Talkbacks are a unique source of information on Russian language websites in Israel
Over a million Russian language speakers live in Israel, with ten news sites in the Russian language providing them with news and opinions. Non-Russian speaking Israelis are almost certainly not aware of the facts this article reveals about these sites, starting with the observation that, in contrast to Hebrew and English sites, the most popular sections of the Russian language Israeli media are actually the talkbacks, and continuing with the content that characterizes them.
Many of us are of the opinion that this section of a news site is of no significance, thinking that only news, features and opinion articles are of any value, while readers' responses are unimportant. These are generally believed to be private opinions and spontaneous reactions unauthorized by the editors in charge. Some even see them as stupidities written only by misfits and the deranged.
That may well be the case on Hebrew and English sites, but on Russian digital media in Israel, the talkbacks have become a genre in their own right. Sometimes, in terms of general volume, they go way beyond the articles themselves, and some are so successful that they are even quoted, analyzed, and repeated by many readers. Not a few news readers admit that the main reason they click on the site is to see the talkbacks and not the editorial content.
There are several reasons for the popularity of talkbacks on the "Russian Street." People who read Russian news in Israel, often (although not always) are not familiar with complex issues of Israeli history, politics and ideology, most especially the complicated relations between religion and state, a topic that they had no need to know about in Russia and which greatly interests them.
In Israel today, there is not one high level Russian language newspaper. Once, the Friday Russian newspapers were many-paged sources of political insights, economic analyses, cultural life in Israel, including literature, theater and cinema, but the printed page could not stand up to competition from the internet and was replaced by fairly dismal sites that contain only political news and yellow journalism, scandals and gossip.(An exception to this is Arutz Sheva's much-needed Russian language site.) It is not surprising, therefore, that their readers turn to talkbacks for excitement. It should be noted that the vast majority of these sites are said to be funded by one source. Some are broadcast from Moscow and Kiev.
One the other hand, those who read the news are hungry for more understanding of its underlying causes – historical, political and religious. Most of them know very little about those parameters and have a strong psychological need to feel part of the conversation and to express opinions, sometimes extreme and polarizing ones. That is why talkbacks became such a popular genre, albeit a problematic one, and as it turns out, they are a most convenient way to effect brainwashing.
There is almost no theoretical research concerning this unique genre. It is hard to define the status of the texts in clear fashion: sometimes they appear under assumed names, making them anonymous like folklore, and sometimes their writers can be identified. On Facebook, statuses and responses are reviewed and vulgar or nasty texts often blocked – but on Russian news sites the level of checking is much lower, and sometimes it actually seems as though management encourages antagonistic responses, incitement and hostility, and blocks the more moderate ones.
Talkbacks, are, at least in part, authentic, informal and spontaneous modes of expression for various groups within the Russian-speaking sector, such as non-Jewish Israeli citizens, the vociferously anti-religious as well as the newly religious and converted. Many are people with only a vague idea of what Judaism and Jewish history are about. All these readers want the chance to express their beliefs and opinions.
Nevertheless, the perception that talkbacks come only from private, independent individuals who make up "the voice of the people" is misleading, camouflaging the fact that most of the Russian-language media responses seem to be coming from some ideological center that has taken upon itself guardianship over all issues relating to Russian immigrants. This can be deduced from the times when waves of amazingly similar responses on the same subject appear. There is no way to know, of course, if this reflects the opinion of a majority of readers, but one can say that it is what the Russian language media wishes to present to its readers because positive, Zionist responses, sent intentionally to check this out,have not been posted.
Instead, there are skeptical, cynical, pragmatic, anti-religious and sometimes even anti-Zionist voices of the "state of all its citizens" type. There is no vestige of the old Russian Jewish sentiments of "let My people go" that warmhearted Israelis sometimes still expect from Russian immigrants.
