Antisemitic Discourse in Post-Communist Eastern Europe: An Overview

Leon Volovici

In October 2000 our Center will organize a workshop on “Jews and Antisemitism in the Political and Public Discourse in the East European Communist and Post-Communist Countries,’ with the participation of researchers (sociologists, political scientists, and historians) from those countries and from Israel. Based on a joint project initiated by Leon Volovici, the papers already prepared will constitute the starting point for the workshop. At the June 1999 conference, “The Dynamics of Antisemitism in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century,” Dr. Volovici presented an overview, abridged here, of the topics connected with antisemitism in this area.
As you know, our Center publishes a series of occasional papers on the “analysis of current trends in antisemitism.” Due to the sensitive topics raised in papers that concern present-day persons or political movements, it provokes various reactions form those directly involved, or from people from the country under analysis. From time to time we are confronted with a question familiar to researchers involved in studying antisemitism. It’s more a critique than a real question: Why deal specifically with these negative aspects, when in many countries antisemitism is now a marginal phenomenon, and the significant aspect is actually the improvement of relations and mutual understanding between Jews and non-Jews. A Greek reader, irritated by a paper dealing with contemporary antisemitism in his country, expressed his feeling in an even more unexpected way: “May we help bring more friendship between Greeks and Jews because Athens and Jerusalem are the cradles of Western civilization!”

This unusual remark deserves a moment of reflection because it brings us back to the old tensions and antagonism between Judaism and Hellenism, between Judaism and Christianity, and the eternal problem of the importance of the Jews — the real Jews and the mythical Jews — for Western culture, with its marvelous or catastrophic consequences. Today, however, we are dealing not with “Athens and Jerusalem,” but, symbolically, with “Moscow and Jerusalem.”

Whether sponsored by Communist regimes that, ideologically, condemned antisemitism and ethnic discrimination, or existing in the post-Communist period, in a variety of old and new forms, antisemitism has had a great impact on political and intellectual life in the second half of our century, with a significant influence on the relations between East and West.

A first and important distinction must be made between the former Soviet Union (and specifically the European former Soviet republics) and the East and Central European Communist countries. On the Russian Soviet side, we find a Communist regimes that was created by a revolution and a terrible civil war, a regime that destroyed Jewish religious and community life, but promoted individual Jews to the highest levels of power. Ideologically the regime fought antisemitism, yet following the Second World War; it promoted a harsh anti-Zionist and antisemitic campaign and complete veiling of the Jewish origin of the victims of the Nazi mass murders in the Soviet territories.

In the East European countries, Communism was imposed by Soviet pressure and by force through the presence of the Red Army. Many Jews became politically prominent, seemingly “confirming” the prewar antisemitic slogan about “Jewish” identification with Communism. In these countries, the anti-antisemitic stand, as well as antisemitic and anti-Zionist policy were rather a conformist alignment with the Soviet line than a result of their own cultural and political heritage.

The burden and challenge of the recent past and the Holocaust have strongly marked the post-Communist antisemitic rhetoric and highlighted the important distinction between those countries that had been occupied by the Nazis and fought against Hitler (the Soviet Union, Poland, Serbia), or the pro-Nazi regimes, such as Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and the Baltic states. The challenge or the mystification of these troubling years became one of the most widespread motifs of the antisemitic discourse at its political and intellectual level.

It’s not difficult to notice in all the post-Communist countries a very paradoxical contrast between the intensity and frequency of antisemitic attacks in the extremist press or even of anti-Jewish violence, and, in contrast, the genuinely good situation of the remaining Jewish communities, greater or smaller. Prof. Shmuel Almog was right to raise the question of “the aging of the victimized Jew” in the present situation and to remark on the changing reality, from victimhood to normality, or even to a kind of prominence or increased “visibility,” allegedly justifying some of the antisemitic myths.

Of course, the Jews in these countries shared with their fellow countrymen the same suffering due to economic and social crises and instability, but, as Jews, they have never been in a better situation since the war: they are free to pursue a Jewish life, religious or not, to benefit from the substantial help of the Joint (JDC); to emigrate to Israel, supported openly by the local office of the Jewish Agency; to retain dual citizenship, to return as an “Israeli businessman” and to invest in their former country. Apparently, in Russia or the Ukraine, “it’s good to be a Jew,” and we see for the first time the strange phenomenon — in such stark contrast with the war years — of people striving, legally or illegally, to obtain Jewish identity documents. It give them the envied possibility of becoming Israeli citizens or to become, easier than for other groups, German citizens.

