Is it better for the Jews in Moscow than in Boston?
Just my asking the question will start Grandpa Sharkansky spinning in his grave.
I never knew the man, but I know that he left the Czar's realm in 1880, part of the first wave of Jews spurred on by pogroms and attracted to the Golden Land across the sea.
Why even ask the question?
On the one hand is news of a grand new Jewish museum in Moscow, perhaps the largest Jewish museum in the world, heavily funded by a Jew who may be the richest man in Russia, and supported in its development by President Vladimir Putin, said to be favorably inclined toward Jews by virtue of having a Jewish babysitter when his parents worked.
On the other hand things are not as good as they should be for the Jews of Boston, only 50 miles from where Grandpa put down his roots and began peddling. A Lebanese student at the Harvard Business School complained about an Israeli food day in the student cafeteria, saying that listing couscous and hummus as Israeli foods is an insult to their Arab origins and represents yet another indication of Israeli aggression.
The complaint itself should not bother anyone, but the response from an official of the Harvard Business School is an affront to good sense and suggests a larger problems of Jews on American campuses. Rather than treating the issue as an indication of a student's hyper-sensitivity or sense of humor, the Harvard spokesman was "deeply troubled" for having offended Arab sensibilities due to the mischaracterization of various foods. He went on to say, ""We've been following the comments . . . prompted us to have some extensive conversations here internally. . . to understand how this happened and to make sure that it doesn't happen again."
Com'on, Harvard. Who the hell knows, for sure, the origin of couscous and hummus? Or whether there are Israeli versions that differ from what is common elsewhere? Do the Italians have a patent on pizza and the Peruvians on potatoes? Just last month I dined on flammkuchen in Germany that bore a profound resemblance to the pizzas I have had elsewhere. My own extensive hummus experience, sharpened by tasting a great deal from Arab and Jewish kitchens, is that all Israeli varieties exceed by far the merits of the stuff I've tried to eat in Boston.
If there is a serious element in this comparison of what's happening to the Jews in Boston and Moscow it suggests--admittedly with a leap beyond the hard evidence--a repeat of the old phenomenon of the goyim alternately wanting to attract and to be rid of Jews. The cycle is well known in European history, with princes accepting Jewish migrants, or even recruiting them for what they offered to the economy. Jews provided capital, traded in goods needed by the peasants and aristocrats, operated inns, managed woodlands and agriculture, passed information across borders, offered advice on the basis of their international contacts, engaged in medicine, and did some of the smelly and undesirable crafts like tanning (the work of Varda's family in Bernkastel) that Christian guilds shunned.
On the other side of the cycle were anti-Jewish riots, sometimes promoted by the Church and secular authorities.
The less than ideal situation of the Jews in the Soviet Union, with individual Jews prominent in politics and the professions alongside discrimination and waves of persecution, produced a mass exodus with the collapse of the regime. The Jewish population in what had been the Soviet Union declined from 2.3 million in 1959 to less than a half million in 2000. Roughly a million "Jews" migrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel, with other substantial waves going to Germany and the United States. As a result of the out migration, there are stories of towns in the range of 25,000 population left without any physicians.
("Jews" are in quotation marks insofar as many people who think of themselves as Jews--perhaps a third of the migrants to Israel--do not pass muster according to religious doctrine.)
After a period of disinterest or relief at the Jewish exodus, the Russian posture has gone to the cyclical posture of wanting more Jews. Times are better. The economy and domestic security in Russia and some other parts of the former Soviet Union have stabilized, and there are reports of 100,000 migrants returning from Israel. One hundred thousand is a lot of people, but it is a small incidence of returnees compared to up to one-half of immigrants to Israel from North America who are said to return home. (It's appropriate to note that figures for immigration are more reliable than those for emigration.)
What's happening in Boston?
It is too early to fly off the handle about the insecurities of Jewish students on campuses, even though the stupidity associated with the Harvard Business School might give us an excuse to do so. Whatever one concludes about his politics, the billions and generosity of the Bostonian Sheldon Adelson is at least a match for the Russian who contributed to the Jewish Museum in Moscow, and there are other Jews (including descendants of Isaac Sharkansky) who have done well in and around that city.
Which is not to say that conditions in colleges and universities are benign. Fashions prevail in academia as elsewhere. Lecturers and student organizations have claimed that Israel and Jews as the sources of all that is problematic in the Middle East and American foreign policy. British Jews and even Israelis worry about episodes in their own universities. In addition, pro-Israel activists have claimed that as many as a third of the Democrats in the U. S. House of Representatives have signed on to anti-Israel documents.
That some of those Representatives are Jewish, and that "anti-Israel" postures have come from a Jewish organization (J Street) complicates the accusation.
Yet those who know Jewish history should be sensitive to dangers from others and ourselves. One should appreciate the positive signs coming out of Moscow, and note the other signs from Boston, without going too far in any direction, or assuming that all is well for Jews anywhere.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at November 10, 2012 10:36 AM