Anti-Semitic Trends In Post-Communist Eastern European States – An Overview

, October 21, 2004

Jewish Political Studies Review 15:3-4 (Fall 2003) 

This essay outlines the main factors characterizing the anti-Semitic movements and manifestations in the former Soviet Union (FSU) republics and Eastern European countries in the post-communist era, following the democratization and liberalization process taking place in these areas since the early 1990s.

This process enabled, in parallel, the Jewish communities in these countries to develop their educational, cultural, and social activities as well as their links with Israel and the Jewish world.

Some governments took up legal and administrative measures to ban anti-Semitism, but unfortunately they are not sufficiently effective, although there are some positive tendencies that are effective. Israel could and should do more to collaborate with the respective governments on this matter.

 

The gradual process of democratization of the Eastern European regimes in the post-Communist era was accompanied by a liberalization process in the economic, educational, and cultural fields; the organization of various Jewish communities; and the formation of political parties – from the extreme right to the extreme left – whose ideologies are spread in the print media, in the parliament, and from any public rostrum. All this has created social phenomena unknown in the communist era, for good and for bad.

Anyone who happens to examine these phenomena and their influence and implications for the Jewish public – from the smallest to the biggest – in each of the former Soviet Union (FSU) republics and Eastern European states encounters a trend of parallel forces between the constructive and destructive ones. This trend borders, at times, on what one may call a madness of the senses and logic, a kind of return to the fascist times in Europe on the eve of World War II. It is in total contradiction to the enlightened democratic values and human civilization that these states claim to embrace and promote.

It is true that full, unlimited constitutional freedom was granted to the Jewish public to organize itself in communities and social frameworks on national, religious, and social bases. This public is entirely free to maintain and foster links with the State of Israel and with the Jewish diaspora the world over, and to develop an educational and cultural network as well as its own communications media.

At the beginning of 2000, this extended area had about 560 Jewish organizations and about 230 Jewish educational institutions, starting from kindergartens, day, and Sunday schools through to Hebrew courses for adults. In general, thousands of students and thousands of teachers were trained in Hebrew seminars and seminars for Jewish culture, with the assistance of Israel’s Ministry for Education, the World Zionist Organization, and the Liaison Bureau, Nativ.

Some sixty Jewish newspapers and magazines are published, and they play an important informative role by following events in Israel and the Jewish world. They also constitute a forum for self-expression and debates on daily problems. There are also Jewish colleges and universities in Moscow, Petersburg, Kiev, Minsk, and elsewhere in addition to faculties of Jewish Studies established over the past ten years in the universities of Eastern Europe. Jews are free to emigrate and have become involved in political parties (with the exception of the anti-Semitic ones) and in economic, public, and local organizations in each of the Eastern European states previously ruled by communist regimes. (The Jewish community of Romania is an exception to this, since even during the Ceausescu era, it enjoyed a national, religious, and social standing to an extent that none of the other Eastern European Jewish communities shared.)

A glimpse at the demographic situation of the Jewish communities in this part of the world shows a constant process of diminishing population to an extent of 11 percent annually – because of emigration to Israel and Western countries and/or because of assimilation and a negative birth balance.

At the beginning of 2000 the Jewish population in the FSU (including the Baltic states) numbered 704,000. From the beginning of 1990 (when it numbered 2,300,000) to the beginning of 2000, the Jewish population declined by 65 percent.

A similar situation exists in the rest of the Eastern European countries. Estimations put the Jewish population in these countries in 1998 at about 118,000: Hungary – 80,000, Romania – 12,000, Poland – 8,000, Czech Republic – 5,000, Slovakia – 7,000, Bulgaria – 3,000, Croatia – 2,000, and Serbia – 2,000.** One may presume that in the not too distant future – if this process continues – almost no Jews at all will be left in the communities that currently have several hundred members, while in the large communities that presently have several thousand members, Jewish life will continue in the religious, educational, and cultural institutions.

In the other direction, the liberalization process enabled the ultra-nationalistic and anti-Semitic movements to organize themselves. Their public weight is constantly growing, reaching an extent unknown during the communist era. They conduct harsh anti-Semitic propaganda in hundreds of magazines and newspapers all over Eastern Europe.

