A modern disputation?
June 27, 2005 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Judaism on trial. After thousands of prominent Russians, including a chess champion and 20 members of parliament, demanded that Russia ban Judaism and Jewish organizations, the state prosecutor is investigating the Shulhan Arukh, a 16th century book of Jewish law (and early example of hypertext), for causing incitement and expressing anti-Russian views. Judaism used to be placed on trial regularly during the Middle Ages, and, except for a famous episode in 1264, it always ended badly for the Jews. So what is going on in Russia?
posted by blahblahblah (37 comments total)
Let's just face it - it has never been a good time to be Jewish. We are, perhaps, the world's most consistantly disliked people. And it doesn't help that we constitute an exteme minority (2% I think in the US, and that's pretty high compared to countries who have next to no Jews at all.)

Sure, we may have it easy in America right now, since people think we're cute and funny and amusing, but this hasn't always been the case.
posted by afroblanca at 9:00 AM on June 27, 2005

[joke in extremely bad taste]
Well, if you would stop taking over the media and our banks and eating our babies and corrupting our children and destroying America, we wouldn't have a problem with you.
[/joke in extremely bad taste]

Y'know, I really like aspects of Russia's culture and studying its language and stuff, but I can't think of any times in its history when its government hasn't been fucked up. So I'm not surprised by this.
posted by schroedinger at 9:20 AM on June 27, 2005

Which is an early example of hypertext: the web page, or the Shulhan Arukh itself? And if the latter, how?
posted by bingo at 9:22 AM on June 27, 2005

So what is going on in Russia?

Whadduya think's going on? Anti-semitism. After the trumped-up charges comes the killing. Thus has it ever been. There is only one moral position to take on all this. The rest of us have to be prepared to die with the Jews, in the hope that by our sheer numbers we can clog up the gas chambers and crematoriums, and slow the pace of murder. (Christians and non-believers alike have to be ready to die with the Jews.) What all this means theologically is murky. No religion has yet worked the Holocaust into its system (except as, perhaps, instigation of the biblically predicted mass return of Jews to Israel). This is bad news.
posted by Faze at 9:24 AM on June 27, 2005

Not surprising at all, sadly--they're moving backwards faster than us over there.
posted by amberglow at 9:31 AM on June 27, 2005

I give the New York Times Magazine two weeks maximum to write a big story on growing anti-semitism in Russia.
posted by redteam at 9:42 AM on June 27, 2005

Faze: “No religion has yet worked the Holocaust into its system ”
Actually, the Kabbalah has quite a clear stance on the Shoa. Of course, I can’t tell you what it is.
posted by signal at 9:43 AM on June 27, 2005

I give the New York Times Magazine two weeks maximum to write a big story on growing anti-semitism in Russia.
posted by redteam at 12:42 PM EST

Please elaborate.
posted by nofundy at 10:09 AM on June 27, 2005

Which is an early example of hypertext...?

the Shulhan Arukh.

And if the latter, how?

i'm sure he meant that the pages are laid out in sections, and some sections are navigational aides, others are expanded commentary on yet other sections. i too found the hypertext comparison a stretch, but if you explore the link and click the various sections of the image map, you get his point.
posted by quonsar at 10:24 AM on June 27, 2005

Russian antisemitism has roots in Russian nationalism, which stem from a long standing inferiority complex vis a vis the West - especially democratic institutions and economic models that do not take in "Russia's unique circumstances." On the one hand, Russian nationalism has roots in the "Narodnik" movement of the late 1800s, which placed the "peasant" as the finest example of Russian values as opposed to the nobles with their "weak and foreign" francophone ways. Czar Nicholas II and the Russian Orthodox Church later gave anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire a "legitimacy" of a well-organized and respected movement.
Since Stalin basically destroyed the culture of Russia's peasant class, neo-nationalists revive those anti-semitic traditions and claim legitimacy and continuity to Russian voters fed up with the anarchic kleptocracy that post-Soviet Russia has become. Who needs a political platform when howling about Jewish conspiracies offers enough historical resonance to deliver the votes. I sure hope Karl Rove doesn't pick up on this.

Anti-semitism has been used extensively as a useful tool to distance ex-communists from their pasts in Russia and East Europe since 1990.
posted by zaelic at 10:30 AM on June 27, 2005

I think the anti-semitism often has its roots in general frustration with another problem, with politicians using Jews as scapegoats to mask what's really going on.

For example, in this case, we have the wholesale pilfering of Russia's resources and companies after the fall of communism. This is a massive problem which has affected everyone in Russia and made people very bitter. Now, it just so happens that several of Russia's biggest tycoons (they, like the others, have very dirty hands when it comes to exactly how they acquired their massive wealth) are Jewish.