The number of talkbacks increases dramatically when events involving haredi or Mizrahi Jews occur – the two population sectors that elicit extreme hostility on the talkbacks. Talkbacks not aligned with the political line of the sites are erased (I know this for a fact from personal experience and that of my friends)- or subject to vulgar, insulting responses such as "Madam, stop writing idiocies!" "You obviously never finished high school!" "Your beloved rabbis are ignorant boors, they belong in the Middle Ages," "No matter how much you kiss their feet, you will always be a mindless goy to them!" (Vesty 08.17.2021) and more. This stymies attempts to express opposing viewpoints and creates the impression of a "choir" of "popular opinion," a totalitarian one that it is uncomfortable and possibly dangerous to oppose in public.
The strongest evidence of an organizing and orchestrating factor behind the talkbacks is the fact that after this article was posted on a Jewish-Russian site located in Germany (that is, the article you are reading here in English translation), the obscene talkback discussions on the article's subject (Judaism's outlook on incest) disappeared. For how long? I do not know. Perhaps those who moderate the flow of words on the talkbacks decided to wait until the storm the article caused subsides.
One can say, in sum, that talkbacks on Russian language sites generate "public opinion" and act as powerful propaganda tools in political and ideological struggles. The genre affords great and obviously advantageous opportunities for molding public opinion. While editorial posts are expected to have a semblance of objectivity, talkbacks are subjective by definition, expressing personal, private opinions (or an imitation of same).
This is why talkbacks have a special style: since they are not subject to the demands of political correctness and media censorship, they can be much more blunt, acidic, vulgar – and even malevolent – than the official sections of a news site, all this making them more interesting. Many talkbacks present a specific ideology so bluntly that the site's editors would never dare sign their names to them – all the more reason for using talkbacks, which are considered unconnected to the editors and exist in a no-man's land, an amorphous area in which it seems that everyone can say whatever he wants.
A normative approach would assign responsibility to the editors for everything that appears on a site, whether in the editors' name or in a talkback. This would include legal responsibility for spreading crude anti-Semitism, except that at present there is no law regulating harmful content on the Russian internet and no official entity to which one can complain.
An anti-religious reflex
Let us begin with a minor but characteristic episode that somehow self-created on a Russian language site in Israel (detaly.co.il) which posts mainly articles copied from Haaretz. On August 4, 2021 an announcement was posted on the site regarding a speech made by MK Rabbi Avi Maoz (Religious Zionist party). In his speech, MK Maoz compared LBGT and pedophiles:
"Since we have a tendency to copy the West, we have to ask ourselves: If people are attracted to those of the same sex, and that is considered acceptable, what then is wrong with pedophilia?...When one day a pedophile wants to become a first grade teacher, you will understand and remember what I said and on what day it was. You will understand then where it began," he warned. "Because of our tendency to imitate Western culture, and because we have accepted all kinds of agendas that are now considered legitimate and there are laws supporting them, I wish to say that my feeling is that the next in line is accepting pedophilia. "
There is nothing unusual about an Orthodox Jewish rabbi warning the People of Israel about sexual deviations, but the Russian-language site's editors illustrated the article with a photo of a man wearing a large knitted kippah and a beard and captioned it: "Religious MK from the Knesset podium: If homos are the norm, what is wrong with pedophilia?"
In order to understand the how caption turned the MK's words around, you just have to read his speech (not the entire speech, just a few quotes, the four sentences translated for the Russian language site). To read these four sentences all the reader has to do is move the mouse and click just once! It seems, however that this simple operation was too much for some of the site's critics who seem to have read only the caption – but had no such limitations when it came to writing talkbacks.
Here are several (the negative talkbacker's names have been removed and some of the worst remarks are omitted):
"It looks like he is a pedophile himself ," one reader wrote. The rest of her talkback is here:
"The difference between him and many others is that he has a stage and can exercise authority."
"Religious …what else is there to say?"
"To him, it seems, there is nothing wrong with that. These types are constantly caught in the act."
"Another proof of the abomination and degeneration in the habits of these 'guardians' of Jewish heritage. As far as these 'intelligentsia' are concerned, eating a piece of pork and working on the Sabbath are crimes, but raping a child is nothing, silly, not worth our attention, and all the religious are struck dumb and act as though this doesn't concern them, one has to keep the commandments – so who in hell needs this."
