Sergei Lavrov’s Words

A few weeks ago, the urbane Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, came out with a bizarre statement to Italian television that Hitler was of “Jewish blood” and that “the most ardent antisemites are, as a rule, Jews”. Jews, therefore, only had themselves to blame for millennia of persecution and extermination. They had brought it upon themselves.

Was this merely a slip of the tongue? Did the mask of genteel diplomacy accidently slip from his face to reveal an ingrained antisemitism?

Given Lavrov’s mastery of language, it seems more likely that he wanted to convey a message. This is the way of today’s world where spin doctors and strategy gurus have become an essential ingredient in political life. They construct the subliminal message to the public on behalf of their political masters.

In the UK, the current message from Downing Street is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well be “a bad boy”, “but are not all politicians the same?” The implication is that there are no honourable politicians.

For social media influencers and Tik Tok addicts, news is gladiatorial entertainment and celebrity pronouncement always outflanks policy. Netanyahu understood this as far back as the 1980s when he worked in hasbarah (public relations) in the United States. He brought in American experts to plan and assist his campaign in the 1996 Israeli election. Netanyahu later emerged as a standard bearer of “alternative facts” in a new age of populism, where ethical conduct became unimportant, and rules were there to be circumvented.

Many Jews, however, took Lavrov’s words at face value and believed that this was simply another example of the eternal antisemitism that infects the Russian psyche. Yet this was no deep-seated emotional outburst. In an excellent article in Haaretz, the American historian David E. Fishman suggested that “Lavrov was articulating a prepared official position,” designed as an internal appeal to the nationalist far right — “a motley crew of monarchists, Stalinists and imperialists”. Heavy with traditional antisemitism, it brought their discourse into the mainstream.

Fishman also pointed out that the Russian Foreign Ministry attempted to vindicate Lavrov’s comment that Jews were “ardent antisemites” by invoking the actions of the Judenrat (Jewish councils) in the concentration camps.

Jewish commentators recalled antisemitic inuendo as far back as the 1920s, when the Jewish origins of the highly assimilated leading Bolsheviks, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, were publicly voiced during the failed struggle to prevent Stalin from achieving supremacy in the USSR.

Others recalled the Soviet fawning over Nazism during the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, when the USSR happily collaborated with Nazi Germany, allowing 75 divisions to be moved to the Western Front to confront Britain.

In 2022, Putin’s regime has resurrected Russia’s fearless refusal to accept defeat in World War II as a foundation stone of his appeal to Russian nationalism. The May Day parade this year projected Russia today as the successor to the USSR, which in turn followed in the footsteps of Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias. Patriotism in Putin’s Russia is defined by the fight-back of 1941 — and not by the appeasement of 1939. 

Lavrov’s transformation of Hitler into a Jew should be understood in this historical light. Lavrov’s utterances were not a careless error but an appeal to Russian uber-nationalists to stand behind President Putin — as brave Russian boys were fighting the neo-Nazis in Kyiv led by its mouthpiece, the clever Jew, the Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky.

In one sense, this appeal to the Far right was also an admission of the increasing weakness of Putin’s position.

Russian spin doctors and chat-show hacks have been working overtime since 24 February — the commencement of the invasion of Ukraine — and failed to reverse the tide of international opprobrium. As much as Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s long-time public relations man, proves that two and two really make five, the world responds that Emperor Putin has no clothes.

The view from the outside has permeated the intellectual and cultural elite in Russia — those who often hold liberal views and look to the West rather than to the East. Russian nationalists, on the other hand, often identify Jews as a fifth column — not true Russians. So, a Jew as president in Kyiv fits neatly into their worldview. Just as pre-war fascists in Europe spoke about the scourge of Judeo-Bolshevism, Russian nationalists today mention the danger of Judeo-liberalism.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s certainly repaired the damage of earlier years by allowing a greater openness in the USSR, but ironically it also allowed the Russian Far right to emerge from its subterranean lair where it had slumbered for 70 years. It provided the path for open anti-Jewish prejudice.

This built on the foundations of recent racism, conducted against Jews under Communism. The intelligentsia, which fought for a better Russia during the 1960s, found itself labelled at that time as a servant of the Jews. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was rumoured to be the Jew, “Solzhenitzer”. Andrei Sakharov was controlled by his Jewish wife, Yelena Bonner.

When dissidents organised a demonstration in Red Square in August 1968 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, police immediately pounced on them with the cry: “Beat them, they are all Jews!”

Dissidents then were horrified by all-pervading antisemitism in their country — just as today they are ashamed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Andrei Sinyavsky wrote under the deliberately Jewish pseudonym of “Abram Tertz” while Shostakovitch based his 13th symphony on the poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko including Babi Yar.

Today, as David Fishman has pointed out, Pravda has referred to Jews as historically taxing services in Orthodox Christian churches. Is it no wonder that many Russian Jews have listened to the call of Jewish history, packed their suitcases and left for another land?

Perhaps the most potent symbol of this emigration is the rabbi of the Moscow Choral Synagogue, Pinchas Goldschmidt. Unlike his rival, Chabad’s Rabbi Berel Lazar, he left for Israel. Lazar has remained in Russia and has often been regarded as a fellow-traveller who would not offer a word of criticism lest it damage his mission to rebuild Judaism in Russia.

Israel too has suddenly come in for official Russian criticism even though the Bennett-Lapid government has sat on the fence and refused to provide arms for the Ukrainians. This, too, has a historical precedent.

In the aftermath of the Arab defeat during the Six Day War in 1967, the Israelis were depicted in the Soviet press as the heirs of the Nazis. A cartoon of Moshe Dayan in SS uniform presented him as kicking Hitler off his pedestal. Other caricatures showed Nazis as shepherding Israelis towards conducting atrocities against Arabs.

The American academic, Henry Abramson, has demonstrated that there is an uncanny resemblance between the antisemitic cartoons of German-occupied Ukraine in the 1940s and these Soviet cartoons, depicting the Israelis in the late 1960s.

Yet Putin, remarkably, apologised for Lavrov’s remarks to Naftali Bennett in a telephone call. As David Fishman pointed out, the Israeli record of the call included the apology, the Russian version did not. Proclamations of antisemitism within Russia were beneficial, but in the wider world, they were counter-productive — and therefore an exercise in damage limitation had to be conducted.

Russian tolerance of Israeli intervention in Syria has also reached a low ebb with the Israeli ambassador being called in by the Russian Foreign Ministry. The Israelis recently bombed runways at Damascus airport rather than nearby Iranian arms caches, destined for Hezbollah. The Israeli press reported that this action was to send a message that “tourists” from European capitals who were bringing in devices to enhance Hezbollah’s missile guidance systems would be stopped.

All this is a sad reflection of what could have been in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR in 1991. Russia has become mired in a KGB swamp of corruption, ultra-nationalism and Orthodox Christian obscurantism. Attacking Jews in Russia now seems a natural step in this process.

Plus61j 28 June 2022

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