The increased number of anti-Semitic movements is attributed to several factors, of which the major ones are as follows:

1. The severe economic crisis that characterized the drastic transition from a concentrated economy to a liberal one. As a result of the privatization process, many people were left without any source of income, whereas a small but prominent percentage became very rich, including Jews.

2. The deep hatred of the extreme right and the extreme left towards the foreigner – and the Jews are defined as such – and the nouveau riche who gained their wealth at the expense of the workers. A strange coalition was formed between these ends of the spectrum, where one side (the communists) accuses the Jews of causing the collapse of the communist regime, and the other side, the Right, accuses them of ruling the economy of their state, having robbed its properties and assisted the communist regimes to establish themselves in each country. The roots of hatred towards the Jews are ages deep, so there is no wonder that it unites the Right with the Left in one anti-Semitic coalition. In Russia anti-Semitism became an ideological and political tool of the Right and of the Left in their struggle to gain power.

3. The tendency to strengthen the myth of the national hero who fought or opposed the communist regime. No doubt this stems from the search for a national identity, which the communist regime tried to obliterate. In this connection, the nationalistic movements tend to rehabilitate fascist rulers who cooperated with Nazi Germany (in Romania it was Marshal Ion Antonescu, in Slovakia it was the priest Tiso; both were condemned to death immediately after the end of World War II as Nazi criminals). The Jewish communities in the diaspora and in Israel strongly oppose rehabilitating them, stressing their crimes against Jews during the Holocaust period. In Romania streets were named after Antonescu with the blessing of local municipalities, and a statue of Antonescu was even erected in one of the Bucharest churches. In Slovakia the nationalistic circles annually commemorate the day of Tiso’s execution.

4. The influence of the Orthodox Church over its worshipers in the spirit of classic anti-Semitic Christian propaganda, claiming inter alia that the Jews wish to convert Christians to the Jewish religion.

5. The efforts of the Jewish organizations to redeem public Jewish property that was either captured during the Holocaust or nationalized during communist rule.

6. The weakness of the central authorities in most Eastern European countries in confronting the anti-Semitic movements despite legislation prohibiting the dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda and the existence of anti-Semitic organizations. The October 1998 call of “All Jews to graves” by General Robert Makashov, a Russian parliament member representing the Communist Party, is still remembered. Unlike the Czarist era call “Beat the Jews and save Russia,” this was an actual call for genocide. A vote to censure Makashov for his declaration did not receive the necessary majority in parliament, nor did that body disqualify him as a member of parliament. In Latvia, however, several anti-Semitic organizations were outlawed and a number of anti-Semites were apprehended and arrested, as were those who desecrated monuments in memory of Holocaust victims. In Lithuania and Estonia, the presidents and governments condemned anti-Semitism and also supported the prosecution of local collaborators with the Nazis during World War II. But in other states attempts were made to establish parliamentary coalitions between the ruling party and the nationalist ones.

 

Types of Propaganda Used by the Anti-Semitic Movements

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as well as Hitler’s Mein Kampf are printed by the thousands as reliable documents attesting to the Jewish compulsion to control the world economy in general and the economies of the countries where Jews have integrated into the local hierarchy in particular. It is also claimed to be true that Jews try to impose their influence on local leaders and on world leadership. In Russia, Romania, and Poland accusations were raised during election campaigns that candidates for local leadership were of Jewish origin, using the anti-Semitic defamation as a weapon aimed at deterring the masses from voting for a rival candidate in the presidential elections.

The exploitation of motifs taken from Christian anti-Semitic propaganda from the early and late Middle Ages, such as claims that the Jews crucified and robbed Jesus or the resurrection of blood libels against Jews by accusing them of using Christian blood for their religious rituals.