Some of detaly.co.il's readers did click and read the entire text – and were shocked by the absurd talkbacks above:
"Did anyone bother to read the article carefully? He is not pro pedophilia, he is against it – and also against the gay friends with the rainbow flags. (Yevgeny Kopolinsky)
"Read the article carefully and you will grasp that the MK is pro the historic traditional family and is against pedophilia. Read closely and in depth!" (Tanya Kopansky)
But the talkback writers refused and wrote to Tanya: "There is nothing to read in depth. This is a bare text that has nothing hidden between the lines. The MK said such idiocies that it doesn't matter what he meant by them."
The writer of this article was up in arms: "You have no right to generalize from one person or another's opinion on an entire sector of millions of observant Jews. This is anti-Semitism."
"No and no again," one talkbacker answered stubbornly. "The lady is being a smart aleck: This is not 'one person'. This is an MK who has an electorate consisting of tens of thousands. In addition, as a previous comment noted, the anger of the respected members of his sector was not unleashed on the lazy MK. Not from within his party and not from the parties close to it. And that says a lot."
The kippah-wearer was judged most harshly by one talkbacker: "This is the year 2021. These beings live as if it is 600 years ago. The 'dosim' (a derogatory term for religious Jews, ed.) have to work, plant trees, build homes, not push themselves into places they know nothing about and they don't even know human body structure."
Yevgeny Opolinsky, who politely tried to tell the talkbackers that they totally misunderstood the speech, lost his temper and wrote "You yourself…are dense…" but the talkbacker refused to relent, writing :"Obviously you are also a benighted 'dos.'"
Not one of the talkbackers who attacked Rabbi Maoz for pedophilia (which you realize the MK condemned unequivocally) noticed that the man in the illustration has a knitted kippah but no sign of sidelocks. Israeli clothing codes are unfamiliar ground for Russians living in Israel. The post Soviet immigrants (olim) do not bother with trivial details of that type. Religious means pedophile because "they are all like that" and as far as many of them are concerned, MK Avi Maoz, like every other kippah wearer (especially a rabbi) is a benighted 'dos' who is 600 years behind the times.
And all this when everything there is to know about Maoz, such as his involvement in important construction projects in Gush Katif and Harish – he actually did build homes - can be found on the internet, even in Russian. But there is no use talking about internet searches with people who couldn't be bothered to click the link to the 4 sentences quoted from his speech.
This incident reflects the painful clash between the Russian aliya, not only with the Jewish religion and its adherents, but also with Israei reality in general and with themselves. Those writing those disgraceful talkbacks are used to reacting reflexively to key words and pictures in Pavlovian mode. As soon as their eyes caught the word "pedophile" with a photo of a bearded man wearing a kippah – that was it: the rabbi-pedophile connection was automatic, an immediate reflex.
The truth must be said: Jew-haters flood the internet in Russian with myriad squawking trolls, yelling: "What do you need the Torah for, why study it, why waste time?" A psychoanalyst would say that the stimulus for the ever-ready anger of these talkback writers is not only symptomatic of fear and uncertainty when facing the sea of a strange and unknown culture, but shows a deep inferiority complex with regard to erudite and intellectual Jewish scholars, those that one talkbacker calls "their wise men" revealing his own feelings of inferiority. But that is how deep-seated enmity starts.
Note this typical talkback Vesty.co.il, 7.4.2020
"...Ugly scum! Born of incestual relations after a process of inbreeding due to closed marriages. Totalitarian class ideology was planted in the heads of these genetic degenerates from childhood. Now these S.O.B.s not only spread their filth but destroy those who would save them. It is clear that this human mold is a death sentence for mankind. And then people wonder what brought on figures like Torquemada and Hitler. What we have here is absolutely legal: Sanitation and survival! If one cannot put people in crematoria for these things, for what can they be used?"
The fertile ground upon which the anti-religious feeling in much of the Russian speaking sector has grown is the ceaseless flow of lies and libel on the unfiltered talkback pages of the Israeli Russian-language press.
The most abominable part of this flow is the accusations on sexual perversion, particularly pedophilia and incest. This obsession is, of course, a total fabrication and, of course, can not be backed by facts or statistics Pedophilia in Israel is reported when it is discovered, but its existence most certainly does not reflect on Israelis in general, and the media properly refrain from asserting that kind of false generalization. However, when it comes to the religious and haredi-religious, Russian talkbackers lose all sense of logic and common sense. For example:
"Among the observant, incest between fathers and daughters is absolutely possible.. and they are convinced that this is how it should be."
