Just days before the Moscow mayoral election, opposition leader Alexei Navalny is accused of 'toasting the Holocaust’ at a gathering. It never happened.
August 29, 2013
On the morning of August 27 I opened my Twitter account as usual, and the first thing that caught my eye was a tweet with a bright red avatar: "Jerusalem Post: Moscow mayor hopeful raises Jewish fears with anti-Semitic remarks".
Stunned, I clicked on the link. There, on the website of one of Israel’s oldest and best-known newspapers, I found the article under the same headline. It was illustrated with a large photograph of Alexei Navalny—a democracy activist, anti-corruption crusader and the leader of the Russian opposition, who is now running for mayor of Moscow. The sub-headline, in bold, states that "At a New York Times party, Russian blogger Alexei Navalny suggested making a toast for the Holocaust." The article goes on to report that Navalny made several vile racist and anti-Semitic remarks, accusing him of inciting skinheads and of flirting with ultra-nationalist ideas.
Right after the first paragraph, the Jerusalem Post mentioned a different media organization: The New Times (not The New York Times). The New Times is a weekly political magazine, the only remaining independent magazine in Russia, for which I write as a freelancer.
Certainly, journalists sometimes make mistakes. But the story about Navalny and the Holocaust toast—just 10 days before the elections for mayor of Moscow—goes far beyond ordinary carelessness. It is an extremely grave and unfounded accusation.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (Mitya Aleshkovskiy/Wikimedia Commons)
Alexei Navalny— the political candidate who was the first in Russia to publicly call Vladimir Putin a thief and his party a "party of crooks"—is a famous anti-corruption crusader and democracy activist. Because of his activism several corrupt Russian officials lost their jobs. On July 18 2013, a Russian court sentenced him to five years on charges of embezzlement, following what was widely viewed as a politically motivated trial on trumped up charges. He was convicted of conspiring to defraud the local government of 16 million rubles ($500,000). Navalny’s lawyers have filed for an appeal. Pending his new trial Navalny is still permitted to run in the mayoral election, but he is forbidden to leave Moscow.
According to the Jerusalem Post article Navalny lifted his glass and toasted the Holocaust at a party held by The New Times staff. I am a friend of the editor-in-chief of the magazine, Yevgenia Albats who was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She also holds a doctorate in political science from Harvard. Yevgenia and I share political views and a commitment to journalistic ethics. We are also both very familiar with Navalny. We have written about his activities over the past few years, and have asked him uncomfortable and direct questions. Furthermore, Yevgenia and I are both Jews.
Yes, The New Times sometimes holds parties. They are rare, and very intimate. We read old poems of Soviet dissidents and prison letters of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch and former owner of Yukos, who has been in jail for 10 years due to what many believe is a vendetta pursued by Putin. We also read letters from Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who have been in prisons for the past year. I remember our last party, where indeed toasts were made. But I never saw Navalny make a toast to the Holocaust.
The article about the alleged anti-Semitic toast is appended with the note that Jerusalem Post newspaper staff contributed to the article. I wonder if any of them spoke with an eyewitnesses to this alleged incident.
But the main byline for the article is EJP, or the European Jewish Press. The EJP featured the article with the accusation against Navalny on its home page as of yesterday. Several marginal, pro-Kremlin websites have already reposted it many times.
The New Times frequently publishes articles about Jewish and Israeli life. In fact, Albats keeps kosher and each year invites employees to a Passover seder at her home, where each door is adorned with a mezuzah.
After reading the story a few times, I sent the Jerusalem Post article to Navalny himself to get his comments. At first he laughed: "Vera, imagine this: I’m standing in The New Times office, in front of Elbats, or you or your friends, and then I say, "Let’s drink to the Holocaust…" Do you seriously want me to comment on this nonsense?"
And then he added: "One thing that really amazed me, is how a Jewish publication (the EJP) and an Israeli newspaper easily use the Holocaust for political reasons."
Albats told me unequivocally: "Navalny never uttered a single anti-Semitic word at the party. I wrote letters to many well-known Israeli journalists about it, tomorrow I’ll get back to the editor of the Jerusalem Post and I will demand a public apology. I sent letters to American newspapers, with only one message: "Do not believe this article."
On her radio show for the station "Echo of Moscow," Albats said on Wednesday: "I want to appeal to people with whom we have much in common, to people who read the Torah. The fact is, that this text is a lie from the first word to the last. This is a lie. We are old friends with Alexey. I know him very well. Do not believe this pre-ordered text, which has been reprinted from one site to another, and even got into the newspaper that I read—The Jerusalem Post. It is a disgusting campaign."
I recall that during the The New Times party, Navalny spoke with Alla Gerber—president of the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center, which is the only Russian non-governmental organization devoted to studying the experience of the Soviet Jews during the Holocaust. Today, Alla Gerber, who devoted her entire life to the memory of the Holocaust, commented on my blog: "I was at every New Times party, I remember Navalny very well. He never said anything about the Holocaust, he never made a toast to the Holocaust. This is provocation."
I decided to do a short investigation into the origin of the article accusing Navalny of anti-Semitism. I found out that it was distributed by the Israeli Tal Rabina public relations agency on August 22, five days before the Jerusalem Post published the article. In fact, the article was a press release. The EJP and the Jerusalem Post republished it verbatim.
I wrote an e-mail to the agency asking about Navalny’s case, and Mr. Rabina answered me immediately: "If you have to talk with someone tonight, you can try Mr Alexey Muhkin, head of the Russian Center for Political Information." Muhkin is a Moscow political technologist who has openly argued with Navalny during this election campaign. I spoke with Mr Mukhin, but he denies his involvement. But he knows this PR agency, and moreover he recently gave an interview to Mr Rabina. Mr Rabina confirmed to me that his client was from Moscow, but he declined to give any names.
What we are witnessing here is a PR campaign against Navalny. Someone in Moscow decided to falsely accuse Navalny of anti-Semitism, and did a very clever job: The story was published by various Jewish media outlets— including, unfortunately, reputable newspapers like the Jerusalem Post. A day later (10 days before election day) the Russian translation of the Jerusalem Post’s article has been reposted hundreds of times by pro-government Russian media outlets— i.e., by publications that have an anti-Navalny agenda.
And that is the sum of this entire, sad story.
I don’t know why the Jerusalem Post failed to do some basic fact checking. But the bottom line is that, inadvertently or not, they have allowed the brand name of a well-known Israeli media outlet to be used in a dirty political game.
UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post has since published a JTA report with denials from various Jewish Russian figures that Navalny ever toasted the Holocaust: http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Moscow-mayoral-candidate-did-not-praise-Holocaust-Jewish-staffers-say-324630
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Vera Krichevskaya is an independent TV producer and director, co-founder of the Russian TV channel Dozhd, and a contributor at The New Times magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @krichevskaya.