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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 February, 2005, 12:35 GMT
Anti-Semitism alarms Russian Jews
By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

Vandalism at Jewish cemetery
Vandals struck Jewish cemeteries in St Petersburg and other cities
A Moscow synagogue echoes to the sound of morning worship.

Cocooned in black and white prayer shawls, the 300-strong congregation sways to the rhythm of Jewish prayer.

In Soviet times, Jews caught coming to synagogue risked losing their jobs or being expelled from university, such was the level of state-sponsored anti-Semitism.

Today, Russian Jews enjoy freedom of worship - but they are worried by what they see as a new wave of anti-Jewish sentiment emanating from the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

Last month, 19 members of the Duma threw their support behind a letter to the country's prosecutor general.

Claiming that a centuries-old Hebrew text incites violence, the letter compared Judaism to Satanism and accused Jews of ritual murder. It also called for all Jewish organisations in Russia to be investigated and banned.

"This is inciting anti-Semitism, it's against the law and these people should be banned from parliament," Russia's Chief Rabbi, Berl Lazar told me.

"The idea that even one member of parliament could sign a letter trying to expel the Jewish community completely from Russia, this is unheard of. Especially in recent years when, in general, we've felt that anti-Semitism from government officials has almost died out."

Public support

The Russian Jewish Congress says it is seeking legal advice and plans to take the MPs to court. But the parliamentarians are unrepentant. They've withdrawn the letter for now, but Communist MP Sergei Sobko says it will be re-drafted and re-submitted.

"Do they really think that by taking us to court the whole country will suddenly stop being anti-Semitic?" Mr Sobko said. "When our voters find out that their members of parliament are being threatened like this, the situation will grow worse."

Russian Jews risked their lives fighting for Russia - it's disgusting that we're seen now as the enemies
Petr Bograd,
War hero

Anti-Semitism has deep roots in Russia. Under the tsar, Jewish people were banned from living in huge swathes of the Russian empire. Anti-Semitism remained a government policy in the Soviet Union.

More recently, Russia's Jewish community has been enjoying a renaissance - with new freedoms, new schools and new synagogues opening up across the country.

President Vladimir Putin himself attended the opening of a Jewish community centre in Moscow four and a half years ago.

But anti-Jewish feelings remain widespread. When one of the MPs who signed the letter appeared on TV and blamed all of Russia's problems on the Jews, more than half of the 100,000 viewers who called in agreed with him.

Embarrassingly for Mr Putin, the letter appeared just days before his recent visit to Auschwitz, marking the 60th anniversary of the concentration camp's liberation. There, Mr Putin expressed his shame at anti-Semitism.

Scapegoat

But Tankred Golenpolsky, editor of Russia's Jewish Gazette, believes words aren't sufficient.

Vladimir Putin at Auschwitz
Russia's President Putin attended recent ceremonies at Auschwitz

"Mr President, standing in front of the burial places in Auschwitz you said you were ashamed. Are you as ashamed today so as to get those members of the parliament who signed that Nazi letter out of the parliament?"

Eighty-four-year-old Petr Bograd says he finds the MPs' letter particularly insulting. A Jewish general in the Red Army, Mr Bograd fought against fascism in World War Two.

"It makes my heart ache to hear anti-Semitic talk like this," he told me. "Russian Jews risked their lives fighting for Russia - it's disgusting that we're seen now as the enemies."

Gen Bograd won more than 40 medals for his bravery. He's a war hero but today, he is made to feel more like a scapegoat for his country's problems.




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