"When it comes to relations with children, Israel's rabbis take first place (9tv 23.5.2021)
"There one of of every ten is either a maniac or a pervert or corrupter of yeshiva students. (facebook.com/beyteynurussky/posts, 20.2.2021)
"There is no doubt that almost all the religious are pedophiles." (9tv 23.5.2021)
In February 2021, the Vesty Russian language site posted: "The Rabbinate has removed raspberry syrup from Israeli grocery shelves. The popular drink has been delared non-kosher, even in jam and jellies." The provocative headline completely misinterprets the issue, seeming to take advantage of Russian immigrants' ignorance on the topic of kosher foods, in this case, panning syrup made from fruit infested with worms.
You may be wondering why such a unique topic appeared at all on a Russian site known for its responders'intolerant attitude to the Jewish people's beliefs. Can this be only a space filler or another of the absurd articles on kosher food sometimes posted on the site? No, not at all. The story awakened the imaginations of the site's regular talkbackers who – you will find this hard to believe – found a connection with pedophilia and incest.
Here are several:
"Interesting: eating raspberries is not allowed, but pedophilia and incest are just fine. These are 'Bibi''s natural partners! Holy people! People of the Book! One book, and nothing else!" is one from 15.2.2021.
"Just great! Kudos to you [for the above talkback]. Nothing is holy in the eyes of these subhumans, so now raspberries bother them, but raping their children is just fine, morally handicapped specimens that they are."
"There is a religious prohibition to be secluded with a woman. But there is none about children."
"Primitive, disgusting psychotics!"
This subject was discussed on vesty.co.il for a long while, on 25.02.2020 for example, each time accompanied by hostile talkbacks. (Some were removed and are now inaccessible):
"Soon rabbis will come to every school and rape their children and you will be silent"": (2.6.2020)
Just one response of this type in the USA, Germany, England and France would be enough to shut a site down. Last year, in France, an anti-Semitic activist was sentenced to 17 months in prison for publicizing claims that Jews are pro-incent. But what is considered Jew-hatred in Europe is accepted with equanimity in Israel where there are MKs who read Russian. Here, remarks of this type have been posted on news sites and continue to be featured for years without any response. Until now.
It is no surprise that these responses appear on the detaly.co.il website. They result from long term brainwashing, a poisoned atmosphere tirelessly promoted for years by talkbacks on the Israeli Russian- language internet.
Libelling the Torah
On July 15, 2021, the Vesty website featured a post translated from the Hebrew Krayot site.
The post tells the story of a father who raped his minor daughter for years claiming that it is allowed according to Jewish law (halakha). The man's identity was not disclosed, nor the state of his mental health, nor whether he is secular or religious, but those questions did not awaken interest among the talkback writers. To them it was all perfectly clear.
"What's surprising here? This is their way of life. They think the way they were taught (Vesty, 16.07.2021)
"The whole family knew about it. Almost all of them live that way."
"Mentally ill or functioning normally, it is just another "dos" accused of incest. Look at their history and discover that this is not an unusual phenomenon among religious families. Perhaps we should not look for ways to justify them but instead to erase them from the face of the earth like terrorists?"
"To them, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, they spawn children not from love of chidren but because they cannot practice birth control- idiots who live according to ancient incomprehensible rules."
"There is only one reason for this disgusting behavior – the cults and ideology (the word "cult" in Russian media means haredi Jews. R.H.). Women have no rights at all. They live in the 21st century according to laws no one comprehends. They terrible world leads the country towards the abyss..it is time to outlaw cults."
"Halakha allows it. That is the key sentence. No one is surprised that pedophilia and other despicable practices occur mainly in one population group, probably with halakhic certification."
Another of the talkback writers, was more careful and somewhat doubtful:
"To what extent can these halakhic 'experts' judge what is allowed and what forbidden to Jews? The fact that a criminal pervert or two are supposedly relying on halakha does not mean they are doing so correctly. I think that bona fide halakhic experts should be found to clarify this dispute. I, unfortunately, am not one of them." (16.7.2021)
Talkback writers write mostly on an illiterate level of Russian. Properly written Russian is a relic from the past and does not interest them, they are members of the 21st century.
