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It’s time for Russia’s remaining Jews to leave

A weak regime can still be a dangerous one, particularly when said regime is armed with nuclear weapons.

A Russian civilian hugs a soldier of the Wagner Group private military company on a tank with flowers in the muzzle after the end of an attempted mutiny on Vladimir Putin's regime, June 24, 2023. Credit: Fargoh via Wikimedia Commons.
A Russian civilian hugs a soldier of the Wagner Group private military company on a tank with flowers in the muzzle after the end of an attempted mutiny on Vladimir Putin's regime, June 24, 2023. Credit: Fargoh via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

“If necessary, just as we prevented the fall of Assad, we will prevent the fall of Putin.” This brazen claim was posted to a Telegram channel linked with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) last Saturday, as an amazed world watched a mutiny unfold in Russia that was quickly snuffed out before any significant violence unfolded.

The IRGC has every reason to remain loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has deepened his military alliance with Iran in tandem with his aggression against Ukraine. Russia has been a key diplomatic and strategic ally of the Iranian mullahs, understanding very well their capacity to sow unrest in a region that has been dominated by U.S. interests for nearly a century. Their alliance was on show first during the Syrian civil war of the previous decade, where Putin and his IRGC acolytes butchered tens of thousands of civilians in order to maintain President Bashar Assad’s grip on power, and more recently, in Ukraine, where Russia has deployed hundreds of Iranian-manufactured attack drones to deadly effect against civilian and military targets.

It’s probably safe to assert that back in February 2022, when Putin launched his bloody invasion, no one in Moscow or Tehran imagined that the IRGC would be offering to defend the Kremlin from disgruntled mercenaries less than two years later. The fact that such a thought is even thinkable speaks volumes about the weakness creeping into the Russian dictator’s office. For two decades, Putin cultivated the image of the global leader as a tough guy, proudly showing off his taekwondo black belt (an honor rescinded by the World Taekwondo Association in March 2022, by the way), riding bare-chested on horseback, ostentatiously mourning the fall of the Soviet Union, nurturing a class of oligarchs but still persuading greedy, short-sighted Western banks and corporations that Russia was a lucrative place to do business. Thanks to the invasion of Ukraine, the oligarchs—for years, Putin’s instruments for snapping up real estate and other assets in Western countries—have, according to a Bloomberg assessment, been shedding more than $300 million per day under the weight of international sanctions while Russia’s armed forces—its hard power—have been unmasked as corrupt, incompetent and irredeemably brutal.

It looks very much like the emperor, or should I say the tsar, is rather scantily clad.

Yet regime weakness and regime failure are two different concepts. A weak regime can still be a dangerous one, particularly when said regime is armed with nuclear weapons, as Russia is. That is one key reason why, despite the unprecedented instability of Putin’s regime, neither America nor any other Western state is going to follow Napoleon Bonaparte’s example by taking the war to the Russians—as the distinguished British Field Marshal Lord Montgomery put it in a 1962 speech—in an insight that remains just as valid now as then: “Rule one on page one of the Book of War is, ‘Do not march on Moscow.’ ” If last weekend’s machinations are anything to go by, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the criminal Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries, seemed to have absorbed that lesson before it was too late.

But if Prigozhin is no longer available to unseat Putin, who will do so? That is a question for the Kremlinologists to wrestle with. However, one can more confidently predict that the endgame for Putin, or indeed, his adversaries within Russia, will be accompanied by bitter social and political strife, defined by shortages of food and basic goods at home and a criminal military adventure abroad.

Enter (of course!) the Jews. Prior to the advent of the Nazis in Germany, Russia had the entirely justified reputation as the most antisemitic country on earth, subjecting its segregated Jewish population to gruesome pogroms and vile, demonizing propaganda. The hatred ran so deep that it even impacted Imperial Russia’s relations with the United States, when, in 1911, President William H. Taft abrogated a long-standing friendship treaty after the Russians announced that American citizens belonging to the Jewish faith were banned from entering their country.

A painful collapse of Putin’s regime could yet revive and unleash these historic forces. In the last week, the two Jewish clerics carrying the title of “Chief Rabbi of Ukraine” (the fruit of an unresolved 2005 intra-communal dispute) have warned that “pogroms” and violence could yet be the lot of Russia’s remaining Jews, urging them to get out as soon as possible.

The message of both rabbis to their Russian brethren was simply this: Whichever way this situation plays out, it’s going to be very bad for you. “I didn’t have a platform for this, I just tried to tell them through social networks: get out of there, because it might be too late,” Rabbi Moshe Azman reflected on his efforts to reach the Jews of Russia in an interview with a Ukrainian outlet. Separately, Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich opined that Putin’s much-vaunted philosemitism may be a phantom. “Putin has been president or prime minister in Russia for 23 years. Over the years, he expelled 16 rabbis from Russia,” Rabbi Bleich observed in his interview. “As Putin says that he loves Jews so much, I have a question: If you love Jews, why have this attitude towards rabbis and towards the community? Why is there often such antisemitism from the Russian authorities?”

In Israel, the discussion about whether to ferry Russia’s remaining Jews to their ancient homeland has picked up steam following Prigozhin’s abortive mutiny. Last week, Israel’s Channel 13 reported on a leaked document that discussed the possibility of a “large wave of immigration from Russia,” along with the need to “prepare for it while guaranteeing the proper functioning of Jewish and Israeli institutions in Russia.” Meanwhile, in Israel’s parliament, opposition Knesset member Oded Forer, chairman of its Absorption and Diaspora Affairs committee, angrily accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government of having “abandoned” Russian Jews. Forer then called on the Jewish Agency, which is confronting a legal effort by the Russian authorities to shutter its operations in their country, “to prepare an array of dedicated airplanes” to bring Russian Jews to Israel “before it’s too late.”

The coming weeks and months will be a test of the Israeli government’s commitment in this regard. It should be mindful of Israel’s rich history of advocating for and rescuing beleaguered Jewish communities in Yemen, Ethiopia, and, of course, the Soviet Union. Because the time for the Jews to leave Russia is finally upon us.

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