We are dealing with such a new and surrealistic situation that it reminds us of the old Jewish perplexity: “If it’s so good, why is it so bad?”

I think that this complex situation can provide the explanation for contradictory assessments and evaluations of the present level of antisemitism in the post-Communist societies, oscillating between an enthusiastic, even utopian vision and, at the same time, the opposite vision, fed by panic, fear, and the prediction of mass pogroms.

The optimistic view, expressed by some Jewish leaders or intellectuals from Europe or the United States is justified by the genuinely positive political context that emerged after the fall of Communism and the unified, democratic European project. A well-articulated survey by Diana Pinto on “A New Jewish Identity for Post-1989” (London 1996), points to “a possible Jewish renaissance” because “never in the history of Europe has a moment been so propitious for its Jews as the present.”

In the East-European countries, we find free Jewish community life, with a growing interest in Jewish culture, along with the creation of new Jewish cultural and academic institutions and an improving dialogue with the Church. In the past years, we found a quite visible reaction in public opinion against antisemitism, and many public debates in the mass media on sensitive topics connected with the Holocaust, racism, and antisemitic prejudices.

The most balanced and professional evaluation of the level of antisemitism belongs to sociologists producing serious opinion polls and research on the spread of antisemitic stereotypes, and popular attitudes toward Jews and their real or imaginary presence in the new societies.

The general conclusion is that the percentage of strong antisemitic stereotypers does not reach an alarming degree, and despite some differences between one country and another, the situation is not very different from Western societies, except for the economic and political instability in the post-Communist countries. Even in Russia, where for historical reasons the present situation justifies wariness, surveys conclude that hostility toward Jews today appears to be relatively low, and many other groups are viewed more negatively than Jews.

Surveys have become more sophisticated and complex in the last few years and offer a true picture of the level of antisemitism. They have the advantage of being a direct, up-to-date examination ofa collective state of mind. They also indicate the level of those segments of society prone to stereotyping. Such surveys are, however, static, and less relevant when we wish to outline the main tendencies and potential dramatic changes.

This is also the reason that the alarmist approach generally ignores the sociological surveys, except when they justify pessimistic conclusions. Alarmist predictions take into consideration the destructive potential of certain myths, projecting into the future fears generated by traumatic memories and associations.

We can recall, for example, the panic provoked by rumors of imminent pogroms in Moscow in the early 1990s, or Rabbi Rosen’s proposal to organize an Israeli military airlift to evacuate the entire Jewish community of Romania. In Russia, this feeling is still present. In a recent interview for Newsweek (June 7, 1999), Adolph Shaevich, Russia’s chief rabbi, said: “People are afraid, afraid for their lives and the lives of their children, and naturally they are taking measures.”

This pessimistic view is shared by researchers dealing with extremist, sometimes armed, movements and parties, linked to centuries of anti-Jewish traditions of the Slavophiles, the Monarchists, and the Black Hundreds.

The alarmists tend to focus on the virulence of antisemitic rhetoric, and warn of the possibility of an unexpected deterioration under certain circumstances, which the sociological surveys cannot predict. If the present situation does not justify this kind of alarm, the virulence of the antisemitic rhetoric certainly does.

Are the real Jews playing any role in influencing the expressions and intensity of antisemitism? Antisemitic rhetoric has its own inner dynamic and can function without any Jewish presence, but I’m not sure that the very popular formula “antisemitism without Jews” is entirely relevant. In this regard, antisemitism was always “without Jews” — without the Jew as an individual. In the antisemitic logic and scenario, beyond the concrete Jew there is the “Jew” as an “exponential Jew,” which conceals or mystifies the historical truth. The “exponential Jew” is an eternal representative; he is not a normal, individual person, but always “signifies” and “represents” a metaphysical entity — “the Jew” and “Jewishness.” He is always responsible for what the “Jews” do, whether religious Jews, atheists, Communists, or converted.

The most significant aspect of this phenomenon remains the proliferation of the antisemitic press and political declarations of an antisemitic character, used especially during political crises or election campaigns. The extremist political discourse is responsible for the reproduction and spread of antisemitic motifs and slogans. The propagandist or rhetorical dimension seems to be essential for the current stage of East European antisemitism. A glance at the enormous number of texts with an antisemitic character (articles in the press, polemics, electoral leaflets, public declarations and parliamentary speeches, books and propaganda material, popular articles on religious matters) shows the variety of contexts in which anti-Jewish remarks appear.

