Exploring the Roots and Repercussions of Antisemitism: From the Maccabees and the Soviet Union to Campus

Jewish on Campus Journal Staff
January 2, 2023

On Dec. 18, we hosted the second webinar of our series, where CEO Julia Jassey led the conversation with two Soviet Jews and their experiences. We had the honor to speak with Natan Sharansky, an Israeli politician and former refusenik, and Vlad Khaykin from the Anti-Defamation League.

The Soviet-Jewish experience with antisemitism is complex; It does not resemble the overt Jew-hatred of previous regimes, but instead hid antisemitism under cloaked language. This more convoluted form of antisemitism can be more challenging to spot and combat. The antisemitism of the Soviet Union didn't openly target Jews, but targeted Jewish identity as expressed in Soviet society.

Anti-religious legislation and refusal to let Jews leave the Soviet Union controlled and limited Jewish life and expression. The gulag — the government agency in charge of forced labor camps — imprisoned Jews for trying to disobey the laws of the secular, anti-Jewish society. 

Antisemitism was technically illegal under the USSR but Jewish life still suffered greatly; political and societal structures and coded language allowed antisemitism to continue flourishing. This model of antisemitism emulates that employed by Greeks during the First Temple, in which Jews were not outright expelled. Still, Greeks banned Jewish cultural and religious practices. The Maccabees resisted by studying Torah in secret; similarly, Soviet Jews gathered in secret to learn Hebrew against the order of the Soviet Union.

“It was forced out of us,” Khaykin, national director of programs on antisemitism for the ADL, spoke of the Soviet Jewish experience, “There was an all-out assault on Jewish life, Jewish culture, Jewish religiosity, Jewish literacy, Jewish creativity, and so on.” 

This brand of antisemitism has seeped onto college campuses. Students, professors, and organizations do not outright admit to targeting or isolating Jews, but rather, use “Zionists” as a stand-in for the group they wish to villainize. 

“Everyone understood that hating Jews and hating Israel goes together,” Sharansky commented. 

While many deny it, this message drives much of the Jew-hatred on college campuses.

Jews of the Soviet Union, true to the story of Chanukah, fought this antisemitism by all means, with many fleeing the country despite the risk of being labeled a refusenik and associated consequences.

“What led me to dedicate my life to combating antisemitism?” Khaykin pondered, “I think on my formative years as a child refugee. The sense of dislocation, the goodbyes spoken between my parents and myself and their parents — my grandparents — and other family members, that may well have been the last words that we would speak to one another.”

Sharansky remarked on how internal support of Jewish students was during their fight for their siblings oppressed in the USSR. The way Jewish young adults mobilzed then — resulting in a march on Washington with a quarter of a million attendees — reminds us that we need to be leaders in combating antisemitism on college campuses and beyond. Like both the Maccabees and Soviet Jews, young adults on college campuses must fight against antisemitism regardless of the source. 

“Antisemitism is not a left-wing phenomenon, it’s not a right-wing phenomenon,” Khaykin said, “It finds fertile soil across the entire political, ideological spectrum.”

The story of Chanukah and Sharansky, Khaykin, and the Soviet Jewish experience at large, reminds us that we must battle antisemitism in all forms.

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