Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Russian attitudes among Russian Jews

Brooklyn's Russian-speaking, largely Jewish outpost -- provides an answer to many political problems facing Russia and the Middle East.

Jews from the former Soviet Union are probably the most successful immigrant community in the United States. Highly educated and urban, we came here in the 1970s and 1980s, when the number of foreign-born Americans was near an all-time low and the country still welcomed newcomers. We had the support of the U.S. Jewish community. No less important, we were given refugee status, which gave us access to additional benefits not available to other immigrants.

In the Soviet Union, we suffered the usual oppression of the totalitarian state, but this was exacerbated in our case by anti-Semitism -- both from the government and citizens at large. You'd expect us to love freedom and treasure democracy, protection for minority rights and other such niceties.

Not in the least. The fact that former Soviet Jews cast almost 85 percent of their votes for former President George W. Bush in 2004 and supported Senator John McCain by a substantial plurality last year is not the real issue, of course. More troubling, our community has begun to lean toward more racist, intolerant attitudes. It tends to dislike all dissidents and troublemakers, admires force and supports military solutions. And what I find most amazing, the Russian Jewish community is showing increasing intolerance and hatred toward immigrants who they fear are turning the civilized, white United States into a Third World country.

Does this sound familiar? It's those same post-Soviet attitudes that have infected Russia.

Even though Jews have been targets of anti-Semitic forgeries like the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," I received countless e-mails from Russian Jews alleging that U.S. President Barack Obama is anything from a Muslim to the antichrist. Only a bit more than 10 percent of Russian speakers supported him.

In the United States, the Russian-speaking community is too small to matter, but in Israel former Soviets comprise almost 20 percent of the population. In Israel, they initially had a problem. Their far-right proclivities are rooted in the fear and loathing of the Arabs, love for the grandeur of Great Israel and predilection for extreme or military solutions. These views were shared by groups the Russian Israelis disliked, like the Sephardim and religious zealots.

Now, however, Russian Israelis have found their spokesman in Avigdor Lieberman. A marginal entity in 2003, his Israel Our Home party is now the third largest in the Knesset and the kingmaker of the next government.

This year's Israeli election -- and the attack on Gaza that preceded it -- was pivotal. Israel is feeling pressure to rein in its far right, even as the country as a whole moves further rightward.

A small state in a hostile region, Israel needs powerful patrons to survive. It came into existence when Stalin's Soviet Union voted for it in the United Nations, even as the West was ambivalent about the new Jewish state. Israel's next patron was France, and only around the 1967 Six-Day War did a close alliance with Washington develop.

Now, Israel is ideologically ripe to complete the circle. Lieberman has cited tactics employed by then-President Vladimir Putin against Chechnya as an example for handling Gaza. Why not? Russia's ideology and actions dovetail perfectly with the attitudes of Lieberman's voters. Lieberman once asserted that when democracy and Jewish values conflict, Jewish values must prevail.

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