Foreign Affairs

Weapons-Grade Anti-Semitism

What Russia's gotten away with in Ukraine and how Putin could use those tactics in the United States.
by Sam Sokol
June 4, 2019
Featured Image
Jewish pilgrims walk along Pushkina street near the grave of Rebbe Nachman on the second day of Rosh Hashanah on September 11, 2018 in Uman, Ukraine. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Just more than four years ago, Russia’s popular television news program Vesti ran a segment claiming that Ukrainian Jews were streaming out of the country in a mass exodus brought about by harsh government repression.

The report cited a fabricated letter attributed to a senior Jewish figure in Belgium that described “cases of compulsory closures of Jewish organizations and schools” and alleged that Ukraine was experiencing an “outrageous revival of Nazi … traditions.”

While many Jews were indeed fleeing Ukraine (more than 32,000 have moved to Israel since 2013), this migration was primarily due to damage caused by Russian military intervention in the east of the country and the subsequent economic downturn. The Russians, however, did not let this reality get in the way of their narrative. Indeed, the instrumentalization of anti-Semitism and recurrent allegations that Ukraine had become a fascist state were a familiar leitmotif in Russian propaganda during the first years of the conflict.

As a reporter for the Jerusalem Post who covered the conflict, regularly commuting to Ukraine from Israel during the period of 2013-2016, I noticed a distressing pattern in how Russia approached Jewish issues. From the  beginning of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Vladimir Putin inveighed against what he described as “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine.”

News reports in government-controlled outlets such as Izvestia made fantastical claims about outbreaks of violence against Jewish communities, reporting that members of the ultranationalist organization Right Sector had terrorized the Jews of Odessa, beating 20 people across the city. One local leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me at the time that he believed that the Jewish community had become a pawn in the fight between Moscow and Kiev.

“There is no question that from the beginning we became a tool,” he complained. “Both sides are trying to say [they] are the protectors” of the Jews.

It was a brilliant, if twisted and amoral, move on the part of the Russians. Anti-Semitism certainly isn’t an issue of concern to most Russians but in a country in which the cult of Soviet victory in the World War II runs deep, reports of Ukrainian Judeophobia could be used to bolster the claim that a “fascist junta” had grabbed power in Kiev, increasing domestic support for Russian intervention.

Parallel to this effort, the Kremlin also engaged in the promotion of conspiracy theories about a Jewish conspiracy to control Ukraine, a move likely intended to sow confusion and whip up social unrest. According to Bellingcat researcher Aric Toler, one of the vectors for such disinformation was the Kremlin’s network of trolls.

Closer to home, anti-Semitism has indeed risen dramatically, with the Anti-Defamation League describing “near-historic levels” of incidents in the United States in 2018. In New York, the home of the country’s largest Jewish community, there was an 82 percent rise in anti-Semitic attacks in just the first three months of 2019.

Since 2016, America has become increasingly divided along partisan lines and the issue of anti-Semitism has, unfortunately, become politicized, with many members of the Jewish community complaining that politicians on both sides routinely call out racism on the other side while ignoring or downplaying such behavior by their allies.

As the country gears up for the next presidential race and Washington grapples with the challenge of securing the integrity of our elections, new reports indicate that Russia may again seek to take advantage of cultural divisions by using sensitive issues like race to subvert American democracy.

Citing a study by the Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab, BuzzFeed News recently reported that “Latino, Muslim, and Jewish communities are being disproportionately targeted online with disinformation, harassment, and computational propaganda” and that this is likely to continue through 2020.

There is ample reason to believe that, just like in Ukraine, Russia will attempt to raise the specter of anti-Semitism in the United States in 2020 in a bid to widen societal divisions and foment discord just when Americans need mutual respect and comity the most.

They must not be allowed to succeed.

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is a freelance journalist with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and a former correspondent at IBA News and the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.