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On Sergei Lavrov and Jewish Anti-Semitism

The administration of Naftali Bennett has reacted with hysterical fury to this comment by the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Mr. Sergei Lavrov: “I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood. [That president Zelensky of the Ukraine is Jewish] means absolutely nothing. Wise Jewish people say that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews.”

This seems to me a wholly innocuous remark; and one notes besides Mr. Lavrov’s modest initial admission that he could be wrong. The Ukraine is not in need of “denazification” and this propagandistic casus belli is spurious. But it is the only country in the world with an officially white supremacist division of its armed forces, the Azov Battalion, whose symbol is based on the insignia of the SS and some of whose guerrillas sport swastika tattoos. Ukrainian skinheads march in parades under the colors of the wartime Ukrainian Nazi collaborators whose members were the backbone of the Einsatzgruppen and the cohort of ghetto and death camp guards. The Ukraine, not Russia, erects statues of the anti-Semitic fascist murderers Stepan Bandera and Semyon Petlyura. The Ukraine celebrates as its chief national hero the 17th century Cossack chieftain Bogdan Khmelnitsky, who killed more Jews than any other single monster in history before Hitler. (By the way, Khmelnitsky was fighting for the Russian Orthodox Tsar against Catholic Poland. Mythographers of Ukrainian liberation tend to glance over this inconvenient fact.)

The controlled American media, otherwise obsessed with parsing the minutest possible expressions of anti-Black racism, gives the Ukraine carte blanche (pardon the mot juste) here, of course, since this is a war the establishment wants, a war to be fought to the last Ukrainian. Nothing justifies Putin’s military aggression, and the invading army is making up for its bad strategy, poor morale and training, and ramshackle supply chain with criminal atrocities against the peaceful population. Putin seems to have become unhinged: he is a repressive dictator at home and a menace abroad. The suffering and hatred generated by this conflict will doubtless poison generations.

However blame for this war rests also with successive US administrations, which have repurposed the ostensibly defensive, anti-Communist NATO alliance as an overtly aggressive, purely anti-Russian formation. Russophobic lies and hysteria were tools in the Democrats’ campaign to delegitimize an elected president with two successive impeachments. The US openly backed the coup d’etat in 2014 that overthrew the president of the Ukraine. Yanukovich supported lucrative economic ties with Russia and respected the concerns of Ukraine’s very large Russian-speaking population. To the US, half a world away, it was unacceptable that the two countries, indissolubly linked by ties of culture, faith, language, and historical fortune for a thousand years, should be friends rather than pawns to be manipulated in the 21st century version of the Great Game of global dominance.

What do the Jews have to do with all this? The word Ukraine means “Borderland”; an earlier name of the country was Malorossiya, “Little Russia”. To its north is Belarus or Belorussia (“White Russia”). Jews have lived in these places for many centuries, in part because Poland ruled them and Jews found sanctuary in Poland after expulsions from other European countries. When the Russian Empire expanded westward, Jews found ourselves under Russian rule, confined to the Pale of Settlement— Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine. The Russian Revolution of 1917 repressed religion but emancipated Jews as Soviet citizens. Very few Jews in the Ukraine have ever spoken Ukrainian, an East Slavic language akin to Russian, as their native tongue. Before the Revolution, Yiddish was the mother tongue; Russian, the second language. After the Revolution, Russian became the mother tongue. Most “Russian Jews” were from the Ukraine– the poet Saul Tchernikovsky, the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Red Army Leon Trotsky.

Of course it is wonderful that in the post-Soviet era a television comic with a Jewish background, Vladimir Zelensky, has made it in Ukrainian politics. America, too, had an actor as president for a while. But Mr. Lavrov is right, it doesn’t mean anything. Just a month ago, Zelensky castigated the Knesset for not being supportive enough of his government, and compared the Russian invasion to the Nazi Holocaust. Israel has to tread a careful line in obeying big brother, America— meaning whatever clown is in the White House— while at the same time not annoying Russia, which is, thanks in large measure to Washington’s own shenanigans, the major player in Syria. Zelensky either didn’t know this or didn’t care, and the Holocaust reference was a similarly superficial, ignorant cheap shot.

Did Hitler have a Jewish ancestor? Maybe he did. Many people do. I don’t know. Is there a bit of the incinerated creature we can send in for DNA testing, perhaps? Anyway as the Russian saying goes, Я свечку не держал. “I wasn’t holding the candle.” (In old Russia, a serf held the lit candle in the bedroom while his or her master cohabited in the bed with, well, with anyone he wanted.) The Armenian journalist Marietta Shahinian discovered that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the father of the Revolution, had a maternal Jewish grandmother. The KGB told her to keep quiet about it, making her an offer she couldn’t refuse. The same government agency employed the Евсекция, or Jewish Section, staffed by Jews, to repress, arrest, and torture religious Jews and close down yeshivas and shuls. A kind of J Street packing iron. Maybe Mr. Lavrov, who grew up in the Soviet era, had that kind of thing in mind. He seems to me a thoughtful person.

Back at Harvard about fifteen years ago, a German filmmaker and his Polish and Ukrainian retinue screened a documentary about the frescoes of Bruno Schulz. The latter was a Jew who taught art in Drohobycz before the war. The city was in Poland, and Schulz wrote his famous magical realist tales in Polish. The Nazis made Schulz paint fairy tales in a nursery. Then they killed him, along with all the other Jews they could find. Stalin later annexed the place to the Ukraine, where it remains today. The German director’s dad found the lost frescoes. Yad Vashem purchased and extracted them, essentially a rescue mission since the few Jewish monuments left in Drohobycz have been repeatedly vandalized. The documentary shown at Harvard singled out Israel and Yad Vashem– not Nazis, not Ukrainian anti-Semites, but Jews– for cartoonish abuse, for the “vandalism” of Schulz’s heritage. I was present and wrote about the evening in the magazine ZEEK, and was then promptly and viciously attacked in print for my defense of Israel… by a Harvard grad student, a Jew. I suggested to him that we meet and talk as fellow Jews and human beings. He wasn’t man enough to meet me face to face. I’ll never forget it.

Later that year, Yad Vashem itself asked me to write in their defense about the frescoes, which are beautiful and which you can see in the museum of art and artists of the Holocaust era at Yad Vashem. You see, Yad Vashem had just been attacked about the paintings… in the pages of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

And in case one forgets over time how anti-Semitic our own people can be, just yesterday I published an article, right here in the Times of Israel, criticizing the Harvard Crimson newspaper for its editorial endorsing BDS against Israel. Sure enough, a reader posted a response. It was a personal attack, venomous and hateful. His name is Avi. Foreign Minister Lavrov, I present Exhibit A in your defense. Some of the most ardent anti-Semites are indeed Jews. And I think that is the most lethal danger we face as a people. It is the sinat chinam, the baseless hatred, that divided and weakened us and led to the destruction of the Bet ha-Mikdash and this long and bitter exile.

But so what. On with the show. My apologies to the Bennett government for begging to disagree with their righteous indignation. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Was that Mr. Biden in bed with her? Then again, I wasn’t holding the candle.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is at present Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions at the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb, Qom. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London. His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.
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