Politicians can then direct people's attention away from the overall corruption and claim that Russia's problems are the result of a plot by Jews. Anti-semitism works because it gives people a focus for their problems, and in this case they have easy examples of Russian with Jewish roots who profitted mightily by misusing the system for their own ends.

It's difficult for people to focus their despair and anger over the wholesale robbery of their country-- it becomes a lot easier when a small ethnic minority is placed that forefront of that theft, thus exonerating 'real Russians' and letting people feel good about 'real Russia'.
posted by chaz at 10:39 AM on June 27, 2005

I thought that Jews hated you in Soviet Russia...
posted by dr_dank at 10:41 AM on June 27, 2005

An interesting read from a Jewish point of view: The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics
posted by zaelic at 10:45 AM on June 27, 2005

Flashback to three months ago:
Eye on Eurasia: Cossacks again to keep Jews in line

"Tartu, Estonia, Mar. 22 (UPI) -- In the name of fighting international terrorism, Russian authorities have taken another step that many are likely to find disturbing: They are currently organizing Cossack units to combat what they see as the threat of terrorism and crime in the Russian Federation's Jewish Autonomous Region.

On March 16, the Council on Cossack Affairs attached to the Office of the Presidential Representative in the Far Eastern Federal District decided to re-establish the Amur Cossack Host to oversee more than 15,000 Cossacks in the Khabarovsk area, the Amur region and the Jewish Autonomous District...

Not everyone is likely to be so optimistic. The symbolism of this step is especially troubling. Cossack units in the pre-1917 Russian Empire were frequently involved in anti-Jewish pogroms, and the Amur Cossack Host -- and especially the Ussuri Cossack Host, which is now being subordinated to it -- were especially notorious in this regard during the Russian Civil War.

Indeed, at that time, some of the members of these two hosts were involved with atamans (Cossack elders) and even the "mad"" Baron Ungern-Sternberg, who viewed Jews as "hereditary communists" and conducted particularly vicious pogroms against them. Not only were the actions of these Cossacks praised by the Nazis, but they feature on neo-Nazi sites to this day...

But there is a real danger that the Cossacks will see this latest move in a different way, as representing an official blessing of what they are doing and an invitation for them to behave even worse than in the past -- especially when they are dealing out of the media spotlight with Jews and others they have traditionally seen as their enemies."
All in the name of terrorism, sure.... Although, for what it's worth, there are very few Jews (1-2%) who actually live in the Jewish Autonomous Region.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:26 AM on June 27, 2005

zaelic -- That's an interesting document from the Anti-Defamation League, and very similar to recent Moslem defenses against attacks on their religion via the selective quotation of texts from the Koran. This is what happens when you give your religious allegiance to ancient texts. You find yourself defending all sorts of nutty, contradictory and nasty stuff. Same goes for modern texts, like Mormonism and Scientology. But really, the libelers of Jews aren't to be reasoned with, any more than the guys who flew the airplanes into the WTC could have been reasoned out of their anti-Americanism. Many hundreds of thousands of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were killed by their neighbors, their townspeople, the people who knew them well, and who knew damned well that Jews weren't child molesters, killers, haters of humanity, etc.

As much as I hate "political correctness" and extreme sensitivity to ethnic slights and slurs, it does have a strong defense in the fact that anti-semitism, like racism, is a monster that can only be killed in its infancy. Allow it to grow, and it quickly gets out of control.
posted by Faze at 11:33 AM on June 27, 2005

nofundy, I was getting at how the New York Times Magazine never fails to throw in a couple of Jewish special interest stories or quasi-relevant to fully irrelevant fully fleshed-out news articles about Jewish people somewhere. This one would actually be pretty interesting if they dove right in, but week after week of stories about growing up as a Rabbi's son gets pretty boring if you're not a Jew. I guess that's how Christmas feels to them.
posted by redteam at 11:36 AM on June 27, 2005

redteam, that's a pretty creepy response. I'm sorry you answered the question; I just thought you meant the Times was behind the curve. Are you seriously going the "Jew York Times" route?

Faze, you're right about the danger of ethnic slights and slurs, but it's absurd overreaction to say "now comes the killing." This is yet another burst of frustration expressing itself as anti-Semitism ("the socialism of fools"); it's not going to lead to mass killing any more than Americans yammering at each other in apocalyptic language does. Not to say that if I were a Russian Jew I wouldn't be worried, but let's try to keep our heads here.
posted by languagehat at 12:23 PM on June 27, 2005

languagehat, I appreciate your comment, but if you know any Russian Jews, they might tell you that anti-Semitism is rife and quite open in contemporary Russian society. (Most are either fatalistic, or desperate to get out.) It is not like the ritualistic political and cultural yammering in the U.S. There are hundreds of Russians still living who have pulled the trigger on Jews during the war period and after -- genuine perpetrators of the Holocaust and Stalinist pograms, who go unpunished, unpursued, and unremarked among their fellow citizens. The elderly man sitting next to you on the Moscow subway may one of the thousands of Russians or Ukranians who have killed Jews simply for being Jews, no differently than the murderers of Daniel Pearl. In short, killing Jews is in the living memory of Russians -- and it is not countered by any social impulse to extreme political correctness as regards ethnicity.

