Russian Jews say nationalists rekindle anti-Semitism

Translation, publication of centuries-old text lead to Moscow investigation

June 29, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - When Rabbi Zinovy L. Kogan arrived at the Moscow city prosecutor's office recently, investigators grilled him for two hours about an allegedly incendiary text published by his religious organization.

The suspect work? A Russian translation of a 19th-century book of rules governing Jewish life.

By printing thousands of copies of Kitzur Shulhan Arukh and distributing them through Jewish religious schools, Kogan had angered Russian nationalists. One filed a formal complaint last year with the prosecutor general, claiming the book incited religious hatred against people of other faiths.

For months Moscow prosecutors have weighed banning the book, published by Kogan's Congress of Jewish Religious Congregations and Organizations. The investigation has dragged on despite protests by the Israeli government and international Jewish groups, as well as pledges by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church to fight anti-Semitism.

"This book regulates the life of Jews," Kogan said in an interview yesterday at Moscow's ornate Choral Synagogue, a few blocks from Red Square. "To ban this book means to ban Judaism in Russia."

The Conference of European Rabbis denounced the prosecutor's decision to summon Kogan for questioning June 23. Wire services quoted a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry saying the investigation "reminds us of the official state-sponsored anti-Semitism that we saw in tsarist Russia."

Years of persecution

For centuries, Jews faced persecution in Russia, from restrictions on where they could live under the early czars, to 19th- and early 20th-century pogroms tolerated by the state, to Stalin's allegations of a "doctors' plot" - his claim near the end of his life that Jewish physicians were conspiring to kill prominent Soviet citizens.

Between 1975 and 2000, about 1 million Jews fled the former Soviet Union for Israel. Thousands have returned to Russia in recent years, and Russian authorities say the Jews are returning to a nation that welcomes them.

But Russia also seems to be the site of a groundswell of anti-Semitism that is finding open expression in political life.

"If you look at the situation today, you'll find there is no officially condoned anti-Semitism," said Vladimir Posner, a prominent TV journalist, who is Jewish. "On the other hand, there is a much more pronounced anti-Semitism at the man-on-the-street level. You have newspapers, you have books that are very anti-Semitic.

"You have people, including members of the Duma" - the lower house of parliament - "who make statements that are clearly anti-Semitic."

Some of these ultra-nationalists have in recent years demanded that Jews be denied the right to vote or forced into exile.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin denounced anti-Semitism during a January visit to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland. "No one has the right to remain indifferent" to attacks on Jews, he said, vowing to fight religious bigotry "with the force of law and through public opinion."

Open letter

But at about the same time, thousands of Russians signed an open letter demanding that all Jewish organizations be banned and attacking the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh as racist. The signers included 19 nationalist and Communist members of the 450-seat Duma.

Two deputies went on Posner's popular talk show, Vremnya, Feb. 6 to defend the letter and their call to ban the book.

"They were trying to provoke anti-Semitic reaction to Russia," Posner said. "I kind of wanted to puncture that balloon."

A Communist Duma member, Sergei V. Sobko, claimed the book treats Christians as subhuman and says the difference between Jews and non-Jews is "akin to the difference between ... humans and animals."

As such, Sobko said, Christians are "subject to the death penalty."

"You can't find such a line in the book," Kogan said. "It was simply a lie. And tens of millions of people heard it." Sobko could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A spokesman for the chief of the European Jewish Congress said the organization would ask European Union states not to issue visas valid throughout Europe to the Russian deputies who signed the letter.

Based on a 16th-century rabbinical work and abridged in the 19th century by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh is a distillation of Jewish rules for living. It instructs Jewish women, for example, not to serve as midwives for non-Jews and Jewish tradesmen not to take on non-Jewish apprentices, Kogan said.

These rules, said Kogan, reflected the fears of 19th-century Jews in central Europe that they would be blamed for any sickness or ill fortune of Christians.

Kogan's group began printing the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh in 1997. It has distributed about 7,000 copies in Russia and Israel.

A Russian historian complained to prosecutors about the book in 2004. Kogan called the criticism "a new kind of anti-Semitism" because it targets the practice of Judaism rather than Jews themselves.

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