Vesty responders are not interested in official and easy to find official sources. Here, for example, is one of the most poisonous hypocritical responses on the subject:
"I wonder why the commentators who usually join arguments on what is good and what is no good are silent when it comes to anything limiting the rights of the Orthodox? Perhaps they know the truth about halakha but are afraid to tell us. The religious mainstream cannot manage with modern laws." (16.7.2021)
The use of one specific case in order to generalize is unacceptable and infuriating, but for some reason, the Russian Hebrew media in Israel consider claims of this nature logical and legitimate when they relate to religious Jews.
Except that now Vesty has allowed talkbacks to go farther. They have gone from talkbacks accusing people to allowing responses with libelous false claims about the Torah, accusing it of legally permitting and encouraging incest and claiming that these practices are mainstream, that this reflects the real halakha.
This kind of accusation crosses all red lines, comparable only to the 1911 and medieval blood libels. It can accurately be called the "New Accusation." As far as specific halakhic experts are concerned, I can assert with total assurance that they are not silent, but are silenced by being erased forthwith, or, if posted, reviled and mocked.
I personally know people who are Russian speakers, both observant and nonobservant, who attempted to participate and put just one intelligent sentence into the mixed mess of hatred and unlimited ignorance, into the talkbacks that fill the pages of Vesty day after day, year after year. But dissenting views have no place on these sites.
Eternal hatred for the Eternal People
Why do I call what was described up to now anti-Semitism? Because the quoted talkbacks reflect the age-old myths about the Jewish People's sexual practices. These myths are no different from the blood libels which accused Jews of human sacrifices, and they stem from ancient writings such as those of early anti-Semite Tacitus who, at the beginning of the second century C.E. wrote:
"Their practices are base and wicked, and prevail through their own depravity. They are a people most especially inclined to lust. Although they won’t sleep with gentiles, among themselves there is nothing they won’t do (nihil inlicitum). Those who cross over to their ways scorn the gods, abandon their own nation, and hold their parents, siblings, and children cheap. Jewish rites are sordid and ridiculous. Jews throughout their history were the most despised of subject peoples and the basest of nations (Translation in Tacitus and the Defamation of the Jews, De Gruyter)"
Then, as they do today, the Jews totally denied these baseless allegations. Josephus Flavius' 1st century book "Against Apion" is a debate with anti-Semites. However, even way back then, as today, anti-Semites would not hear any opposition and would not budge – for example, in his hatred-fulled homilies against the Jews, Christian theologist John Chrystosom (5th century C.E.) asked a rhetorical question: 'In their lust, do they not surpass the most lewd of animals?" and called synagogues "a meeting of prostitutes", "cave of wild animals", "a Satanic temple"and more.
Steven Katz cites Chrysostom's homilies as “the decisive turn in the history of Christian anti-Judaism, a turn whose ultimate disfiguring consequence was enacted in the political anti- Semitism of Adolf Hitler."
We have resurrected John Chrystomos in the 21st century. Is it any wonder that on the Israeli Russian media there are calls to exile religious Jews from Israel?
"I see that there is a trend in Israel – not every pedophile is religious, but every religious person is a pedophile. This is similar to saying that not all Arabs are terrorists, but every terrorist is an Arab…and I wondered, perhaps it is time to send them [religious Jews] to Gaza? Let them rape and murder each other…two problems…one solution…after all, every brilliant idea is basically a simple one."
Actually, this myth was spread decades early in the weekly publication, Der Sturmer, starting from the middle of the 20th century and until the fall of the Third Reich, where there was repeated pornographic fantasizing about the sexual lust of Jews whose source is "their impure blood". In 1946, Julius Streicher, editor of Der Sturmer, was hanged after he was found guilty of incitement to genocide and anti-Semitic propaganda by the Nuremberg trial judges.
