Monday, March 12, 2018

Headlines Focusing On One Word: Jews

Forward |   In an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly in Moscow that aired on March 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the 13 Russian nationals indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with a covert social media campaign.

Through a translator, Putin responded:

“Maybe they’re not even Russians. Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship. Even that needs to be checked. Maybe they have dual citizenship. Or maybe a green card. Maybe it was the Americans who paid them for this work. How do you know? I don’t know.”

The reaction from U.S. and Israeli media outlets was immediate and angry, with headlines focusing on one word: Jews.

Slate went with “Putin: Maybe it Was the Jews Who Meddled in U.S. Presidential Election”, New York Magazine with “Putin Says Jews Might Be to Blame for 2016 Election Hacking”, and the Jerusalem Post with “Putin: Jews might have been behind U.S. election interference”, as a representative sample.

The American Jewish Committee called Putin’s remarks “eerily reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a parallel also drawn by the head of the Anti-Defamation League. Democratic lawmakers also condemned the remarks, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who tweeted, “Repulsive Putin remark deserves to be denounced, soundly and promptly, by world leaders. Why is Trump silent? Intolerance is intolerable.”

This reaction, while understandable, fundamentally misrepresents both what Putin said and the cultural context in which he said it.

This is not to defend Putin for his smug and condescending tone throughout the interview, his palpably dishonest statements regarding whether the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election, or his unhelpful injection of ethnicity into the debate. Nonetheless, it’s important to be accurate about what Putin most likely meant and whether it represents a deeper animus toward Jews. Anti-Semitism in Russia is a real problem, but the panicked responses to Putin’s offhand comments miss the mark.