Surveying the antisemitic discourse in these countries, it is possible to discover many similarities, as well as specific trends and developments, to detect the obsessive themes of the ultra-nationalist press and the statements of extremist politicians concerning the post-Communist mythical Jew, the alleged Jewish conspiracy for world domination, the historical distortion and mythologization of former ultra-nationalist or pro-Nazi political leaders, the denial or banalization of the Holocaust, as well as the “theft” of its symbols, the identification of Jews with Communism, etc.

There is enough evidence to say that in the present circumstances, with limited or very small Jewish communities, antisemitic discourse tends to leave aside rational, economic, and social arguments in favor of irrational stereotypes of a very abstract and imaginary Jew. There is a long tradition of strongly negative, sometimes demonic, traits in the popular image of the Jew. Such popular and religious motifs continue to circulate in present-day publications — not necessarily antisemitic — in post-Communist Eastern Europe. A rich sub-literature of mysterious conspiracies has invaded the bookstalls of Eastern European cities.

Between these two levels — the world of irrational stereotypes, fantastic, and demonic images and the intellectually articulate arguments — there is continuous movement and interaction. The supposedly Jewish or Freemason plot seemed the ideal, magical key for deciphering the secret of the extraordinary changes of the last few years. Officially-imposed ideological “meaning” collapsed; while only the hidden, irrational, and mystical meaning remained uncompromised, for it had been banned and rejected by Marxist ideology and the atheistic educational system. The myth of a Jewish conspiracy seemed to offer a clear explanation for the events; it gave coherence and unity to the imaginary, contradictory Jewish prototypes (i.e., both capitalist and Communist), for the mythical Jew could use any and all means in order to control or dominate the world.

Many books summarize in detail the frightening and apocalyptic imagery of the danger of Jewish imperialism aiming to establish and control a Universal Republic through already-existing institutions built with this demonic goal: the United Nations, the Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, etc.

Such paranoic allegations are hardly original. The question is, are we dealing with individual cases, or does this indicate, due to their popularity, a kind of group paranoia, a social pathology common, in differing degrees, to Eastern European societies after the fears and apprehensions of the last ten years?

In the last few years, there has been a visible effort being made by “professional’ antisemites to overcome their former image that all they do is practice aggressive journalism. The new goal is to publish books — “studies” with all the scientific “props”: an abundance of fastidious footnotes, bibliographies, and references — all the materials to give the impression of serious documentation and argument, and to provide a historical background justifying their claims.

Connected with the new phase of the antisemitic propaganda is the willingness to update the bibliography, by quoting or translating new “authorities” in the field, especially the experts on Holocaust denial, such as Faurisson or Garaudy. Garaudy’s Les Mythes fondateurs de la politique israélienne is distributed in France solely by a Romanian book shop in Paris, specializing in antisemitic and extreme Right propaganda. Other topics of interest are the Khazar origin of the Jews and the non-Jewish origin of Jesus, common in Russian, Ukrainian, and Romanian propaganda.

In the Internet era, the “essential bibliography” of antisemitic propaganda in post-Communist countries is nearly the same as that of the West. From this point of view, the much-desired “integration in Europe” is already achieved and facilitates the connections between Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his main German supporter, Gerhard Frey, or with the American Pat Buchanan; between Romanian antisemitic leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Le Pen; or between Eduard Limonov and the French New Right.

A recent Romanian translation of an American antisemitic pamphlet was included in a collection called “The Struggle for Truth,” with a motto taken from Faurisson: “We are not antisemites. Let’s cease seeing antisemites everywhere. The truth or the quest for truth cannot be antisemitism.”

Indeed, nobody wants to be labeled as an antisemite — and that is another characteristic of the present leading antisemites in Eastern Europe. Shafarevich in Russia, the priest Henryk Jankowski in Poland, and many others, after repeating blatantly antisemitic allegations, strongly protest being considered antisemites. Jankowski has spoken on the link between the swastika and the Jewish star, and on the Jewish responsibility for Hitler’s ascension to power — claiming, however, that he “is nan antisemite; it’s a great misunderstanding.” A Romanian leader of the new Christian Orthodox Right (Radu Codrescu) declares: “We can say, with the hand on the heart, that in Romania there are no antisemites.”

