemitism. This appeared to be the case at least compared to a number of European and Middle Eastern countries. For example, the JAFI and WZO study “The State of Anti-Semitism in 2021” showed that 9 of the 20 most prominent global antisemitic incidents took place in the U.S., three in the UK, two in France, and one in Argentina, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, and Austria respectively, with none in any country of the former USSR.[5]

            Indeed, the annual number of antisemitic attacks and acts of vandalism against Jewish sites in the countries of the former USSR with significant Jewish populations (primarily in Russia and Ukraine) numbered in the single figures, and in “peak years” totaled half a dozen or a couple of dozen incidents. And monitoring of public sentiment in post-Soviet countries has shown a steady improvement in the public’s opinion of fellow Jews. For example, regular surveys of the Russian population, conducted since 1992 by the reputable Moscow-based Yuri Levada Sociological Center, have shown that about ten percent of the population have a stable “sympathetic” attitude toward Jews, and more than 80 percent have a “positive-neutral” attitude. Only one-fifth of respondents hold a negative attitude toward Jews.


            Grassroot trends        

            Outside of this generally favorable picture is the fact that the assessments of these countries by Jews themselves are not so unambiguous, and often they diverge significantly from the official data monitoring. For example, 22 percent of respondents surveyed in the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress study from 2019 to 2020, among Jewish communities in five countries of the former USSR, claim that the level of antisemitism in their city and country has decreased in recent years (another 6 percent believe that “there is no anti-Semitism”). At the same time, 14 percent believed that the level of antisemitism has, on the contrary, increased markedly in recent years. And the largest group (38 percent) noted that, in their opinion, there have been no changes in this area, either positive or negative.

            In our opinion, this dissonance can be explained by two factors. First, in addition to acts of direct physical violence or harassment (hate crime), there is a much larger phenomenon of verbal attacks (hate speech), which the authorities of post-Soviet countries record and include in the official statistics of antisemitic acts very reluctantly. If we look at the situation from this angle, the positive trend of the first post-Soviet decades has indeed dramatically changed its vector, starting from the second decade of the 21st century: antisemitism has once again become a prominent factor in the post-Soviet space. This included antisemitic incitement, xenophobic provocations, defamation, Holocaust denial, and antisemitism that emerges from anti-Zionism.

            However, as of yet, there is no talk of Soviet style “state anti-Semitism”. Rather, there exists clear traces of both societal and Soviet-style political antisemitism, along with fluctuations of antisemitic xenophobia, including growing xenophobic beliefs (which currently amount to around 40 percent in Russia). Likewise, there appears a growing willingness to support – if the authorities deem it to be “appropriate” –  a policy of discrimination or restriction of access to significant social positions for all “non-indigenous” ethnic groups, including Jews, and growing support amongst the Russian public of the slogan “Russia for (ethnic) Russians.”

            In addition, according to recent Levada research, 40 percent of Jews in the Russian Federation have heard from non-Jews that “the interests of Jews in Russia are very different from those of the rest of the population”; 20 percent have heard that “Jews are unable to integrate into Russian society.” In addition, the belief that Jews are devoid of “Russian patriotism” and seek personal gain in everything, rather than serving the interests of their country, is deeply rooted in the minds of some Russians. Not surprisingly, more than 40 percent of respondents to a 2018 Levada poll admitted to having been the target of threats, attacks and other types of aggression in the past five years[6]. More than a quarter of respondents of the 2019 to 2020 EAJC survey reported such personal experiences, and nearly a third said that people they knew well had been victims of such incidents.

            All of this, among other things, was the obvious result of the upsurge in antisemitic rhetoric in the countries of the former Soviet Union, mainly Russia, Belarus and Armenia, and came as no surprise to those who have been tracking the growth of antisemitic sentiment over the past ten years. The Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, the war in Ukraine and the current war in the Middle East have only accelerated the emerging processes. Thus, the antisemitic riots in Dagestan have shown, as Israeli researcher Nati Cantorovich rightly believes, that simple and non-committal rhetoric is a bygone stage, and if necessary, violent antsemitism, as well as habitual antsemitism, will also return to the arena of the new reality at any moment.[7]


             The factor of silencing and misinterpretation

              The second factor, which explains the above-mentioned dissonance between the growing feelings of Jews in a number of post-Soviet countries about possible threats to their personal security and the official statistics and assurances of the authorities, is all the more important. The authorities of post-Soviet countries, concerned about their reputation, are extremely reluctant to register and include in official statistics incidents of antisemitic attacks and vandalism, often trying either to silence these events or, at the very least, to treat them as “ordinary hooliganism” or crimes that do not have xenophobic overtones. Moreover, local Jewish communities sometimes assist them in this underreporting, most often unwittingly. Some observers believe that Jewish communities sometimes do not publicize antisemitic incidents, mostly of a violent nature, for fear that this will serve as a catalyst for imitators.

