Jewish debate on Olympics centers on human rights, security

With the Winter Olympics now underway in Sochi, Russia, Jewish debate on the games mirrors the discourse in the broader international and athletic communities.

While some Jews say they view the games purely as sport, many say they cannot ignore Russia’s controversial “gay propaganda” legislation, political detentions, allegations of Olympic corruption, and the recent terrorist threats against the games.

Gornaya Karusel, a sports and tourism area that is now a Sochi Olympics venue photo/ivanaivanova via wikimedia commons

“I personally don’t plan to attend or follow the games and actively encourage boycotting/not attending the games,” said Anya Levitov, managing partner at Evans Property Services in Moscow.

At the forefront of recent international criticism leveled at the Russian government is the country’s legislation against “gay propaganda.”

Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and activist who is both Jewish and openly gay, told ABC News that the propaganda law, which was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last June, bans the distribution of information that supposedly could harm children’s development or encourage them to accept alternative sexual relationships.

“There have already been attempts to remove children from lesbian couples. So, basically, LGBT people [in Russia] have an incredible amount to fear right now, especially if they have children,” Gessen said. Furthermore, while the law itself only bans propaganda, anti-gay violence around the country has increased.

Stuart Lieberman, editorial manager for the International Paralympic Committee — who will be reporting on the March 7-16 Paralympic Games, which are also taking place in Sochi — disagrees with boycotting the Olympics.

“I don’t think you can be entirely separate from politics [as it relates to the Olympics], but I don’t think you should be avoiding countries for reasons like this,” he said. Part of the value of the games is “to inspire and excite the world, and to instill change in society,” he added.

Sochi’s Chabad-Lubavitch center is preparing to welcome an influx of Jewish athletes and visitors to the 3,000-member local Jewish community. Chabad has acquired two temporary centers, to be staffed by 12 rabbinic interns, and it expects to prepare about 7,000 kosher meals over the course of the games.

Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, the Chabad emissary to Sochi, does not take a political stand on human rights or corruption issues in Russia.

“I view my role in this community as a spiritual one. I’m here to cater to the needs of the Jewish community, as well as to visiting tourists,” Edelkopf said.

A Russian coin commemorating the Sochi Olympics photo/ via wikimedia commons

Edelkopf did, however, note that the Sochi Jewish community is “in touch with local officials and security experts” regarding safety precautions, in light of concerns that the Sochi Olympics may be a target for terrorist attacks, particularly from Islamist groups in the Northern Caucasus.

In December, two suicide attacks killed 34 people in Volgograd, about 700 kilometers north of Sochi. An Islamist group from the Caucasus claimed responsibility.

Police have implemented long-planned restrictions of access to and movement within Sochi. Up to 70,000 personnel are on patrol at the games, according to some estimates.

Sam Kliger, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Russian Jewish community affairs, hopes that Russia “will do its best to prevent any attempt of terrorist acts during the Olympics.” A positive sign is that Russia reportedly cooperates with the United States on security issues, said Kliger, who also cited rumors that Russian security cooperation with Israel is on the way.

Levitov, however, questions the publicity surrounding security risks to the games.

“I personally view the widely publicized threats of terrorist attacks simply as a PR effort of Russian authorities,” she said. “It … allows for excuses if something does go wrong. Any mismanagement, infrastructural failures or collapsed buildings can be explained by terrorism.”

Like the IPC’s Lieberman, some Jewish groups see the Olympics as a way to promote tolerance and freedom.

“The Olympic Games have the potential to mark a new direction in which there is no discrimination based on race, gender, handicaps or sexual orientation,” B’nai B’rith International said in a statement. “The Olympics are a microcosm. While we expect athletes from every nation to have the right to compete fairly, a societal commitment to tolerance and acceptance should be applied to every aspect of society.”

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the games provide “a chance to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBT community and to promote democratic ideals.”

ADL did not support boycotting the games, but called for the United States to “consider new ways… to lead in the effort to have Russia address (the) anti-LGBT persecution in the same way Jackson-Vanik dealt with Soviet Jews or the Magnitsky law addressed certain human rights violations,” Foxman said.

AJC’s Kliger pointed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent political gestures, such as releasing from prison oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the members of the Pussy Riot band, as a sign of progress for the country. Such moves, he said, “indicate Russia is much more interested in conducting the games in the spirit of sports, peace, and cooperation.”