A New Iron Curtain Descends on Russia’s Jews
Putin was supposed to be the Good Tsar. Instead he has closed the Jewish Agency. And now tens of thousands of Jews fear being trapped in Russia.
I first met Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in 2013 at a Shabbat dinner. It was easy to stay in touch: She was prolific and hers was a byline I did not miss. Five years later, when I was at The New York Times, I commissioned her to write this very powerful, very personal story about her husband, an Orthodox rabbi, and the white supremacists who tried to steal his identity.
Fast forward to July 2022. The Kremlin, in response to Israeli criticism of Russia’s war on Ukraine, announced that it was shutting down the Jewish Agency—the Israeli nonprofit that, since 1929, has helped countless Jews from around the globe immigrate to the Jewish homeland.
I knew Avital would have some amazing insights to share. Her father is from Kyiv. Her mother is from the Gulag town of Vorkuta. Like a lot of Soviet Jews seeking a better life, they managed to immigrate to the United States in 1980.
On top of that, Avital's father-in-law was, until this war, the chief rabbi of Moscow. It’s hard to think of a man who better understands the complicated relationship between Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Jews.
So I wanted to know: What happens to the Jews left in Russia? Were those Jews who believed Russia had changed cynics or naifs? —BW
Vladimir Putin was supposed to be The Good Tsar—the Russian president who, his KGB past notwithstanding, was a friend of the Jews. In Putin’s Russia, we could be billionaires and presidential advisers. We could go to shul. We could come and go as we pleased.
My in-laws, Chief Rabbi Pinchas and Rebbetzin Dara Goldschmidt, were evidence of that. From 1993 until this year, my father-in-law was the chief rabbi of Moscow; my mother-in-law founded a Jewish school there.
Since the Soviet collapse, in 1991, synagogues, schools, youth groups, and Jewish-owned businesses in Moscow had flourished. In 2007, Putin famously donated a month’s salary to the glitzy Moscow Museum of Tolerance, and the FSB (formerly the KGB) offered its support to the museum by providing documents from its archives. In recent years, a Jew wearing a yarmulke would have felt more comfortable walking in Moscow than in Paris.
Perhaps most importantly, young Jews had been able to do what Jews in pretty much every generation before would have found unimaginable: They could move to Israel.
The symbol of this freedom of movement was a pale, yellow building on a little street called Bolshoy Spasoglinishchevskiy Pereulok, just across the street from Moscow’s famous Choral Synagogue. Inside was the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The Soviets didn’t allow the Jewish Agency—which has outposts all over the world and is tasked with helping Jews immigrate to Israel—to open in Russia until 1989, just two years before the communist regime collapsed. Its opening in the very center of Moscow was a sign of a great and long awaited moment in Russian society.
The Jewish Agency quickly became something of a magnet for young Russian Jews who would come to learn Hebrew, attend cultural events, and interview for a variety of programs that enabled them to go to Israel for high school or college.
True, the echo of Russian antisemitism—including the massive ghetto known as the Pale of Settlement, the blood-soaked pogroms, Josef Stalin’s and then Leonid Brezhnev’s persecution of Jews—had not entirely receded. The unspoken rule at the Jewish Agency was that it was best to keep a low profile to avoid provoking the Kremlin. Emigration was not something the Jewish Agency talked about much.
Still, every year, Israeli organizations would send emissaries to Jewish schools in Russia to stoke interest in the Promised Land. The four-hour flight from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo to Ben Gurion Airport was like a commuter flight for many Russian Jews; many sent their children there to study.
The point was: everything seemed to have changed, and Russian Jews bought it. I remember vividly one evening in 2014, at an American-Jewish organization’s fundraiser on a yacht on the Moscow River. The city was brilliant. Stalin’s Seven Sisters, the skyscrapers that have come to define the Moscow skyline, loomed above. The dance floor played lively music. Gourmet kosher food was served on silver platters. The wine was free-flowing. The conversation was about summer plans: St. Tropez or Monaco?
All this freedom made it possible—maybe—for some Jews to overlook the Kremlin’s anti-democratic ways: the attacks on the media, the end of political competition, the surveillance. They had never had it so good.
Now, that evening feels like a lifetime ago. Now, my in-laws are in Jerusalem, and the Jewish Agency is about to be closed, and when we call our friends still in Russia, the other end of the line is eerily, heavily quiet.
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Weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February, my father-in-law found himself in an impossible position. He and my mother-in-law had been in Moscow since the late 1980s. Theirs had been a remarkable and rocky and complicated and, at moments, beautiful experience. And then he, like many religious leaders in Russia, got the word from the powers that be: You’d better support the war publicly.