And yes, languagehat, I agree, redteam's response was "pretty creepy."
posted by Faze at 1:20 PM on June 27, 2005

"In every generation, they rise up against us to annihilate us.'

posted by eustatic at 1:32 PM on June 27, 2005

So, this ritual murder thingy (see second link), has it been practiced any time in the last couple of centuries?
posted by sour cream at 1:39 PM on June 27, 2005

Don't be sorry, languagehat, it's ok!

I'm genuinely looking forward for more coverage of this: an interesting topic.

Basically all of my Russian friends got into the country (I live in Los Angeles) because of some kind of asylum for Jews being persecuted in Russia. Most of them aren't Jews (in fact, some of them are the most vocal, offensive anti-Semites I have ever met), so I figured that it was a problem that was being exaggerated and perpetuated by lying Gentiles who benefitted from the whole situation.

Now that I think about it, this is the first news I've ever read about rampant anti-Semitism in Russia.
posted by redteam at 1:52 PM on June 27, 2005

An honest question: are there any large-scale nation states that are not moving toward the reactionary right recently? Iran's election seems to be the latest evidence of this, and I'm wondering if it's really a trend.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:04 PM on June 27, 2005

I'm not sure how useful it is to call the election in Iran a victory for the "reactionary right." If anything, Ahmadinejad was elected because people were fed up with corruption and a tanking economy and he ran on a populist platform that could better be described as "religious left." From the Wikipedia page: "One of his goals [was] 'putting the petroleum income on people's tables,' referring to Iran's oil profits being distributed amongst the poorer classes." Now, he may be a lying scumbag, but you can't call that a reactionary right-wing program.

European countries may be swinging toward the relatively conservative wings of their political spectrums, but that's hardly "reactionary right." Don't be alarmist.

this is the first news I've ever read about rampant anti-Semitism in Russia.

Wow, you haven't kept up much for the last century or so, have you?
posted by languagehat at 2:20 PM on June 27, 2005

redteam, I find that statement offensive. Did most immigrants from Russia falsifiy their ethnic Jewishness to immigrate to America? I don't think that's true at all - I think most of genuinely do have Jewish roots, even if they are not followers of the religion or major participants in the Jewish community..

Besides anti-semitism doesn't care how Jewish a person feels himself to be - whether he participates in Jewish institutions, considers himself Jewish or not. If the family's roots are Jewish, then the person will be subjected to anti semitism regardless of how Jewish he believes himself to be or not to be.

Also keep in mind, redteam, that there are immigrants from Russia who are simply Russians and who did not apply for an asylum but applied for immigration based on different criteria... And if these Russians happen to be vocal offensive anti-semites, that's nothing wrong with that either - they merely reflect the cultural patterns of their original country.. (Not saying that all Russians are anti semites, but there are plenty enough)
posted by gregb1007 at 2:27 PM on June 27, 2005

I'm certainly not being alarmist--don't be pendantic. "Reactionary right" would be at the very end of the arc, but swinging, it seems, we are. I hope you are right and the world is not turning toward religious/cultural-conservative, nationalistic, authoritarian polices . . . but I see more evidence of it every day.

I don't know exactly how to qualify Ahmadinejad's politics, but Wikipedia quote or no, it's a clear defeat for the moderates. Coming to power to clear out the elites and their corruption is not an unknown fascist strategy. And it will be interesting to see what kind of internationalist he will be, seeing as how he's never travelled outside of the country. This is not to say he is a reactionary; I'm just saying the signs don't look good.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:38 PM on June 27, 2005

. . . er, "pedantic."

*curses, throws up hands*
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:39 PM on June 27, 2005

it's a clear defeat for the moderates

Yes, yes, that's the standard Western-media line, but I don't think most Westerners know enough about Iranian politics to even know what a "moderate" is in that context other than "somebody who doesn't hate the West." They elected Khatami, who you presumably consider a moderate, and he didn't do jack shit for them. Now they're trying Ahmadinejad; when he doesn't work out either, they'll try something else. (Just as Western voters swing dependably between "liberal" and "conservative" parties.) It's a mistake trying to read huge philosophical implications into most elections, and this is emphatically not an exception.

