First-of-its-kind survey to chart Russian anti-Semitism

Any American Jew who saw a swastika in a public place would almost certainly label the marking "anti-Semitic" and might become enraged, reporting the incident to the police or the Anti-Defamation League.

However, Jews in the former Soviet Union, oppressed by government-sanctioned anti-Semitism for the better part of this century, would be more inclined to shrug off the incident. Compared with being denied admission to a university because they are Jewish, an anti-Semitic symbol on a wall might seem trivial.

"Their vision of anti-Semitism may be so rooted in the last 70 years of communism that suddenly this new brand of popular anti-Semitism to them is a very different threat," says Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal in San Francisco. "They may not define [a swastika] with the term `anti-Semitism.'"

Klarfeld considered this difference in perception as he helped formulate a new survey of Russian Jews' experiences with anti-Semitism. Some 4,000 copies of the survey will be distributed next month in St. Petersburg. The results will be compiled by the St. Petersburg Jewish University and analyzed by BACJRR and Brandeis University's Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy. Eventually the BACJRR hopes to distribute the survey throughout the former Soviet Union.

"This is a trial project because we don't know if people are going to respond in the way American Jews would respond," Klarfeld says. "I would understand if everyone turns around and says there is no anti-Semitism. Some of it is denial. They want to see the good side."

According to Klarfeld, democratization in the former Soviet Union has led to an upsurge in rhetoric — by political figures and grassroots groups — scapegoating Jews for economic troubles. During a trip to Russia last year, he witnessed open name-calling in food lines as well as street vendors selling Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and SS music cassettes.

If respondents are candid about the anti-Semitism in their midst, developers of the survey hope the questionnaire will send a strong message to Russian authorities that they must protect their citizens from racist threats. The survey will also be used to educate foreign policy-makers in the United States and abroad about the need for continued monitoring of the Russian government and its agencies.

Most importantly, perhaps, it is hoped the survey will help Jews in the St. Petersburg area and throughout Russia develop an effective means of monitoring and combating anti-Semitism.

"Basically the authorities have done nothing to confront the racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia," Klarfeld says. "With the total impotence of the Russian authorities and law-enforcing bodies, Jews and others feel it is useless to turn to others for protection."

Though surveys have been conducted on non-Jewish perceptions of Jews in the former Soviet Union and even of experiences of Jews who have left the area, this survey is believed to be the first focusing on the experience Jews still living there have with anti-Semitism.

The BACJRR composed the survey in partnership with the St. Petersburg-based Harold Light Jewish Center for Human Rights, as well as the local Anti-Defamation League, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, and Brandeis' Perlmutter Institute.

Once the survey was formulated, Klarfeld turned to Russian colleagues for help phrasing the questions.

Given that Soviet Jews may be immune to some forms of anti-Semitism, survey questions are direct, with no room for interpretation.

Rather than simply asking if they've been called anti-Semitic names, for example, the survey asks respondents whether they've been called zhid (yid), Christ-killer, or Zionist spy, or told to "go back to Israel."

One questions asks: "Has anyone punched, stabbed, pushed, kicked or spat on you or your family because you are Jewish?" Another asks: "Has anyone threatened to destroy any of your property because you are Jewish?" Or "Do you know of anyone who was killed because they are Jewish?"

Regardless of how survey respondents answer such questions, Klarfeld hopes their awareness of what constitutes anti-Semitism will at the very least be raised.