In the Baltic states, anti-Semites justify the Holocaust of the Jews on the basis of the well-known anti-Semitic accusation that the Jews collaborated with the Soviet authorities in 1940–1941 in deporting Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians to Siberia. The anti-Semites totally disregard the fact that Jews from among the Zionist leadership and Jews who were considered wealthy by the Soviet authorities were also deported to Siberia in that period. This approach results in propaganda justifying the cruel mass murder of Jews by the local population when the German Nazi army invaded these countries, “liberating” them from the Soviet yoke.

Another widespread motif in the other Eastern European countries asserts that the Jews were responsible for bringing the communists to power, while, conversely, the communists claim that Jewish influence caused the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

The Holocaust is compared with what is called “the communist annihilation.” A well-known anti-Semitic publicist in Hungary, Istvan Lubas, claims that the number of victims of communism is much greater than the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. He emphasizes the Jewish origin of the communist leaders in Hungary, while the Jews try to preserve the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

The anti-Semitic movements ignore the extent of the Holocaust. The director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, Leo Pavlat (former counselor for cultural affairs of the Czech Embassy in Israel) asserted that history textbooks disregard the Holocaust and the fate of the Jews in Czechoslovakia.

In Romania there is continued disregard of the Holocaust of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bucovina districts who were executed by the Romanian Army when it invaded these areas at the beginning of the German-Soviet war (July 1941). (The same disregard existed during the communist era.) Moreover, in a speech (on January 2001) at the Central Synagogue of Bucharest commemorating the pogrom against the Jews in Bucharest that had occurred 60 years before, the current president of Romania, Ion Iliescu, even declared that the numbers of victims attributed to the Holocaust of Romanian Jews by historians (referring apparently to historians in Israel, the USA, and even in Romania) are “inflated,” and that in his opinion the Holocaust of the Jews in Romania should not be considered part of the Holocaust per se but rather perceived as “craziness.” (According to historical research over 350,000 Jews perished in the areas under Romanian administration. Half of them were murdered during the Romanian invasion into Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina. The other half perished during the cruel deportation of the survivors to Transnistria – between the Dniester and the Bug rivers – which were also under Romanian administration (summer 1941), and in the ghettoes of Transnistria itself (during 1941–1944).)

This was a turnabout from the attitude expressed by his predecessor, President Constantinescu, who, in a note he sent to the president of the Federation of Jewish communities in Romania (April 1997), admitted – for the first time by a Romanian president – that the Romanian nation feels itself responsible for the great tragedy that befell the Jews of Romania under the fascist regime…and that the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews on Romanian soil would not be forgotten nor forgiven.

 

The Nature of Anti-Semitic Acts

The violent nature of anti-Semitic acts is revealed by the burning of synagogues, desecration of tombstones in Jewish cemeteries and monuments commemorating Holocaust victims, and the leading of unrelenting anti-Semitic campaigns against the Jews in the print media and on public stages. This includes, as noted, parliamentary debates, carrying slogans, and drawing caricatures – whether for news magazines or on walls or, as happened recently in Romania, in a book of anti-Semitic jokes calling for the killing of Jews. (The prime minister of Romania ordered an investigation of this case, but it is doubtful whether any practical administrative steps will be taken, first in prohibiting the distribution of the book and, secondly, against its authors.)

 

The Attitude of the Local Authorities to Anti-Semitism

All Eastern European states adopted laws against anti-Semitic manifestations. From time to time the presidents of the states make statements condemning them. Some countries (Ukraine and the Czech Republic) have taken administrative measures to ban them. However, in the majority of Eastern European states (Russia, Hungary, Romania, and the Baltic states) no definite steps have been taken to prohibit them, especially not the dozens of anti-Semitic newspapers and magazines that daily spread anti-Semitic poison under the guise of so-called respect for freedom of expression. Also, the majority of the states have not carried out a basic review of how history textbooks present the dimensions of the Holocaust and explain the historical background preceding it.

 

Summary and Evaluation

The background of the anti-Semitic outbursts and the types of anti-Semitic propaganda are more or less similar in all Eastern European states. However, it is still possible to see differences in the attitude of some of these countries when they are looked at thematically, as well as differences in the administrative, legal, and educational measures taken by the authorities to combat the increasing manifestations of anti-Semitism.

