Updated: Sep 7, 2022
By Diana Fishbein,
Opinion contributor — 05/23/22
It was only 30 years ago — December 31, 1991 — when the Russian Empire collapsed. To many, it may seem like ancient history, but not to the large population of Jews alive today in the U.S. who descended from Eastern Europe during Russian rule over 15 republics, including Ukraine.
Those memories are painful for Jews whose grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to flee antisemitic persecution in the early 1900s during Pogroms — state-sponsored acts of extreme violence directed toward Jews and other minorities, many of whom were massacred. These onslaughts were carried out over several decades within the Russian Empire, resulting in 2 million Jews migrating to America’s shores.
But these Russian-orchestrated atrocities neither started nor ended there. For centuries, a large proportion of Russians, including Ukrainians, have held unfavorable attitudes toward Jews. Official policies that oppressed, isolated, or forced assimilation of Russian Jews were systematically enacted at least since the 1500s. Fast forward to World War II, when 11 countries were invaded by the Nazis, with a mission to eradicate Jews and other “inferior races.” Attacks hit Ukraine especially hard, as it was home to the largest population of Jews in Russia — 1.5 million of them were murdered and another 800,000 displaced.
These are not just historical realities to be pondered by scholars. Antisemitism remains alive and well right here on Main Street, USA, as evidenced by prejudicial attitudes and in isolated circumstances, physical assaults directed toward Jews. Even more alarming is the mounting anti-Jewish sentiment we are currently witnessing; from 2020 to 2021 alone, there was a 34 percent increase.
Although this trend is concerning, Jewish persecution here is not and has never been as widespread or as terrible as the discrimination that people of color and LGBTQ communities have suffered. Jews have certainly faced obstacles and persecution in this country, but Jews have not encountered systemic barriers to opportunity, or pervasive discrimination in this country as have other minorities. Even after 400 years of “enlightenment” we have yet to reckon with deeply seated racism toward Black people, in particular.
Why does all this need to be said in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Frankly, widespread illiteracy about the enduring nature of racism, antisemitism and other forms of hate-driven isms enables dictators to lay blame on groups of people for domestic failures and ostensible threats from neighboring nations. Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine exemplifies how dictators can derive power by weaponizing racism. He keenly observed the considerable uptick in prejudicial attitudes and actions here in the U.S. — his primary adversary — where racism is increasingly expressed openly in words, deeds, and even legislative acts. This state of affairs created fertile ground for his fictional narrative to take hold, wittingly claiming that the offensive will liberate Ukraine from the Nazi threat when, in reality, White supremacists make up only about 2 percent of the population, fewer than in the U.S.