As we watched videos of missiles flying over Kharkiv, sirens ringing over Kyiv, train stations teeming with refugees, my husband and I—in New York—called his parents. We begged them to leave, stammering, not sure what we should (or shouldn’t) say on the phone. “There’s always the train to Helsinki,” my father-in-law said dryly, careful never to utter an extra word.
One day in March, they packed two suitcases and got on a plane. They only told us later, calling us from their Istanbul hotel room, exhausted, shaken. Soon after, they resettled in Israel.
Since then, more Jews have emigrated from Russia to Israel than they have from Ukraine. According to Israel’s Aliyah and Absorption Ministry, in the first half of 2022, 11,906 people emigrated from Ukraine to Israel—and nearly 17,000 from Russia did the same. (It’s unclear exactly how many of these people were Jewish; that’s another matter.) While Ukrainian Jewish refugees have various asylum options, Russian Jews are ineligible for refugee status. Israel is the simplest option. For many, it’s the only one.
The reasons to emigrate are numerous: Some are protesting the war. Others worry about an economic meltdown. (There are predictions that Russian GDP will plummet by as much as 50 percent from its prewar levels.) Many are scared that, if they stay, they’ll become prisoners. Any Jew who can remember the U.S.S.R.—the widespread discrimination against the Jews; the Jews denied permission to immigrate to Israel, referred to as refuseniks; the antipathy for Israel and the support for Arab states—can understand that. The fear that this might be their last, best chance to get out.
The Israelis knew all this. So when the war broke out, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was careful not to upset Putin. Bennett didn’t want any problems in Syria. (The Russians control Syrian air space, and the Israelis routinely send fighter jets over Syria to take out arms convoys heading to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.) He also didn’t want the 180,000 Russian Jews still in Russia to suffer at the hands of the Kremlin.
But under Bennett’s successor, Yair Lapid, Israel has taken a harder line against the Russians. The Russians responded by shutting down the Jewish Agency.
On July 15, the Russian Ministry of Justice requested a shutdown of the Jewish Agency in Russia. The official reason being that the Agency was a foreign agent collecting data on Russian citizens. But the real reason was to punish Israel. “Legal issues like these have been cleared up quietly and without making headlines in the past,” a senior Israeli official told the Economist. The eventual closure of the Jewish Agency is now a foregone conclusion. As my father-in-law recently noted, “There is a fear today that the Iron Curtain will close completely, and that one day it will become impossible to leave Russia at all.” The collateral damage will be Russian Jews—not the Roman Abramovich’s of the world but countless, often very poor students, parents and grandparents.
For two decades, the Russian president has cultivated an image of himself as the philosemite-in-chief. Say what you will about Vladimir Putin, he was supposedly the best Russian leader the Jews ever had. There was a reason for this: As long as you had the Jews in your corner, you couldn’t be a fascist. And being anti-fascist was central to the story that the Soviets, and now the Russians, tell about themselves. (Just ask anyone who’s spent Victory Day in Moscow.) It masked Russia’s own, darker, fascistic impulses—which we are now seeing play out in Ukraine.
But now the charade is up. Putin has revealed himself to be not so different from his predecessors, and the echo of Russian antisemitism is no longer an echo.
In May, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Hitler had “Jewish blood.” In June, television anchor Vladimir Solovyev took to Russia’s Channel 1, which is really a Kremlin media organ, to warn of Russian-speaking “traitors” who “have some relation to the Jewish people.” “You sold out our people long ago, when you decided to serve those who are reviving Nazi ideas in Europe,” Solovyev said.
Just a few weeks later, the Jewish Agency was informed of its closure, and late last month, Russia’s leading Jewish intellectual dissidents—Yevgenia Albats, Dmitry Aleshkovsky, and Dmitry Bykov—were declared to be foreign agents.
All of this—the purge of the intellectuals, the state-sanctioned insinuations of Jewish treachery, and now the closing of the Jewish Agency—are in keeping with the old Soviet model. The only unanswered question is how much Russian Jews will suffer.
It is also a reminder, in case one was needed, of why the Jewish state exists in the first place.
It was easy, until not so long ago, to forget. It’s been decades since Jews had to be airlifted to safety en masse, to say nothing of death camps or pogroms or ghettos. It seemed that we were living in a more enlightened era—one in which one could always book a flight and wake up in Tel Aviv. An era in which Israel is a military and technological powerhouse.
It was also easy to forget that, at its core, Israel was and is not simply a Jewish home but a Jewish haven. That the privilege of Jews in safer, more democratic climes—Jews who claim, like Soviet-Jewish apologists once did, that Israel doesn’t have anything to do with their lives, that the Jewish state doesn’t represent their values—is a privilege Russian Jews would be lucky to enjoy.