'We saw this in tsarist times, at end of Stalinist regime'

Exiled Moscow chief rabbi: Jews should leave Russia before they are scapegoated

Amid rising antisemitism, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt warns that historical precedent indicates Jewish community will be blamed for country’s problems

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief of the Conference of European Rabbis, at a news conference in Berlin, Germany, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer, file)
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief of the Conference of European Rabbis, at a news conference in Berlin, Germany, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer, file)

Moscow’s exiled former chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, has warned Russian Jews that they may become scapegoats for hardships brought on by Moscow’s sputtering war in Ukraine, and encouraged them to leave the country.

In an interview with Britain’s The Guardian, Goldschmidt said there was historical precedent that shows the Jewish community could end up being blamed.

“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,” he said. “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 said.

Goldschmidt resigned from his position and left Moscow in July.

“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.

Last October, Goldschmidt encouraged Russian Jews to flee the country after a Moscow official labeled the Chabad Hasidic sect a supremacist cult. Since July, Russia and Israel have been engaged in a legal dispute over Moscow’s attempts to shutter the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that promotes immigration of Jews to Israel.

According to the Swiss-born Goldschmidt, since the beginning of the invasion in March 2022, 25 to 30 percent of Jews in Russia have left or are planning to leave.

Today, Russia’s Jewish population numbers about 165,000 out of a total population of 145 million.

Jewish Ukrainian refugees receive their entry papers to Israel, at an emergency shelter in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 15, 2022. (Flash90)

Between January 1 and December 1, 2022, Russian immigrants to Israel numbered 37,364, while 14,680 Ukrainians moved to the Jewish state, according to Jewish Agency figures.

Since the outbreak of the war, the price of a one-way flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv has quadrupled to NIS 7,000 ($2,000), potentially preventing more Russians from making the move.

Assessing the impacts of widescale emigration on Russia, Goldschmidt opined that Russia as a whole would feel the loss.

“There’s a section of Russian society called the ‘creacle,’ the creative class of business and cultural leaders, intellectuals and artists. 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.

The Guardian said that 200,000 Russians have fled the country since the war began, a large proportion of whom left after conscription was introduced in September.

Alongside concerns over antisemitism in Russia, Goldschmidt noted that there was a growing number of antisemitic incidents in the United States.

“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 polarized but also the discourse has been upended by social media. The polarization we’re seeing has made antisemitism much more acceptable,” he said.

A sign for an anti-antisemitism campaign, New York City, August 12, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

Turning his attention to Europe, the exiled rabbi cited a recent conference in Athens, which saw mayors of 53 cities from 23 countries convene in early December to discuss combating the worldwide rise of antisemitism.

“We have to stop those forces that are trying to destroy Europe from within,” Goldschmidt 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,” he said.

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