According to a classified cable from U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle, which was sent in late 2009 but released yesterday by WikiLeaks, Russia has shown “clear signs of throwing off its long and tragic history of anti-Semitism.” The government’s policy “has involved an aggressive campaign against anti-Semitism, coupled with positive official statements towards the Jewish community,” Beyrle reports. “Societal attitudes have also improved.” Warmer ties with Israel have helped as well, he says. The cable’s title is “Anti-Semitism on the Wane in Russia,” and it agrees with the Russian government’s contention that the Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked trade status to Soviet Jews’ freedom of emigration, is “an anachronism.”
The cable’s release may represent pithy timing on WikiLeaks’s part, given that this week also brought a report from a judge’s assistant that the criminal charges and eight-year prison sentence against Russian Jewish oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky were politically (though not, explicitly, ethnically) motivated.
Speaking of pithy! Commentators have noted that WikiLeaks has taught us that some of our top diplomats possess literary touches you would not expect; and Beyrle, a George W. Bush appointee who has served in Moscow for nearly three years, is no exception. “From ‘Oy, Vey’ to OK” is how he headlines one section, where he traces the history of Russian anti-Semitism. Another section is titled, “Some of [Russia]’s best friends are Jews.” And he provides a compelling portrait of Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, who comes off as something of an operator, paying obeisance to the Kremlin and receiving funds from prominent but more docile Jewish oligarchs like Lev Leviev, Roman Abramovich, and Boris Berezovsky. Ambassador Beyrle: When you retire, we hope you’ll consider contributing to Tablet Magazine!
More to the point, Beyrle is judicious on the fact that Russia’s progress is fragile—“the [economic] crisis could easily exacerbate latent anti-Semitism,” he notes (this was in December 2009)—and that claims such as Lazar’s assertion that there is more anti-Semitism in Europe than in Russia must be “taken with a grain of salt.” “Anti-Semitism has been a part of Russian culture for such a long time,” he argues, “that it would be unrealistic to expect it to disappear overnight.” But he is persuasive that life for Russia’s Jewish community—which, a little oddly, he seems to peg at one million, when it’s more like 200,000—is better than it has been in a very long time. His credibility is aided, of course, by our knowledge that he didn’t expect us to be reading this.
I asked Gal Beckerman, author of the award-winning history of Soviet Jewry, When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone, about the Jackson-Vanik comment at the conclusion. “Amazingly, it’s still on the books and annoys the hell out of the Russians,” he told me of the law, whose repeal is supported by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. “It means they can’t get Most Favored Nation trading status, which they need in order to be admitted to the World Trade Organization, something they very much want. Getting rid of J-V is also on the Obama administration’s list of to-dos in their attempt to ‘reset’ the American-Russian relationship.” He added, “Whatever other problems Russia has with democracy and human rights, free emigration is not one of them. Since this was the initial intent of the bill, it should have been repealed a long time ago.”
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.