Why do such speakers find it so undesirable? Some of the radical antisemites have political careers, and they take into consideration such matters as good or acceptable relations with Western governments, the media, and public opinion. The word “antisemite” is still associated with Nazi propaganda; it is thus necessary to use a coded language so that one can disclaim the antisemitic nature of statements or assertions.

The situation is completely different when dealing with Gypsies in Romania, Hungary, or Slovakia. As with the Jews during the 1930s or during the war, one can say or write anything about Gypsies without fearing criticism. The press and television daily feed the general hostility toward Gypsies and legitimize popular rhetoric on the increasing Gypsy danger.

The nearly unanimous public appearance of anti-Gypsy stereotypes with racist connotations has extended to other ethnic groups, especially dark-skinned foreigners. Incidents involving African or Asian students studying in Eastern Europe or participating in international sports competitions have become a source of racist utterances, not only from heated sports team supporters, but also in the daily press.

At the highest level, the circulation of the demonic or merely malefic myths occurs in sophisticated intellectual constructs and theories. In this regard, the most abundant scientific or pseudo-scientific literature is produced in Russia and Ukraine, and recently penetrated Romania. Among the publications one frequently finds those of second-rate ideologues, but — more than in other countries — also scholars. An exotic branch of contemporary Russian nationalism is the Neo-pagan trend, finding its expression in a number of extremist organizations and periodicals, but also among scholars, and adapted by some Ukrainian intellectuals.

A negative, stereotyped image of Jews and Jewish history has penetrated the new post-Communist historiography in school textbooks. The ethno-exclusivist perspective is quite common in Central and Eastern Europe and it’s strongly expressed in national historiography.

A theme that usually provokes the return to antisemitic stereotypes is the Holocaust. Alongside denial and distortions, the use of the term (Holocaust) is obsessive, as well as the need to minimize it or to use it against the Jews as the “real” instigators of a “holocaust” against other peoples.

In the language of antisemitic propaganda, as well as in respectable neutral discourse, the words “Holocaust” and “genocide” are used in the concrete sense (meaning genocide), as well as the figurative sense for events real and imagined, in which the Jews are not implied, or in which they are presented as allegedly guilty.

Under these new circumstances, antisemitism is openly used by both the new nationalist organizations that wish to follow in the footsteps of old xenophobic right-wing extremism, as well as by Communists (as in recent striking declarations in the Russian Duma) promoting a dogmatic opposition to the process of democratization and liberalization in these countries. These last examples indicate that we are no longer dealing with marginal manifestations of open and aggressive antisemitism, but with a tendency to penetrate the main political stage, and similarly, occasionally to “contaminate” the mainstream press, as has happened in Lithuania and Romania.

However, here, as in all post-Communist countries, one can see an opposite trend as well: a growing category of intellectuals who are increasingly aware of the negative social and moral effect of the spread of antisemitic prejudices and theories. It is an intellectual opposition rather than an opposition of the new “classe politique,” still in a process of adopting genuine democratic standards.

Concerning Jewish reactions in Eastern Europe to antisemitic rhetoric, it is obvious that it has taken time to adapt to the new circumstances following the fall of Communist regimes and the dramatic change of political rule; to cope with excessive expectations concerning the ability or willingness of the new authorities immediately to repress antisemitic attacks published in extremist newspapers.

Approaching this topic — post-Communist antisemitic rhetoric — we are aware that among the complex problems of Eastern Europe today, antisemitism is not the most important, nor the most acute. This is especially true in these days when we compare it with the mass killings in Yugoslavia.

However, antisemitism, because of its deep cultural, religious, and social connotations, and its penetration into everyday language, is one of the most relevant “signals” used to evaluate the strength or the weakness of a civil society, the main trends in political culture, and the functioning of democratic institutions. The intensity of the antisemitic discourse (and the degree to which it is accepted) depends on the degree of conjectural or genuine legitimacy acquired by the political groups bearing xenophobic and anti-Jewish messages. In unfavorable political circumstances the marginal nature of antisemitism could radically change.

The latest Israeli news sources report a significant increase in the number of the Jews from Russia coming to Israel, motivated — the new immigrants said — by fear of growing antisemitism and possible anti-Jewish violence.

We must, however, abstain from the temptation of making predictions, either pessimistic or optimistic. Future developments in Russia and other East-European countries will be a result of complex factors — economic, social, and political; national and international. The persistence of antisemitic stereotypes and antisemitic rhetoric, at different levels, and the public reactions or indifference to it, are only a few factors, but certainly not the least important.

Annual Report 1999: Table of Contents

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