               The ongoing war between Israel and the radical Islamist terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip gives a special nuance to this relatively new reality. A few directly or indirectly related events in the former Soviet Union have attracted close attention.  One of them was an act of antisemitic vandalism in the Ukrainian city of Nikolaev, where currently unknown perpetrators painted red paint, symbolizing blood, on the outer wall of the local synagogue, the center of the Jewish community – a close-knit, active and respected one in this city, which has suffered greatly from the war with Russia.[8] According to Shalom Gotlib, the rabbi of that community and a HABAD movement envoy in the city, Ukrainian police took it seriously. At the same time, the police are checking “all leads”[9] and although, from the point of view of local Jews, everything that happened is the result of “wild anti-Semitic incitement against the background of the operation in Gaza,” a certain connection between this antisemitic incident and the events in the Middle East has not yet been established.

              Thus, in this case there is not so much underreporting as “under investigation”: it is not an attempt to cover up the incident and its antisemitic nature.

              Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of several other incidents of a similar nature. Since the beginning of hostilities in Gaza, there have been at least two antisemitic acts in Uzbekistan. For instance, two HABAD representatives were attacked in Tashkent and anti-Israeli graffiti was painted on a synagogue. Both incidents were not reported in the media, nor were they reported by representatives of the Jewish community. The attack was highlighted in an October 31 report by Israel’s Ministry of the Diaspora Affairs, prepared in collaboration with the government’s Nativ Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office. The source of information was the publication of the Telegram channel AZfront based on reports and photos sent by the readers.

             A similar occurance took place in Armenia, but in a number of cases representatives of the local Jewish community — more than in other countries of the former USSR — were not ready to publicize incidents of a pronounced antsemitic nature. It is possible to surmise the motives behind this. Firstly, the desire “not to make waves”, which, as supporters of this course of action believe, can provoke negative consequences primarily for the Jews themselves. In addition, they seek to demonstrate the maximum loyalty of the Jewish community to the local authorities: the unity of the citizens of a country in conflict with its neighbors is particularly important to highlight in the context of Yerevan’s reorientation towards strategic partnership with the Western countries.

             In recent months, the country’s only synagogue in Yerevan was the target of at least three attacks, including arson attempts, which began even before the Gaza war. The first arson attempt in September 2023, whose initiators remained unknown, was not publicized by the community leadership, apparently driven by the above-mentioned considerations. (Photos of the aftermath of the arson attempt and discussion of antisemitism in the country were removed from the local community’s Telegram channel). Ultimately, the event only came to light after two similar acts in October and November 2023. Responsibility for the latter two incidents was claimed by the “revived” group ASALA, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, recognized by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

            But even in this case, representatives of the local Jewish community preferred to downplay the scale of the incidents. The official position of the leadership of Armenia’s very small organized Jewish community acknowledges the existence of anti-Israeli sentiments  in part as a result of Azerbaijan’s allied relations with the Jewish state. However, it simultaneously denies (contrary to the reports by Israeli government agencies, investigations by American and Israeli think tanks and publications by the international media) the existence of any antisemitic sentiment in Armenia.  And antisemitic incidents are explained as “attempts of Armenia’s enemies from abroad to discredit the country.” De facto, there exists both underreporting and attempts to “play along” with the position of the local authorities, who claimed that they had allocated security guards to the synagogue and were investigating the attacks.

            The motivations of the leadership of these and other post-Soviet communities are understandable, but it is also true that concealing information about antisemitic incidents distorts the real picture. Importantly, it prevents the development of adequate policies to stop and prevent these destructive processes.

[1] https://www.gov.il/BlobFolder/news/iron-sword-011123/en/file_wareng071123.pdf

[2] Gerard Baker, “The Rise of Woke Anti-Semitism: It’s the oldest hatred, but its resurgence signals a wider disturbance in society’s soul”, The WSJ, May 24, 2021

[3] European Commission. Monitoring antisemitism: Data and surveys on antisemitic hate crime, hate incidents, attitudes of the general population and the perspective of Jewish communities. https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/combatting-discrimination/racism-and-xenophobia/combating-antisemitism/monitoring-antisemitism_en; American Jewish Committee: The State of Antisemitism in America 2020: Comparing American Jews and the General Public. Washington: AJC/Global Voice, 2021 https://www.ajc.org/AntisemitismReport2020/Comparing-American-Jews-and-General-Public

[4] Shahar Eilam, Adi Kantor, Tom Eshed, Tal-Or Cohen, “Contemporary Antisemitism in the Political Discourse of Five Western European Countries: Germany, France, Britain, Spain, Ireland”. Memorandum No. 21. Tel-Aviv: INSS and the Jewish agency for Israel, 4 June 2021 https://www.inss.org.il/publication/contemporary-antisemitism-europe/

[5] https://www.gov.il/BlobFolder/news/wzo24012022/en/file_2021%20report-final.pdf

[6] “Perception of anti-Semitism through the eyes of the Jewish population of Russia”, 2018, pp. 22-24.

[7] https://besacenter.org/everything-old-is-new-again-manifestations-of-anti-semitism-in-the-post-soviet-space-in-the-context-of-iron-swords-military-operation/

[8] https://www.7kanal.co.il/news/255958

[9] https://www.facebook.com/UA.National.Police.Nikolaev/posts