Jewish leaders across the United States reacted with alarm Wednesday at the electoral success in Russia of radical nationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, and some predicted an upsurge in the number of Jews attempting to leave the former Soviet Union.
Zhirinovsky, whose misnamed Liberal Democratic Party appears to have won 24% of the vote in Russia's parliamentary elections, has long blamed Jews for many of the ills that have befallen Russia, as well as for starting both world wars, U.S. Jewish groups said.
"He is a very dangerous political force," said Mark B. Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry in Washington. "He's made the Jews living in Russia . . . one of his scapegoats."
In Los Angeles, which has the nation's second-largest Jewish community, Zhirinovsky's showing caused widespread concern, particularly among those who still have relatives in Russia. "Everybody I know is surprised and scared," said Simon Katz, a USC geology professor who left the Soviet Union in 1987.
Levin and others called on political and religious leaders in the West to denounce Zhirinovsky, as Vice President Al Gore did Wednesday in Moscow.
"I look on him as a real litmus paper test for the West, including its moral and religious leaders," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. "We have a tendency to laugh at or minimize him. If we learn nothing else about dictators or would-be dictators, it is to take them seriously. Certainly from the Jewish people's perspective, based on 20th-Century history, we take him seriously," Rudin said in a telephone interview from New York.
A combination of factors beyond Russian nationalism, with its attendant anti-Semitism, was undoubtedly responsible for Zhirinovsky's startling election victory, Jewish leaders said. Many of those who voted for Zhirinovsky's party were casting protest votes over the upheaval caused by economic reform in Russia, they said.
Los Angeles attorney Boris Gorbis, who left the Soviet Union 17 years ago, said part of the voter discontent could be blamed on the United States. He said many Russians believe, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. failed to live up to its commitments of substantial aid if Russia followed a democratic and free-market economic path.
Levin said telephone contacts with Jews in Moscow and St. Petersburg indicate growing anxiety there.
And Rudin called Zhirinovsky's election victory a chilling signal that "will goad many to at least think very seriously about leaving."
Si Frumkin, a Holocaust survivor and longtime Jewish activist in Los Angeles, seemed more certain.
"A lot of Jews applied (to leave) and got all their documents together but were sitting on their suitcases waiting to see what is going to happen," he said. "Well, it has happened. I think immigration to Israel will greatly increase."
Gorbis called on the United States to relax refugee quotas.