Jewish groups and U.S. lawmakers condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that the 2016 U.S. presidential election may have been manipulated by Russian Jews.
Putin’s remarks came during a long and occasionally surreal interview with NBC News on Saturday, in which he speculated that nearly anyone other than the Russian government could have been behind a program to disrupt the election. U.S. intelligence agencies believe Putin ordered the effort to undermine faith in the U.S. election and help elect Donald Trump as president.
“Maybe they’re not even Russians,” Putin told Megyn Kelly, referring to who might have been behind the election interference. “Maybe they’re Ukrainian, Tatars, Jews – just with Russian citizenship.”
He also speculated that France, Germany or “Asia” might have interfered in the election – or even Russians paid by the U.S. government.
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But his remark about Jews, which seemed to suggest that a Russian Jew was not really a Russian, prompted particular outrage among those who remember Russia’s centuries-long history of anti-Semitism and Jewish purges. Some groups compared the statement to anti-Jewish myths that helped inspire the Holocaust.
“Repulsive Putin remark deserves to be denounced, soundly and promptly, by world leaders,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote on Twitter. “Why is Trump silent?” Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., also demanded a response by Trump, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Trump has previously been reluctant to criticize Putin or accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia played a role in his election.
“President Putin bizarrely has resorted to the blame game by pointing the finger at Jews and other minorities in his country,” Anti-Defamation League chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “It is deeply disturbing to see the Russian president giving new life to classic anti-Semitic stereotypes that have plagued his country for hundreds of years, with a comment that sounds as if it was ripped from the pages of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ “
The American Jewish Committee also compared Putin’s comments to the “Elders of Zion” – a fabricated document published in Russia in 1903 that claimed Jews were plotting to take over the world and that helped fuel violence against Jews across Europe, eventually influencing Adolf Hitler’s plans for the Holocaust.
Anti-Semitism in Russia goes back hundreds of years. Jews had few rights under the Russian czars, researcher Masha Gessen told NPR.
After the communist revolution, the Soviet Union briefly experimented with creating an autonomous Jewish region along the eastern border, Gessen told NPR. But the zone became the scene of new horrors when Joseph Stalin launched purges of Jews and other minorities – including Crimean Tatars, who Putin said also might have been behind the U.S. election interference.
Russian Jews continued to be persecuted even after Stalin’s death. The communists shuttered synagogues, published anti-Semitic books and executed dozens of Jews in the 1960s and 1070s, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
Nearly every U.S. senator signed a letter urging Putin to help Russia’s Jews after he took power, in the early 2000s. In public, he mostly has. He speaks out against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism, and he has invited Jews who fled Russia during Soviet repression to come back.
But some see dark signs in the corners of Putin’s Russia. In January, Haaretz wrote, a pro-Kremlin website published a 5,000-word essay that blamed Jewish groups for chaos around the world – echoing the “Elders of Zion.”
While Putin has portrayed Russia in public as a refuge from far-right and anti-Semitic groups gaining political power across Europe, a report by Democratic Senate staffers accused his government of secretly assisting those same groups as part of its effort to destabilize democracies, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The Russian president’s latest remarks have caused particular concern in Israel, a Jewish state that has provided refuge to the victims of anti-Semitic campaigns around the world. Israel has lately been in a diplomatic crisis with Poland, a former Soviet state, after its leader appeared to accuse Jews of helping perpetrate the Holocaust.