Russians, Jews, Beirut: comments on a Moscow street

Outside the downtown headquarters of the official news agency Tass are photos of Beirut massacre victims, a sign that says, ''The monstrous crimes of Israel'' - and a knot of onlookers who suspect hard times may lie ahead for Soviet Jews.

Any reaction, they suggest, is likely to be a subtle one - ''nothing like thatm ,'' says the one Jew in the group of ethnic Russians, gesturing toward the photos of Beirut killing.

The talk is mostly of ''mood,'' of pressures, of the mumbled racial epithet at a shop counter or bus stop. The conversation, on an Indian-summer day across from a park where children frolic and older men hunch over chess, is at first guarded, later more lively, and throughout more nuanced than the Soviet news media's outpouring.

''Israel, of course, didn't actually do the killing,'' begins a well-dressed man with a briefcase. ''Lebanese rightists did it. But the Israelis did allow the rightists into the Palestinian camps.''

A slightly older man, passing by, declares: ''Yes. But let's not forget the civilians killed by Palestinians, too.'' Several of the men signal agreement. One says: ''Why not include a few pictures of the [Olympic Games] attack in Munich?''

The man with the briefcase continues: ''We hold Israel responsible for the massacre, that is, the Israeli leaders, like Begin. Still, that does not mean we blame the entire Jewish people. There is no anti-Semitism in our response.''

''I agree,'' says a tall young music student, a sometime soloist at the nearby Bolshoi Theater. ''We can distinguish between the Israelis and individual Jews. For instance, I have several good friends who are Jews. I do not blame them for what happened.''

''But anti-Semitism is a complicated thing,'' interrupts a smallish man with a moustache, and the tie and jacket of a Moscow office worker. ''There will be no anti-Semitism on an open level perhaps. But there is another level, quiet, more subtle.

''I myself am not a Jew,'' he says a little later. ''But one can see that for a long time already, there has been pressure here. What about all the Jews who have taken Russian names, the Jews who call themselves 'Maximovich?' My wife, you know, works as a teacher. Some of her pupils are Jews, but not one goes by a Jewish name. . . . And the way our press is taking only one side in reporting what has been happening in Beirut, well, I do think there will be some reaction on a subtle level.''

''Yes, that could encourage problems,'' chimes in a gap-toothed man in glasses who works as a tour guide. ''It would not start in Moscow, but in the republics, particularly in the west. There, 'Jew' is a dirty word.''

A much younger man suddenly joins in. ''I,'' he announces, ''am a Jew.'' With a half smile, he turns up the lapel of his blue-jean jacket to reveal a pin bearing an Israeli flag. He explains that he attends a Moscow technical school. ''I am the only Jew there. I have never tried to hide the fact I am Jewish. Sure , I don't shout about it. And no, I do not want to move to Israel. After all, you notice the Israeli pin is on the inside of my lapel, not outside. It is just for myself.

''I have always accepted that, being Jewish, I won't ever get a really top job. But life is not too bad. In Moscow, people are more sophisticated. Everyone knows I am Jewish, but here, people don't really speak much about such things.''

Recently, he has seen hints of change. ''In the school, things are fine.'' Again, he smiles slightly: ''You know, even though I am the only Jew there, almost everybody at school has begun to take Israel's side in the war. They figure if all our press blame everything on Israel, there has to be something a bit fishy.

''It is outside the school that one notices the differences. For the first time I notice people mumbling, 'Yid,' and words like that. I can believe our officials do not want directly to encourage such reactions. That is one reason the media are careful to quote Jews, too, as condemning Israel. But I think there will be problems. First, in the republics. But something will be felt in Russia as well.''

Several onlookers suggest that there was the danger that Soviet denunciations of ''Zionism'' - and comparisons of the ''Israeli'' massacre in Beirut with the Nazis' killing of thousands of civilians, mostly Jews, at the Ukrainian ravine of Babi Yar - would encourage pressure on Soviet Jews.

Already, the Jewish student says, one hears people say, in effect, ''Here we were feeling sorry for the Jews of Babi Yar, and now look what the Israelis have done. . . .

''I am against Israel for its part in the massacre in Beirut,'' he adds quietly, ''but I know, too, what happened at Babi Yar. Twelve of my relatives died there.''

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