Today, Der Sturmer's ideas are propagated in Russian-language talkbacks without interference in the Jewish state – except instead of targeting all Jews, they aim at those who are religious. Observant Jews in Israel occupy the niche that is set aside for the Jewish people out in the wide world. Religious Jews are the sacrificial goat these local anti-Semites use as the butt of their secret fears and unconscious complexes.
This does not bode well. It reveals a deep-seated and painful problem that no one has yet addressed – the monstrous ignorance and alienation of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens of the state regarding Jewish tradition and culture. Russian language media not only do not help these Russians find their way in this new world, the world of Judaism, they allow the incitement to hate.
Blood libels and the protests of intellectuals.
I have brought only a few examples of the ceaseless war that some of the Russian language media are allowing to be waged against Jewish tradition (religion) in Israel through talkbacks. For all practical purposes, this is ongoing, every day and on every front: Kosher food, Torah study, Sabbath, holidays – everything is a subject for criticism and mocking, with the acme for anti-Semites found in anything connected to the sexual life of Jews. That's how it was thousands of years ago, that's how it is today.
When the Beilis trial took place in 1911, the prosecution claimed that the Jewish faith contains secret ceremonies that require a gentile's blood. This was seen by many Jews and Russians as a blood libel attacking all of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. At that time, the most well-known and popular Russian intellectuals called for the defense of Judaism and Jews. They included Vladimir Korolanko, Ziniada Gipius, Dmitry Marzovsky, Alexander Block, Maxim Gorki, Fyodor Sologive, Leoni Andreyev, Vadislav Ivanov. Everyone, without exception, distanced themselves from the libels about Jewish practices. A hundred years ago, all Europeans of integrity rebelled against the anti-Semitic blood libel.
A protest was signed by 206 German intellectuals, among them Thomas Mann, Gerhard Hauptman and Verner Zombart in March of 1912. Another was signed in Britain by 240 public figures, including the heads of the Anglican Church, the writers Herbert Wallace and Thomas Hardy, statesmen Austin Chamberlain and Arthur Balfour, the scientist James Preizer. In France, 150 intellectuals, among them Anatole France and Octav Mirabeau signed a protest.
And in Israel, which Russian-speaking Israelis rose to defend Jewish tradition from this resurrected libel, protect it from the ongoing virtual pogrom on Russian Language Israeli internet? Sadly, very few. Notable is one group of Russian immigrant intellectuals, many of them well-known, who petitioned the Knesset in 2021, saying that now that most of the Jewish population has left Russia, the Grandfather Clause in the Law of Return, which allows grandchildren and families of a Jew, whether Jewish or not, to immigrate to Israel, should be cancelled. They note with alarm the growing number of Judeophobes and anti-Semitic Russian-speakers now in Israel, who have no connection whatsoever to Judaism or the Jewish State, but made use of the clause to leave Russia.
Unquestionably, the new anti-Semitic libels are immeasurably more modest than the Beilis Affair, but let us remember – this is happening in the Jewish State! And the pushback to it is almost non-existent. In part, this is due to the fact that the Israeli public does not read Russian and has little interest in what is occurring on what is called "the Russian street". The malevolent posted talkbacks on religion on Russian language sites pass by under the radar, yet there is no other place in the world where an unbridled attack of such magnitude occurs.
What we should be asking is who funds this attack? Who runs it? Who has something to gain from it? And who is responsible for this anti-Semitic propaganda on Russian language sites in Israel being allowed to continue uninterrupted day after day? Shouldn't government representatives who appeal to Russian-speakers be calling it out and putting a stop to it?
Russian-language anti-Semitic propaganda in talkbacks is only the tip of the iceberg, a glimpse of a deep-rooted, serious and dangerous state of mind in a large segment of a growing population sector in our beloved country. I do not know whether we have the power to stop or prevent this, but in any case we must try, because these phenomena reflect a damaging malaise in a part of Israeli society. Our repeated political crises and the anti-Semitism appearing in the Russian language are outward signs of an identity crisis, one that I do not see how we are going to overcome.
Dr. Helena Rimon is a senior lecturer in Comparative Literature, as well as Israeli and Hassidic Liteature at Ariel University, Shomron. She made aliya in 1987 after completing her doctorate at Moscow University and has published two books of academic research and many academic articles in both Hebrew and English