Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky on Tuesday criticized President Shimon Peres for thanking the Russian people for “a thousand years of hospitality.” Centuries of discriminatory laws and pogroms clearly showed that the country was not always the most welcoming place for Jews, Sharansky noted.

“I really don’t understand what this means,” said Sharansky — who was born in the former USSR and spent years in a Soviet prison fighting for his right to immigrate to Israel — in response to Peres’s comments, which were made during a visit to Moscow last week. “For several hundred years, the Jews weren’t allowed to enter Russia, and after that there were 300 years during which a thousand anti-Jews laws were published. I have a book of a thousand laws against the Jews that were passed in Russia. And I am not even talking about pogroms,” he told Israel Radio.

“Why did world Jewry have to fight to liberate the Jews from the Soviet Union, if there was such great hospitality?” Sharansky added.

On Thursday, Peres attended the inauguration of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow and spoke very warmly about Russia’s treatment of the Jews.

Shimon Peres speaks at the opening of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, Russia. November 08, 2012. Photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)

Shimon Peres speaks at the opening of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, Russia. November 08, 2012. Photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)

“I came here to say thank you. Thank you for a thousand years of hospitality,” he said. “A thousand years that the great country of Russia gave to my small nation. It is a historical thank you that remains fresh today.”

Many Jews tend to think of czarist Russia, and its successor state, the Soviet Union, as a place where Jews were systematically persecuted and at the best of times barely tolerated. But according to Hebrew University’s Jonathan Dekel-Chen, a leading expert on the history of Russian Jewry, the historical reality is too complex to be summed up in slogans.

“Of course there wasn’t always perfectly peaceful coexistence, but it’s more complicated than that,” he said.

“Historical truth is somewhere between Peres’s comments about hospitality and what Sharansky said,” he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “It’s difficult to understand what Peres meant by hospitality, but he said it in a public forum and it probably wasn’t intended as a history lesson.”

Historical accuracy rarely reflects the collective memory of a people, said Dekel-Chen, who is the academic chairman of Hebrew University’s Leonid Nevzlin Research Center for Russian and East European Jewry. “There were also forms of co-existence. There wasn’t a pogrom every single day.”