Jewish Community Debates Sochi Olympics

Gornaya Karusel on Mount Aibga in Krasnaya Polyana, one of the 2014 Sochi Olympics venues.

— by Alina Dain Sharon,

With the Winter Olympic Games underway in Sochi, Russia, the Jewish debate on the games mirrors the discourse taking place in the broader international and athletic communities.

While some Jews say they view the games purely as sport — with social or political issues not factoring into their evaluation — not all can ignore Russia’s controversial “gay propaganda” legislation, political detentions, and allegations of Olympic corruption, and the recent terrorist threats against the games.

One Jewish resident of Moscow, Anya Levitov, said the various sensitive issues in Russia “make these games anything but an event to follow.”

More after the jump.
Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and activist who is both Jewish and openly gay, said on ABC News that the propaganda law, which was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last June, bans the distribution of information that could harm children’s development or encourage them to accept alternative sexual relationships.

There have already been attempts to remove children from lesbian couples. So, basically, LGBT people [in Russia] have an incredible amount to fear right now, especially if they have children.

Furthermore, while the law itself only bans propaganda, anti-gay violence around the country has increased recently.

An International Olympic Committee member, Gian-Franco Kasper, said that as much as a third of the record-high $50 billion price tag for the Olympics has been siphoned off. Businessman Boris Nemtsov, a critic of Putin’s government, said on ABC News he has evidence that Russian officials and business executives stole at least $30 billion of the funds meant for Olympics-related projects.

Levitov said to that the the Olympic sports venues were hastily built and may be hazardous to spectators and players. “The construction was done by migrant workers, many of whom were sent back home without pay,” she said, and added that growing nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment has been growing in the country in recent years.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, being interviewed on the Games, last month.

Putin has denied allegations of Olympics-related corruption: “I do not see serious corruption instances for the moment, but there is a problem with overestimation of construction volumes,” he said to reporters, and added that some contractors had won tenders due to low bids that they subsequently inflated.

This price increase, it is sometimes due to contractor’s deliberate acts, and sometimes it is due to the fact that the professional valuation of necessary investments, especially in mountain conditions, for a mountain cluster, are not efficient enough

Putin’s presidency has not been associated with the kind of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism that was prevalent during the Soviet era. But Levitov said that “the rise of state-sanctioned xenophobia and anti-gay hatred, as any intolerance, is ultimately a threat to the Jews.”

A Jewish businessman from Moscow, Ivan Kosarev, said that since the decision was made to hold the Olympics in Sochi, he has fully supported investing money in the major sports competition, and doing so efficiently. Kosarev said to he is glad the games are taking place in Russia, and that while corruption around the games should be investigated if it exists, political issues such as the LGBT rights should be discussed separately.

On the other hand, he said, “If I were the Russian president X years ago when they decided to apply for holding the Olympics, I might have not made the same decision but rather invested into infrastructure in a more broader sense,” such as railways, airports, and roads.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) editorial manager, Stuart Lieberman, who will be reporting on the Paralympic Games, which will take place in Sochi next month, disagrees with boycotting the Olympics.

“I do not think you should be avoiding countries for reasons like this,” he said. Lieberman added that part of the value of the games is “to inspire and excite the world, and to instill change in society.”

Sochi’s Chabad-Lubavitch center is preparing to welcome an influx of Jewish athletes and visitors to its 3,000-member local Jewish community. Chabad has acquired two temporary centers that will be staffed by 12 rabbinic interns, and its staff has equipped itself to prepare about 7,000 kosher meals during the course of the games.

The Chabad emissary to Sochi, Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, does not take a political stand on human rights or corruption issues.

“I view my role in this community as a spiritual one. I am here to cater to the needs of the Jewish community, as well as to visiting tourists,” he said to “It is our goal as an organization that the spiritual and religious needs of those living and visiting Sochi are met, and hopefully expanded.”

However, Edelkopf said that the Sochi Jewish community is “in touch with local officials and security experts” regarding safety precautions, in light of concerns that the Sochi Olympics may be a target for terrorist attacks, particularly from Islamist groups in the Northern Caucausus region.

Sochi, Russia.

In December, two suicide attacks killed 34 people in Volgograd, about 700 kilometers north of Sochi. An Islamist group from the Caucausus claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Police is imposing long-planned restrictions of access into and movement within Sochi. Russian officials said that up to 70,000 personnel will be patrolling the games.

the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) director of Russian Jewish community affairs, Sam Kliger, said that he hopes Russia “will do its best to prevent any attempt of terrorist acts during the Olympics.” A “positive sign” is that Russia reportedly cooperates with the U.S. on security issues, said Kliger, who also cited rumors that Russian security cooperation with Israel is also on the way.

Levitov, however, questions the publicity surrounding security risks to the games:

I personally view the widely publicized threats of terrorist attacks simply as a public relations effort of Russian authorities. It creates pre-text for further attacks on civil rights, and more restrictions on freedom of travel around the Olympic area, and allows for excuses if something does go wrong. Any mismanagement, infrastructural failures or collapsed buildings can be explained by terrorism.

The executive director of the National Conference Supporting Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia (NCSJ), Mark B. Levin, said to that his organization is not certain about any specific threats to Jewish people attending the games. But the group has been contacted by some concerned individuals and is directing those people to the U.S. State Department, Levin said.

Like the IPC’s Lieberman, some Jewish groups see the Olympics as a way to promote tolerance and freedom.

B’nai B’rith International said in a statement that “The Olympic Games have the potential to mark a new direction in which there is no discrimination based on race, gender, handicaps or sexual orientation.”

The Olympics are a microcosm. While we expect athletes from every nation to have the right to compete fairly, a societal commitment to tolerance and acceptance should be applied to every aspect of society.

Postage stamps commemorating the three mascots of the Games.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) national director, Abraham H. Foxman, said to that the games provide “a chance to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBT community and to promote democratic ideals.”

He said that the ADL is not supporting a boycott of the games but calls for the U.S. to “consider new ways to “lead in the effort to have Russia address the anti-LGBT persecution in the same way the Jackson-Vanik amendment dealt with Soviet Jews, or the Magnitsky act addressed certain human rights violations.”

AJC’s Kliger said that Putin’s recent political gestures, such as the releases of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the members of the Pussy Riot band from prison, are a step forward for the country ahead of the games.

Kliger said to that he is encouraged by “recent declarations by a number of Russian officials that there will be no discrimination against any group or individual” at the games, including LGBT people, and other “signals of goodwill coming from the Russian government indicate that Russia is much more interested in conducting the Games in the spirit of sports, peace, and cooperation.”

But Gessen said on ABC News that “people who have not had the kind of international attention that those people had are remaining in prison… So it’s not a sign of an end to the crackdown… It’s a very transparent and actually a very cynical PR gesture.”

Levitov said to that the Sochi Olympics are a very important event for Putin and his public image. Since the games are being marketed as Russia’s symbol of strength and prestige among world powers, she said, it is important for the games to show that none of the human rights and corruption issues in Russia belong in the civilized world.

“It would be great if leaders of the world’s leading democracies would demonstrate their position or disapproval openly. I have no hope that the Jewish leaders would, but it would be great,” she said.

NCSJ’s Levin said that, naturally, “there will be athletes and spectators who will voice disapproval,” given the “serious differences, politically, between the Russian federation and the U.S. or the West.”

But at end of the day, Levin said, the Olympics “always go to the country that is willing to pay for it.”  


Leave a Reply