Wednesday, October 31, 2007

So Abraham and Sarah walk into a bar...

In a recent class, Dr. Denner mentioned something that really shocked me: in Russia, it's still apparently considered acceptable in good company to tell various types of crude ethnic jokes, especially anti-semitic ones. These jokes almost all star Абрам and Сара, and tend to have similar punchlines: they're cheap, untrustworthy, backstabbing, scheming, etc. Now, I had been vaguely aware that the history of евреи (Jews) in Russia was marked with strife, but I didn't know just how bad it was until now.

Russia's historically large Jewish communities mostly came about in the Middle Ages, when masses of Jews across Europe fled east to avoid active persecution in places like Spain and Germany. Things were okay for a while, but soon enough the Czars started to persecute them too; the hundreds of years of czarist Russia is dotted with brief periods of anti-semitic frenzy and swordpoint conversions. One of the main ways of dealing with unwanted Jewish populations was to force them into Poland, but that became an issue when Russia annexed it. In the 19th century, the Czars started creating pogroms against the once-again Russian Jews; a "pogrom" is basically a racist/bigoted riot that's actually started by the government itself as an excuse to destroy undesirables' property.

You'd think that the Soviets, for all their talk of brotherhood, would at least put an end to this practice, but they got into it too. Although many of the original Bolsheviks were Jewish (like Trotsky, the devil in that poster up there), anti-semitism was back on the agenda by the time Stalin came around. After helping to end the Holocaust in Germany, Stalin started killing prominent Jews at home; this discrimination lasted until the 1970s, when the Soviets allowed large numbers of Jewish people to flee to the US and Israel.

Today, there aren't too many Russian Jews left, and the remaining ones still have to deal with hostility from the government. Small parties in the Duma apparently like to try to ban Judaism altogether, and regular anti-semitic violence is still a reality. So I guess it really is true what they say: you can tell a lot about a culture by what it jokes about.

1 comment:

Dr. Michael A. Denner said...

maybe a bit bleak, but not untrue. i can say that we in america have very little idea of how pervasive antisemitism is in europe generally, but particularly in e. europe, russia included. what's worse, i have had a distinct impression while in russia that the problem is significantly increasing -- as russia turns inward and seeks affirmation in its own, ethnic identity -- jews naturally get scapegoated.