Russian Jewish American artists, scholars examine the immigrant experience at a time of increasing threat.
Eighteen months ago, co-editor-in-chief David Shneer of the journal Eastern European Jewish Affairs and Anna Katsnelson decided to dedicate a special issue of the journal to the contributions of Russian-Jewish American culture makers. By the time it was published in March, the world had changed in ways they never expected.
Following the election of Donald Trump in November, incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States, from bomb threats directed at Jewish community centers to vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, have spiked.
And now, some five months later, allegations of Russian interference with the November election and connections between Russia and members of the Trump campaign and White House continue to pile up, and the FBI has launched an investigation.
“I never saw this event as having anything to do with contemporary politics when Anna Katsnelson and I conceived it,” Shneer said in opening remarks to the day-long Festival of Contemporary Russian Jewish American Culture, held March 5 in New York City to coincide with publication of the special issue.
Shneer is professor of history, religious studies and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he holds the Louis P. Singer Endowed Chair in Jewish History. He and Anna Shternshis, associate professor of Yiddish studies and director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, took the reins as co-editors of the journal three years ago.
The journal was started in the late 1960s under the name of Soviet Jewish Affairs and was dedicated to exploring the lives and experiences of Jews living behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
When Shneer and Shternshis took over, they decided to broaden the scope of the journal to explore the experiences of Jews from eastern Europe and Russia who had made home in other places around the globe. They published special issues on such topics as global Yiddish culture, which included essays written about eastern European Jews living in Paris, Amsterdam, Montreal and Bialystok as well as the process of migration of Jews from eastern Europe.
The special edition on Russian Jewish American culture makers—poets, writers, filmmakers, artists, photographers—initiated, designed, and edited by Katsnelson, was unusual, Shneer says.
“The topic seemingly has nothing to do with Soviet Jewry or eastern Europe, except for the fact that this collection of (culture makers) traces its roots back to the Soviet Union,” he says.
In addition to the scholarly articles that always appear in journals, the editors also solicited original creative work, including fiction, photography and poetry. Rather than focus on high-profile Russian Jewish American immigrant artists and writers, such as best-selling novelist Gary Shteyngart, whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union, they chose to focus on lesser-visible artists, with a special emphasis on women.
“After a year when the female presidential candidate in the United States won the popular vote by close to 3 million votes, more than any losing candidate before her, but lost the election to a candidate who is anti-women, anti-immigrant, and anti-diversity, more than ever the United States and the world are in need of women writers, women photographers, women professors, and women artists,” Katsnelson wrote in her introduction to the issue.
The issue contains six scholarly articles, including one by Katsnelson, a review essay by Shneer examining the question of American identity through the work of Russian Jewish American photographers, as well as an original short story by Ukrainian Jewish American writer Sana Krasikov, paintings, drawings by and an interview with Russian-born artist Yevgeny Yelchin (uncle of the late Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin), book reviews and more.
A picture emerges of Americans for whom the immigrant experience was in some ways unique, Shneer says. At times during the Cold War, Soviet Jews were welcomed to America as politically desirable refugees from communism, which allowed them to immigrate to the United States relatively unimpeded. (Leaving the Soviet Union was another matter, as many Soviet Jews were “refused” exit visas from the Soviet government.)
“Coming from the Cold War enemy,” Shneer says, “the United States, and American Jewry, were rescuing them.”
Given the stark difference between the experiences of Soviet Jewry in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and those of today’s refugees coming from war-torn parts of the world, it was perhaps inevitable that speaker after speaker would turn to that topic during the March festival.
And we are now at a moment in history where we are asking what it means to be an American, the same conversation that was happening in the 1920s."
“Giving refuge to people who need it is what I think the United States should be doing today,” Shneer says. “Today we see waves of people who are actual refugees, who can’t live safely in their country, but we are not welcoming them as refugees. By highlighting the role immigrants are playing in contemporary American culture, the special edition of the journal ended up being an implied critique of the current administration’s policies.”
The pendulum has swung back and forth across American history when it comes to the treatment of immigrants. In the early 20th century, industry was desperate for labor and encouraged the arrival of newcomers. By 1924, Shneer says, a backlash had developed.
“And we are now at a moment in history where we are asking what it means to be an American, the same conversation that was happening in the 1920s,” he says. “Trump tapped into an unease in the American population, which is why the U.S. electorate elected him. But what is the source of that unease? Is it economic dislocation, is it racial prejudice, is it the fear that the United States is being overrun by ‘dark’ immigrants?”
Shneer argues that having a president who does not speak out forcefully against prejudice leads directly to a “new sense of permissiveness” among those who not only spout anti-Semitic and racist ideas, but have sometimes translated those ideas into action.
Speakers at the March festival addressed those and other troubling questions that have arisen in the past year. To the extent that they, personally, have not experienced threats or intimidation, participants credited their privilege as white Americans.
In his other role as a leader in the Jewish studies scholarly community, who are frequently called upon to speak at Jewish institutions for their scholarly expertise, Shneer poses the question: “How should Jewish institutions and communities respond to this wave of threats? Do we respond to individual acts or policies or to the source of these acts and policies?”
Among Shneer’s own responses have been a call to all Americans to help shore up the institutions of democracy, and assembling a list of 70 senior faculty in Jewish studies around the nation who pledged to speak only at Jewish institutions that have denounced Stephen Bannon, former editor of Breitbart News and now a permanent member of Trump’s National Security Council.
Shneer believes Italy’s experience with fascism may be a better comparison to Trump’s instincts than German National Socialism.
“The origins of fascism are in Italy, not in Germany, and there were plenty of Italian Jews who supported Benito Mussolini and fascism,” he says. “It emphasized defending the Italian nation from the threat of communism, prioritizing the primacy of security over liberty, and operating the state by administrative fiat instead of the rule of law. Today, all Americans, and especially American Jews, need to decide whether they will publicly stand on the side of liberal democracy or on the side of ethnic nationalism.”