I remind you that most liberals were wringing their hands about how the conservative tide was sweeping the world back in the Reagan-Thatcher '80s; if you're old enough, you were probably among them. Then the pendulum swung back. Try to remain calm.
posted by languagehat at 3:12 PM on June 27, 2005

We're still paying for that swing back then, and will pay for decades for this swing now.
posted by amberglow at 3:14 PM on June 27, 2005

What's with the patronizing lately? I am not wringing my hands and I am not a "hysterical liberal." My politics and background might be very different than what you imagine. I am too young to remember what the liberals in the United States were going on about in the early 80's, but I don't understand what that has to do with anything (unless you believe macropolitical change runs in 20-year cycles . . . which I kind of doubt).

Anyway, Russian hardline policies, elections both here and abroad, the growth of nuclear weapon programs, and most politics of the mideast seem to augur a turn away from what might be called general liberal policies. That is my nonprofessional observation, anyway. I still would be interested in hearing an informed opinion on this thought.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 3:47 PM on June 27, 2005

Prejudice, it seems, is a standard fare of life. In his folksong entitled "National Brotherhood Week," Tom Lehrer sings:

Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics,
and the Catholics hate the Protestants,
and the Hindus hate the Moslems
and everybody hates the Jews.
posted by redneck_zionist at 4:25 PM on June 27, 2005

Jeez, _sirmissalot_ , take it easy. I wasn't patronizing you, I was expressing an opinion. I didn't say you were wringing your hands, did I? And where did the "hysterical liberal" come from, in quotes and all? If you don't think my opinion is "informed," OK, but I've been reading pretty intensively about these countries for some decades now. And I seriously doubt the politics of Iran and Russia and America and the Netherlands and wherever else you might be thinking about have much if anything to do with each other. Politics is always local.
posted by languagehat at 5:00 PM on June 27, 2005

"I seriously doubt the politics of Iran and Russia and America and the Netherlands and wherever else you might be thinking about have much if anything to do with each other."

Honestly? Well, okay. We disagree there.

Apologies if I came off as touchy. I was probably reading you wrong. (My quotes didn't mean to imply literalism, but rather, 'the concept of.') It's a Monday after all.

It seems to me that everything was easier when two hegemons held all of the cards. Now that it's every man for himself, it's interesting to see states trying to (re)define themselves. Notice how much of the political rhetoric looks backward, not forward. I may well be wrong about Iran, but I meant it only as one example out of hundreds. It's also possible that I'm ascribing too much weight to the rise of religious conservatives here in the US . . . but stuff like this keeps coming up.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 5:22 PM on June 27, 2005

It's also possible that I'm ascribing too much weight to the rise of religious conservatives here in the US

Oh, I doubt that—I think it's an extremely serious development. I just don't think it has anything to do with Iran or Europe. It's America's very own form of madness.
posted by languagehat at 5:47 PM on June 27, 2005

"Now that I think about it, this is the first news I've ever read about rampant anti-Semitism in Russia."

Redteam, it doesn't have to be news, Russia has always been an anti-Semitic society. My own father believes that the Holocaust was exaggerated, him being the non-jewish side of my family. This kind of news never suprises me, but your treatment of the issue is offensive.
posted by vodkadin at 9:21 PM on June 27, 2005

Languagehat: I so wish you are right about politics being local, but I fear you are quite mistaken. The world has moved on, its a changed place. The right swing in Europe is not isolated to the Netherlands. The same shit is infesting Belgium and France.

Anti-semitism? I had so thought the world was past that. Is there any single thing that is true of at least a vast majority of Hebrews, that isn't true of most humans? If we must have nationalism, why can't people take pride in their own culture/nation without putting another down?
posted by Goofyy at 4:07 AM on June 28, 2005

redteam, I find that statement offensive. Did most immigrants from Russia falsifiy their ethnic Jewishness to immigrate to America? I don't think that's true at all - I think most of genuinely do have Jewish roots, even if they are not followers of the religion or major participants in the Jewish community.
In fairness to redteam (and I must say I found his original NYTMag comment more than a little off-putting), it is indeed a well-known and significant phenomenon that Russians with no Jewish roots whatsoever have used fraud to claim Jewish status and thus emigrate from Russia - especially to Germany or Israel. The fraction of emigrating 'Jews' who are fakes is nothing like a majority, but redteam never indicated that it was (outside of his own personal experience).
posted by kickingtheground at 11:39 AM on June 28, 2005

Thanks to MeFi outrage (ok, probably not) the Russian prosecutor has called off the investigation, though they still reserve the right to investigate in the future, and they want unknown "concessions" from Israel in return. In the words of an analyst, " "When you ask the Kremlin for a favor, it can be assumed that the Kremlin will ask favors in return." Sketchy.
posted by blahblahblah at 2:05 PM on June 28, 2005

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