Maintain the taboo against anti-Semitism

<< No 5 (238), 6 February 2017 >>

♦ Aleksandr Verkhovsky: “It’s important the government supports the taboo against anti-Semitism” ♦

Alexander Verkhovsky

A few days ago, at the suggestion of State Duma Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy, the Russian media began talking about the problem of anti-Semitism in society. Representatives of Jewish communities and  public figures condemned Tolstoy for what he said about the descendants of people “who had sprung from the Pale of Settlement” – that is, about Jews.

According to ALEXANDER VERKHOVSKY, director of the SOVA Centre (which has monitored nationalism and racism in Russia since 2002), the deputy Speaker’s insulting statement was an isolated instance rather than a sign of a high level of anti-Semitism in society. This does not mean, however, that one should shut one’s eyes to these kinds of isolated instances. Verkhovsky explains why.

The level of anti-Semitism in society can be measured by various parameters: specific ideological views; or the Bogardus Scale of how close someone is prepared to let someone — Jews, for example — approach.

Right now all these indices are dropping in Russia. To judge from sociological surveys, the ideas of anti-Semitism are no longer relevant compared with many other topics. Naturally, some anti-Semitic prejudices do exist, but they are less widespread than they were 15-20 years ago.

There is no particular difference with regard to which social stratum the person belongs to. Representatives of the elite do not differ from the rest of the population in their anti-Semitism in any way. There is a small difference between residents of various types of location (village, small town or city), but again, the difference is negligible.

What we do see, including in Tolstoy’s example, is not evidence of any widespread moods. It is simply various conspiracy theories that sit in the minds of citizens who are very concerned about politics and sometimes burst to the surface.

Today’s Russian anti-Semitism divides into two component parts. On the one hand, it as an ideological anti-Semitism among those groups for which this topic is ideologically important. For example, radical Islamists, neo-Nazis, and Black Hundreds. But all these are relatively small groups of citizens. On the other hand, there are more widespread prejudices connected simply with the popularity of conspiracy theories.

Right now, conspiracy theory in all its varieties is structurally borrowed from old, classic anti-Semitism. Therefore, if someone, for certain reasons, believes that the entire history of the modern day amounts to the battle between the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, then he will inevitably reproduce anti-Semitic clichés.

As soon as any anti-Western campaign begins, conspiracy theories immediately become popular. In the Russian context, these are two interconnected things.

Since 2014, there have been more conspiracy theories in the Russian media. This year, an insane propaganda campaign began in connection with Ukraine. Because it picked up speed so abruptly, the usual censorship restrictions relaxed for a while. This was directly reflected in the number of anti-Semitic public statements.

Since the mid-1990s, at least on federal television, any anti-Semitic statements have been stopped before they began; the anti-Semitic theme was totally taboo. When it was necessary to mobilize propagandists quickly, these reins had to be loosened somewhat. Therefore, on television we did see some manifestations of anti-Semitism. Later these reins were tightened up again, and the majority of these statements disappeared. But from time to time, some of them do break through as before. And Tolstoy demonstrated this for us. No one was forcing him to say what he said. He could have gotten along without it.

If the taboo against the use of this kind of rhetoric by official and quasi-official persons is lifted, that changes the lay of the land very powerfully, and the consequences are unpredictable. Therefore, I think that the top leadership does not have an interest in this, and there will be no development of the anti-Semitic theme in our information sphere.

Although, theoretically, a rise in anti-Semitism in the country is possible. It’s not at all hard to provoke a wave of it; all it takes is the desire. It’s not even necessary to mobilize the entire country to hate Jews. All it takes is a small percentage, 10 percent, for example, of citizens who think that their aggression toward Jews or anyone else is being encouraged, rather than curtailed, by the authorities.

In this sense, one could name anyone at all as the object of aggression. We saw this, for example, during the 2013 anti-gay campaign. We have a fairly homophobic country, but people preferred to ignore that topic. When the population began to be frankly set against them, though, the impunity of attacks rose drastically because people realized they weren’t going to be punished for this. Those who wanted to go beat up someone started doing this easily. The same could happen with respect to anyone at all. The question is whether our regime will risk agreeing to this.

It seems to me that we just don’t understand yet why our political leadership should have the need to single out Jews as an object of violence. Therefore, I wouldn’t worry about any rise in the level of anti-Semitism. But if no disciplinary measures are taken against Tolstoy, that’s a bad sign. That would mean that some official or other thinks that these kinds of statements are permissible. And it’s important that the authorities support the taboo against anti-Semitism.”

 Translated by Marian Schwartz

Moscow Helsinki Group
(from Open Russia, 25 January 2017)

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