Exiled chief rabbi says Jews should leave Russia while they can
Exclusive: Pinchas Goldschmidt warns Jewish population will be made scapegoat for hardship caused by war
Pinchas Goldschmidt also said that while Russia’s Jews faced an uncertain future, antisemitism was on the rise across Europe and the US. Photograph: Matthias Schräder/AP
Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
Fri 30 Dec 2022 08.00 GMT
Moscow’s exiled chief rabbi says Jews should leave Russia while they still can, before they are made scapegoats for the hardship caused by the war in Ukraine.
“When we look back over Russian history, whenever the political system was in danger you saw the government trying to redirect the anger and discontent of the masses towards the Jewish community,” Pinchas Goldschmidt told the Guardian. “We saw this in tsarist times and at the end of the Stalinist regime.”
“We’re seeing rising antisemitism while Russia is going back to a new kind of Soviet Union, and step by step the iron curtain is coming down again. This is why I believe the best option for Russian Jews is to leave,” he added.
Goldschmidt resigned from his post and left Russia in July after refusing to back the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- “Pressure was put on community leaders to support the war and I refused to do so. I resigned because to continue as chief rabbi of Moscow would be a problem for the community because of the repressive measures taken against dissidents,” he said.
Russia’s Jews have been emigrating in their tens of thousands during the past 100 years, first to Europe and the Americas and more recently to Israel. According to the 1926 census there were 2,672,000 Jews in the then Soviet Union, 59% of them in Ukraine. Today only about 165,000 Jews remain in the Russian Federation out of a total population of 145 million.
Goldschmidt said he believed that since the war began, 25% to 30% of those who remained had left or were planning to do so, although there were now few flights out of Moscow and the price of a flight to Tel Aviv had quadrupled to about $2,000 (£1,625).
In July, the Russia’s government shut down the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency, a non-profit organisation that promotes immigration to Israel.
Overall, it is thought that about 200,000 Russians have fled Russia, an exodus that accelerated when conscription was introduced in September.
“There’s a section of Russian society called the creacle, the creative class of business and cultural leaders, intellectuals and artists,” said Goldschmidt said, “and I think it’s safe to say a great percentage of those people have left Russia, which is and will be very detrimental to Russian society.”
He said a large part of the Jewish community in Ukraine had also left and were now refugees in Germany, Austria and Romania.
- Ukraine has a long history of antisemitism from pogroms at the end of the 19th century to facilitating Nazi massacres during the second world war. The most notorious of these was the murder of 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar in Kyiv in 1941.
- Given this history, Goldschmidt said it was remarkable that Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who made no secret of his Jewishness, was elected Ukraine’s president with more 70% of the vote.
- That fact made a nonsense of Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukraine was being governed by neo-Nazis, the rabbi said. “Show me another country that is in the grip of Nazis where the Jewish community is thriving.
- “However, I don’t know how Jewish the president [Zelenskiy] feels. He plays the Jewish card to ask Israel for help.”
- Goldschmidt also noted that while Russia’s Jews faced an uncertain future, antisemitism was on the rise in what had long been seen as a Jewish sanctuary, the US.
In 2018, a gunman killed 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Last year the Anti-Defamation League recorded a record 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the US, ranging from assault and harassment to vandalism.
“For many years, Jews in the US believed that it was an exception, that whatever happened in Europe and other countries could never happen there,” Goldschmidt said. “But over the past three years there have been more attacks on Jews there than in Europe.
“What is changing is the political system is much more polarised but also the discourse has been upended by social media. The polarisation we’re seeing has made antisemitism much more acceptable.”
Mayors of 53 cities across 23 countries met in Athens earlier this month to discuss how to combat the worldwide rise of antisemitism.
“We have to stop those forces that are trying to destroy Europe from within,” the rabbi said. “In the beginning, when there were attacks on Jewish schools like the one in Toulouse, people thought it was a Jewish problem. But after Charlie Hebdo, the attack in Nice and at the Christmas market in Berlin, Europe understood it was a European problem, not a Jewish problem. That’s what these mayors have to understand.”