The Soviet Jews

The Soviet Cage: Anti-Semitism in Russia

by William Korey
Viking, 369 pp., $12.50

Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930

by Zvi Y. Gitelman
Princeton, 488 pp., $20.00

Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev; drawing by David Levine

Perhaps it is the natural order of things for Jews to be disliked by the members of the majority community among whom they live. A minority, and especially a minority with distinctive physical and social features, is always at risk in this respect: the vulgar masses will readily deride and insult anyone who is at all different, if only as a means to bolster their own sense of superiority and togetherness—unless restrained from doing so by education, social mores, or the law. In Russia there were some extra reasons which made the country particularly prone to widespread anti-Semitism—a superstitious and ignorant peasantry, a nationalistic church, the fact that Jews were by law and by custom maintained as a race apart and actively prevented from assimilating, their distinctive language, clothing, habits, and diet.

Yet how little point there is in trying to find reasons for Russian (or any other) anti-Semitism is shown in a few fascinating pages of Mr. Korey’s excellent new study of current Soviet anti-Semitism. He compares the popular reasons which Russians give for disliking Jews nowadays and under the old regime. One would have thought that fifty-six years of Marxism-Leninism (or whatever it should be called), of “progressive” education, of enforced atheism, of changed social conditions among both Russians and Jews, of the great expansion of assimilation would, at the very least, have led to a change in popular myths about the Jews. Not a bit of it—the reasons for dislike remain virtually the same. The Jews are exclusive and tend to keep to themselves, they are dishonest and manage to exploit others, they shirk their public obligations and feather their own nests, and they avoid physical work if they can.

There are, of course, more exceptional, extreme, and eccentric attitudes. The writer Rozanov maintained that he had reliable information that Jews use the blood of a Christian child for their Passover ceremonial, and half a century or more later, after the Second World War, one of the Soviet refugees interviewed in the course of an interviewing project organized by Harvard claimed to have witnessed this Jewish ceremonial “with my own eyes.”

But it is not the existence of anti-Semitism that matters. What matters is the state of public mores in relation to anti-Semitism, and the extent to which the law of a country will promote the equality of all minorities before the law. Social inequality is of relatively little importance. It matters a great deal if Jews are excluded from education or the professions or are denied protection against insults or even violence; it matters a great deal if they are refused the liberty to speak, teach, or learn Yiddish or Hebrew, if they so wish, or to practice their religious ceremonials. It matters not at all, in my view, if they are refused membership of certain clubs: that is a matter of good taste, and the majority…

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