Staunton, September 20 – Men are not pigs, Dostoyevsky famously observed: they can get used to anything. And so it is in Russia today, when official charges of extremism have become so common that many now view them as a fact of life and do not react even as they take on ever more extravagant forms and are directed at people who clearly have done nothing wrong.
That appears to be what is happening now in Yekaterinburg where Russian officials have launched what Viktor Davydov calls “a strange ‘Beylis case’” against Semen Tykman, a teacher in the local Jewish gymnasium Or Avner on the basis of reports about his supposed denunciation by some of his students (ixtc.org/2015/09/viktor-davydov-etot-strannyy-protsess-beylisa-v-ekaterinburge/).
But there are three reasons for serious concern about this case, the Jewish commentator says. First of all, it is the first time a teacher has been charged for conversations with his students. Second, it is the first time since the destruction of underground religious schools in the USSR that a Hasidic instructor has been charged with such crimes.
And third – and Davydov suggests this is “the most strange” aspect of the case – it is the first time such a case is passing largely unnoticed by the national and international media, although it has attracted a certain amount of attention from Sverdlovsk oblast outlets “and of course anti-Semitic blogs” whose authors see it as confirmation of their ugly views.
Because of this “silence,” less is known about the case than should be, Davydov continues, but it is nonetheless possible to describe it in broad outlines – and those, he argues, should be enough to alarm not only Jews but all people of good will in the Russian Federation and abroad as well.
Tykman, the Jewish commentator says, was trained as an engineer and earlier worked on the Chernobyl clean up. He then took courses in Poland on the traditions of the Jewish people in the Or Avner network and for several years he had been teaching in Yekaterinburg’s Jewish gymnasium. He has of course now been dismissed, Davydov notes.
The Jewish instructor’s problems began with the problems of the gymnasium itself. Local officials came looking for any violations they could find – from fire safety arrangements to adequate sanitation – and then “’polite people’ from the FSB and the procuracy” came and confiscated instructional materials to check them for “’extremism.’”
Some in the local media were concerned by this, but Mikhail Oshtrakh, the head of the Jewish National-Cultural Autonomy of Sceerdlovsk Oblast, sought to calm the situation. He told journalists that officials were not interested in Jewish holy books but only instructional materials, a concern that he described as “completely normal.”
But then the case against Tykman took off in an ugly way: the parents of four of his pupils wrote denunciations of the instructor to the local prosecutors for his supposed violation of the rules of the educational process and demanded that he be investigated for “’extremism.’” He was and the charges followed.
The local deputy prosecutor of the city’s Kirov district advised Tykman to plead guilty to what he described as minor matters and said that would be the end of it. But the Jewish instructor didn’t because the basis for the charges against him were so flimsy and in no case a violation of any law.
His 12-year-old pupils told a government psychologist who then related this to prosecutors that Tykman had called for “killing Germans,” threatened those who married non-Jews, talked about using vodka mixed with honey on the Jewish new year, and said he always spat when passing an Orthodox church.
Even if the children and the psychologist were telling the truth – and that is far from clear, Davydov suggests – the question arises, as the URA.ru news agency put it, what possible relation to a crime do any of these comments represent – and why then is the government getting involved? (http://ura.ru/news/1052220275).
If one plays devils advocate, Davydov continues, perhaps one could present Tykman as “some kind of Jewish radical in the style of Meyer Kahane.” That is “not a good thing … but how is it criminal?” Context is everything: Did Tykman talk about “killing Germans” the way Ilya Ehrenburg did.
The charges are absurd, the Jewish commentator says, but what is “the most unpleasant” aspect of the case is the fact that no one in the media is talking about this or even pointing out that Tykman must be presumed innocent until a court finds him guilty of something.
One of his Jewish friends, Davydov continues, asked him “what is the sense of fabricating a case against a teacher of the synagogue?” “I don’t know,” the commentator says. “What was the sense for the Kremlin of organizing the largest military crisis since World War II and the economic crisis that does not seem to have an end? All the same, they did it.”
That raises some terrifying questions about what the Russian authorities might do next given how the population has responded so far. People need to stand up now, Davydov says, because as Pastor Niemoeller observed, “if they come for the Jews, then tomorrow they can come for each of us.”