These differences in attitude may be assessed as follows:

  • Denial of the dimensions of the Holocaust in Romania
  • Public efforts to rehabilitate the state leaders who cooperated with the Nazis – a foremost characteristic of Romania and Slovakia.
  • Comparisons between Holocaust victims and the victims of the communist regimes – characteristic of the Baltic states, Hungary, and partly of Russia.
  • Of late there are indications on the part of the central authorities in Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states, that various anti-Semitic activities are being curbed and those who desecrate Jewish tombstones and monuments are being brought to justice. Therefore, in these countries, a certain decline is evidenced in the dimensions of anti-Semitic activity. Yet, in the remainder of the Eastern European countries, and particularly in Russia, no tendency has been noted on the part of the authorities and parliaments to apply the laws forbidding anti-Semitic activities and propaganda in all forms. Of note, however, is the ongoing intellectual curiosity of many members of the younger generation in Eastern Europe. It prods them to deepen their knowledge about the fate of the Jews both on the eve of World War II and during it, as well as about the Jews’ contribution to economic, social, cultural, and scientific development in each of the countries concerned.

Besides the legal and administrative measures that the authorities are expected to take to ban anti-Semitism in all its forms, there is also great importance in their using educational means to combat anti-Semitism. In this regard, Israel – with its educational and research institutions – could and should work in conjunction with all these countries. This collaboration has already begun in some Eastern European countries, within the framework of cultural agreements existing between these countries and Israel. Secondary school history textbooks are being revised or courses are organized in which participants gain knowledge about the Holocaust and how to teach it. Hopefully the institutions responsible for this subject in Israel will increase their efforts to extend all possible assistance to raise the younger generation’s consciousness of the dangers inherent in anti-Semitism for the Jews living in those countries and for their own nations.

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Sources

Antisemitism Worldwide 1999/2000 and 2000/2001. The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, Tel Aviv University (in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress).

Govrin, Y. “The Jewish Diaspora in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern European Countries in the Post-Communist Era,” in: Jews and Slavs, vol. 9, W. Moskovich, ed. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2001.

Jews and Anti-Semitism in Public Discourse of the Post-Communist European Countries. International Workshop, Jerusalem, 24–26 October 2000. Collection of Papers, the Vidal Sasoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Additional Updated Bibliography

Antisemitism & Prejudice in the Contemporary Media. Abstracts of Conference Papers, International Conference, Jerusalem 18-21 February 2003. The Vidal Sasoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism.

Gidvitz, Betsy. Antisemitism in the Post Soviet States. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, No. 7, 1 April 2003.

Jewish Population of the World 2001. World Jewish Congress, Jerusalem (Hebrew).

Jews of Euro-Asia, (1) 2002. Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, Moscow, June-August 2002.

 

 

Notes

* Based on a paper given at the 16th World Congress for Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, 16 July 2001.

** According to the data of Antisemitism Worldwide 2000/2001 the Jewish population declined as follows: Hungary 60-80,000; Romania 6,000; Poland 5,000; Czech Republic 5,000; Slovakia 3,000; Bulgaria 2,000; Croatia and Serbia 2,000.

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Dr. Yosef Govrin joined Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1953 where he served as director of its Eastern European Department, deputy director-general of the Ministry, and ambassador to Romania and later in Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United Nations Organizations in Vienna. Since his retirement from the Ministry in 1996 he has been a research fellow at the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of The Jewish Factor in the Relations between Nazi-Germany and the USSR (Hebrew, 1986), Israeli-Soviet Relations 1953-1967: From Confrontation to Disruption (Hebrew 1990, Russian 1994; English 1998); Israeli-Romanian Relations at the late Ceausescu Era 1985-1989 (Hebrew 2001, English 2002); Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: The First 50 Years (co-editor, Hebrew 2002); along with many essays, research papers, and encyclopedia entries.

 

About Dr. Yosef Govrin

Dr. Yosef Govrin joined Israel’s Foreign Ministry in 1953 and served as director of the East European Department and deputy director-general of the Ministry, ambassador to Romania, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna. Since 1996 he has been a Research Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.