The man holding the antisemitic sign at this month’s May Day rally in front of the Kremlin could not have been more than 25 years old. The placard depicted a hook-nosed Jew riding a donkey tattooed with the word “goy,” holding two carrots labeled “capitalism” and “democracy” in front of the donkey’s face.
The sign was just one of the prominently displayed antisemitic items for sale at the event. Wandering through the crowd, I saw copies of “Mein Kampf” and other Nazi propaganda being bought and sold by people born decades after World War II. It was a vivid reminder that even among the younger generation in the “New Russia,” Jews face old prejudices.
One week earlier — April 20, the anniversary of Hitler’s birth — the Hillel center in Ulyanovsk, a city in Russia’s Volga region, was vandalized. A group of skinheads smashed the windows of the building, ripped up the Israeli flag, and stole and destroyed other property. “I know who these guys are, but there’s nothing I can do,” said Igor Dabakarov, the Ulyanovsk Hillel director. “I contacted the police, but they won’t be able to do much. We just have to clean up and keep going.’’
Dabakarov is a Bukharan Jew, originally from Uzbekistan, whose family relocated to Russia after the fall of communism. He leads the community-based Hillel, which is one of 27 Hillel centers throughout the former Soviet Union.
Ulyanovsk is a city of 850,000. More than 300 Jewish students are active in the organization, which holds well-attended Sabbath and holiday programs as well as popular arts-and-culture activities. “The skinheads are jealous of our programs and our Hillel organization. They don’t even know what being Jewish means,” Dabakarov said. “We have to raise money to hire a security guard, but we also want to have interfaith programming so these people can learn that Judaism is a peaceful religion.”
I joined all the Hillel directors in the former Soviet Union in a professional development seminar in Moscow recently. Young, energetic Jews from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Siberia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan gathered to study organiza- tional development and to share lessons from their respective communities.
I told the directors that I was shocked to see such blatant displays of antisemitism in Ulyanovsk and at the May Day rally in Moscow. They laughed at my naiveté; they deal with sentiments like this on a daily basis. Osik Akselrud, Hillel director in Kiev, Ukraine, told me that a private university in his city with more than 5,000 students hosts antisemitic lectures regularly. Two years ago, at the Kiev Hillel, located on the first floor of an apartment building, neighbors wrote antisemitic slurs on the front door and regularly told Jewish students to leave the neighborhood. “Although Jewish students experience much less antisemitism than under communism,” Akselrud said, “we are afraid to advertise Hillel programs on university campuses because we don’t want the skinheads to come to our programs to disrupt. We are not surprised at what you saw in Moscow because it is common in every city here to see antisemitic literature, graffiti and demonstrations.”
Although more than 1 million Jews emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s, between 1 and 2 million Jews remain. Most will stay, despite the discrimination they still encounter. Some cite better job prospects here than in Israel, and others worry about the security situation in the Middle East. Many say they are too old to start new lives elsewhere, and others say they stay because they feel a strong connection to their roots. “I would like to find happiness in the land in which I was born, and where my parents and grandparents are buried,” Akselrud said. “State antisemitism has disappeared, and I have an opportunity to help in the rebirth of Jewish life here.”
The Hillel directors estimated that 90% of the students they work with will stay in the former Soviet Union; because of this, the organization’s mission is undergoing a shift from basic education to community building. “Our first decade was largely focused on teaching people the basics of Jewish life,” said Anna Purinson, director of Russian Hillel, which was formed 10 years ago. “Now we are focused on student empowerment, professional development and enhancing the quality of our programs.”
The struggles facing young Jews here have not stopped them from organizing and from moving forward. Last month, just weeks before the vandalism in Ulyanovsk and the hate peddling at the May Day rally, students from Washington, D.C., came to Kharkov, Ukraine, to celebrate Passover with Hillel students there. Gillian Safdie-Miller, a sophomore at American University, said, “Next year when I celebrate Pesach , I will remember seeing the excitement, enthusiasm and passion for Judaism that each of our Ukrainian counterparts had and shared with us. It was so refreshing and heart warming to see these ‘first-generation’ Jews building a Jewish life for themselves and future generations.”
Avi Rubel is a senior associate in the international division of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.