Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin sought to consolidate his long, successful and bloodless search for centralized authoritarian rule by proposing to cancel citizens' right to elect their local and regional officials, nominally as a countermeasure to terrorism -- a dangerous as well as counterproductive move. Some Jewish leaders and diplomats in the West inveighed and the front and op-ed pages of America's media discovered this anti-democratic trend as if it were a revelation, after having largely ignored Russia's critical importance since September 2001. These dangerous and disturbing trends have been occurring in Russia, as elsewhere, for many years. The Russian human rights and anti-Semitic monitoring organizations have been prescient in consistently documenting and warning against Russia's deteriorating, corrupt and dysfunctional systems for providing rule of law and controlling the impunity of grass-roots anti-Semitic and racist violence and propaganda.
In fact, these are bellwether predictors of the threat to democracies, which have also included the Russian president's increasing control of the media and the shutting down of dissent, including opposition progressive political parties.
In last year's parliamentary elections, all progressives lost while the three parties with explicit anti-Semitic platforms garnered almost as many votes as Putin's party. While Russian Jewish leadership is understandably constrained to appreciate Putin's strong rhetorical opposition to anti-Semitism and terrorism, the traditional failure of the Western political and human rights establishments to include anti-Semitism in the canon of human rights program priorities is a partial explanation for this analytical myopia.
In general, and regrettably, the issue of human rights is seen as a "feel good" rhetorical virtue, but of low strategic priority. What's more, mainstream Jewish leadership is as guilty as the mainstream human rights community, to say nothing of the policymaking analysts, in failing to take into account the importance of anti-Semitism both as the organizing rhetorical thesis for terrorism and its apologists from the left as well as the right, and as a significant strategic indicator of threat to democracy. This point has been largely ignored by Western intelligence and homeland security agencies as well.
While much has been written of late about the weaknesses of America's capability to gather "human intelligence," there always was, and there remains today, an important, largely ignored alternative strategic window into the intentions of our enemies -- the capabilities of NGOs on the ground that monitor and respond to anti-Semitic behavior and other threats to human rights and rule of law. While anti-Semitism technically targets Jews, it also provides the tip-off language that identifies the enemies of democracy everywhere, the civilian corollary to weapons inspections.
One of the most compelling slogans of the post-Holocaust era was, "Never Again!" This was an exhortation specifically to Jews, but also to democracies everywhere, for the need to be vigilant against totalitarian and fascist extremism, e.g., anti-Semitism. But it was not self-fulfilling. It required monitoring and active responses to translate the goal into practical reality. In the Soviet era, UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews alone coalesced with the Helsinki Monitor dissidents such as Sakharov, Orlov and Sharansky. Such a collegial human rights partnership continues to great effect today through UCSJ and Ludmilla Alexeeva, an original Monitor and presently the head both of the Moscow Helsinki Group and the International Helsinki Federation.
Today, like the flu pandemic of 1917-18 that struck, circled the globe and struck again with devastating force, the virus of anti-Semitism has rebounded. While the terrorists' principal enemy is the United States and democracy generally, antiSemitism and anti-Israeli genocide provides the rhetorical engine that powers all Islamist terrorists worldwide and, in Russia, the Communist and neo-fascist political parties and neo-Nazi skinheads as well. As the largest Jewish Diaspora at risk in the world, Russia presents a compelling case for exercising cautionary concern in its own right. Beyond that, the techniques that must be brought into play there can be seen as exemplars for combating global terrorism as well.
As European Jewry learned in the Holocaust, as Israeli's vaunted intelligence services sadly learned in the Yom Kippur War and as America learned following Sept. 11, in order to make operational the goal of "never again," we must all learn better how to "connect the dots." As is true in the Middle East as well, Putin will not combat terrorism effectively by strengthening totalitarian control. Rather, he must monitor and respond to terror and its propaganda, including the bellwether grass-roots anti-Semitism, reform his dysfunctional and corrupt criminal justice system, and attend to human rights standards of press freedom and independent political discourse and organization. Such failures are the seeds of terrorism. They are the issues that must be brought to bear on states that perpetrate, harbor and tolerate violence by design or institutional weakness. n
Yosef I. Abramowitz and Micah H. Naftalin are, respectively, president and national director of the grass-roots human rights monitoring organization, UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (FSUMonitor.com). UCSJ and the Moscow Helsinki Group are co-nominees for the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.