Who would have imagined 25 years ago that Israel and Russia would share military cooperation and coordination in a place like Syria, a country that was once among the Soviet Union’s most loyal client states? Who would have believed that Russia would one day be a place where Jews would feel relatively well protected against anti-Semitism? Who would have thought that Soviet-born immigrants — once confined within Communist borders — would become the parliament speaker or the defense minister of the Jewish State, the chairman of the Jewish Agency or CEO of the World Jewish Congress?
These are indeed today’s realities, as Israel and Russia this month mark 25 years of re-established diplomatic relations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow for the occasion, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time in just two months, to discuss these issues and more.
Israel and Russia have become unlikely bedfellows in a complicated international arena dominated by Middle East affairs, where Russia is a major player often allied with adversaries of Israel including Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Authority. But despite these alliances, Russian-Israeli ties are solid and strong, particularly on the levels of military and economic cooperation.
Russia’s commitment to these ties is also evident in President Putin’s efforts to broaden and deepen relations with the local Jewish community and global Jewish organizations. The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, recently met with the Russian leader and thanked him for his positive attitude toward the Jewish state and for attempting to keep the anti-Semitic monster at bay. These ties mustn’t be looked at through rose-colored glasses, but there is no doubt that this is an historic time for Russia and the Jewish people, one that is mutually beneficial for both sides.
For centuries, during the time of the czars and throughout the years of the Soviet Union, Russia and its environs were not a comfortable place for Jews, and a vast number left, seeking a better life; the Communist regime was particularly hostile to Jewish traditions and to all religious practices, for that matter. While the Soviet Union initially took a pro-Zionist stance, the Communist authorities had an overall negative attitude toward Jews, and their approach to Israel took a drastic change for the worse following the Suez crisis in 1956. Under Joseph Stalin’s vicious dictatorial rule, the regime showed no mercy for the Jewish community; shortly before his death in 1953, Jewish doctors were accused of trying to poison him. Had this anti-Semitic scheme succeeded, it could have resulted in the murder of thousands of Jews, and the banishment of the entire local community.
Even after Stalin’s death and the change of guard at the Kremlin, Zionism and demonstrations of solidarity with the State of Israel were considered illegal. Soviet Jews were denied the right to express their religion safely, to study the Hebrew language or engage in any form of secular Jewish or Yiddish culture, and especially egregious, were denied the right to emigrate. It was impossible to be both Communist and identify with Jewish culture.
Only under persistent Israeli efforts supplemented by intensive international diplomatic campaigns, carried out with the help of Diaspora Jewish communities and organizations such as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the World Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents, and against the backdrop of threats of economic sanctions by the US, the aging Soviet leadership began to cave in. The regime slowly started to let Jews trickle from the Soviet Union to Israel in the 1970s.
As a Jew born in the Soviet Union, I witnessed this firsthand and was among those who made aliyah at that early time. The mass emigration reached its zenith in 1989 and in the early 1990s, during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and ties with Israel already began warming up during the last Soviet regime under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. I had the privilege of being one of a handful of Israeli diplomats sent to Moscow in the late 1980s to oversee the establishment of Israel’s first diplomatic mission, an interest office under the auspices of the Dutch embassy. I then returned to Moscow in 1991 to join the delegation that opened the first Israeli embassy in the country since June 1967.
After the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, as the Soviet Union was superseded by independent republics, Israel became the home of nearly 1,000,000 Soviet repatriates. They and their children have for the most part integrated into Israeli society and many have made their way into the top political and military echelons. They live, thrive and prosper in Israel.
The Jewish community of Russian descent in Israel is strong and proud. And due to the recent improvement in relations between Israel and Russia, Israelis of Russian descent are now also warmly received and outwardly appreciated by President Putin’s government. He has made significant efforts to cultivate relations with these émigrés, seeing them as a bridge to further improvements in ties with Israel. As a result of this atmosphere, Israel and Russia recently signed an agreement to increase the meager pensions given to elderly Jewish Russian immigrants in Israel.
A quarter of a century after Israel and Russia re-established ties, the relationship is yielding enhanced economic, cultural and security ties. Though the two countries don’t always have the same strategic goals in the Middle East, they have found common ground in combatting terrorism in the region and there are significant attempts to coordinate efforts, despite their differing stances.
The increasing friendship between Israel and Russia is welcome, and so are President Putin’s efforts to free his country from anti-Semitism. It is our hope that Russia will continue to see the importance in both of these endeavors, and that Israel and the Jewish people will be able to mark a period of even better friendship with Russia in another 25 years. The two countries are unlikely bedfellows, but working together, they can exercise enormous influence in changing the situation in the Middle East for the better.
Robert R. Singer is the CEO and Executive Vice President of the World Jewish Congress.