Putin Has Decided It’s Okay to Be Antisemitic

From a Washington Post column by Leon Aron headlined “Putin has decided it’s okay to be antisemitic”:

For years, Vladimir Putin worked hard to demonstrate his philosemitic credentials. He cultivated Jewish communities at home and boosted diplomatic and economic ties between Russia and Israel, including implementing visa-free travel for citizens of both. In 2003, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon referred to Putin as a “true friend of Israel,” and Putin has described Israel (home to at least 1 million Russian-speaking emigrants from the former Soviet Union) as part of “the Russian world.” In April 2017, Russia even recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Now, all that has changed. The transition began with Putin’s mentioning this past June, for the first time, the Jewishness of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A Jew, Putin continued a month later, had been installed by Kyiv’s Western puppeteers to cover up the “Nazi essence” of the regime that the United States and its allies forged in Ukraine. Not long after that, in September, Putin spoke degradingly of a top half-Jewish official who, he said, had “skedaddled” to Israel, leaving a large financial “hole” in the agency where he had worked.

Those proved to be just the first in an increasingly visible series of antisemitic gestures by the Russian leader, who now appears to be reverting to the ingrained habits of his predecessors. In a country with a long history of violent antisemitism and the living memory of the Stalin-instigated campaign against Jewish “rootless cosmopolitans” and “doctors-murderers,” the people and, most certainly and eagerly, officials throughout the vast country have picked up on the signals from the top. Like Clausewitz’s war, antisemitism is a continuation of politics by other means.

The Israeli-Gaza war has endowed the emergent state antisemitism with a vicious momentum. A month after Putin’s antisemitic remarks in September, a mob searching for Jews stormed the airport in the city of Makhachkala, capital of the Muslim-majority republic of Dagestan. Putin presided over the meeting in the Kremlin to investigate the pogrom — and blamed it on the “instigation through social networks” by agents of Western intelligence services based in Ukraine.

There are several reasons for Putin’s turn to Judeophobia. A transactional relationship with Iran has evolved into an alliance cemented by a shared hatred of the United States, and Tehran’s loathing of Jews was bound to seep into a Kremlin that is vitally dependent on Iranian suicide drones for its war in Ukraine.

Putin views the war in Ukraine as a fight to the death with the United States, and a friend of one’s enemy becomes one’s foe as well. As recently as two years ago, Putin would have almost certainly expressed his condolences to the Israeli prime minister within hours of the Hamas attack. Instead, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement referring to the sadistic massacre not as a terrorist attack but as “military actions in Israel,” which it blamed on the West’s refusal to fulfill the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council and “blocking” the work of the Middle East Quartet of Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Putin waited nine days before calling Benjamin Netanyahu. A week and a half later, on Oct. 26, a delegation from Hamas arrived in Moscow. Soon to come for negotiations with Putin is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who in September claimed that Adolf Hitler did not kill the Jews for “being Jews” but because “of their role in society, which had to do with usury, money and so on.”

Yet the main reason for Putin’s turn toward antisemitic rhetoric is domestic. A presidential election is due in March. The result, of course, is not in question: Putin will get his fifth term. But after almost a quarter-century at the helm, he yearns for a triumph, a glowing tribute to his labors, the validation of his self-imposed mission as Russia’s savior and redeemer.

Yet even with the deafening television propaganda and the secret police on the lookout for subversives, a celebration might be tough to pull off. Putin is facing a stagnant economy and rising inflation, the meat grinder of an unwinnable war, a treasury creaking under military expenditures that next year will claim almost one-third of the budget, and shortages not only of goods under sanction but even of gasoline and diesel fuel.

So, he has decided to follow the path blazed by Stalin, whose official place in Russian history has undergone in the past few years a dramatic change from a careful creeping rehabilitation to an almost complete whitewashing in history textbooks: If you can’t point to successes, point to enemies. Nor is there any need to reinvent the wheel. As Russia sees it, its external foes are the Western imperialists — the United States and NATO — plus the Ukrainian Nazis. Its domestic enemies are the wreckers, the saboteurs — and the Jews.

Russia’s transition to a neo-Stalinist state is bad news for the world. It is much worse for the estimated 150,000 Russian Jews. “Here we are,” Lev Rubenstein, a popular Russian poet and a Jew, wrote a day after the pogrom. “Watching a crazy and crazed Nazi bacchanal in Makhachkala. So far in Makhachkala. The key words are ‘so far. …’”

Leon Aron is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War,” which was published last month.

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