Colleague of Jewish reporter jailed in Russia calls to set place for him at Passover

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JTA – Shayndi Raice, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Israel, is hoping that Jews around the world will donate part of their Passover seder this week to one of her colleagues, Evan Gershkovich, who is currently being held in a Russian prison .

“This Passover, please consider setting a place at your Seder table [Gershkovich],” Raice tweeted Sunday. “As you celebrate freedom, join us in demanding freedom for Evan.”

The call – echoing a tactic used in the 20th century campaign for the freedom of Soviet Jewry – grew louder on Monday as it was shared by prominent figures from tech journalist Kara Swisher to the former chief rabbi of Moscow by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of the New York City Central Synagogue, who said she would leave an empty chair at her own seder in honor of Gershkovich, the Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

Gershkovich, 31, has been charged with espionage, a move that human rights organizations have criticized and the Biden administration is fighting. He was arrested on Wednesday while eating in a restaurant in the city of Yekaterinburg, about 800 miles east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains.

The Wall Street Journal denied the allegations against Gershkovich, who pleaded not guilty during a court appearance last week. He is said to have been unable to speak to a lawyer representing him while being held in the notorious Lefortovo Prison, whose former inmates include the famous Soviet Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky.

Gershkovich is the first American journalist since the Cold War to face espionage charges in Russia, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. People accused of espionage in Russia are almost always convicted, according to The New York Times.

“Let him go,” President Joe Biden said Friday of his message to Russian authorities in the Gershkovich case, using a phrase that itself evokes the story of Passover and the Soviet Jewish movement.

The arrest put Gershkovich at the forefront of rising tensions between the United States and Russia. He also drew attention to Gershkovich’s background as the child of Jews who fled the Soviet Union — and renewed questions about whether people like him can be safe in Russia today.

“He values ​​his identity as a Jew, and especially his identity as the son of Soviet Jewish immigrants,” college classmate Jeremy Berke told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I think that was a big part of why he wanted to go back to Russia.”

Gershkovich was born in New York City to Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who left in the late 1970s, when the Communist state opened the gates to emigration for some of its Jewish citizens.

His father is from Odesa – in Ukraine today – and from St. Petersburg his mother, Time Magazine reported. According to an account published by the Wall Street Journal, the only outlet his family spoke to, his mother fled Russia using Israeli documents with her mother, a Holocaust survivor in Ukraine, after hearing rumors that Jews to be deported to Siberia.

Lefortovsky court officials lead Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich to a bus, in Moscow, Russia, March 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

Gershkovich grew up speaking Russian at home in New Jersey, where he graduated from Princeton High School before attending Bowdoin College in Maine. After college, he first landed a job at the New York Times before moving to Moscow in 2017 to report for the Moscow Times, an English-language news organization that served as the launching pad for numerous high-profile Russian reporters. His reporting there included coverage of Hanukkah celebrations in Moscow. He was hired by the Wall Street Journal in 2021.

His mother told the Journal that Gershkovich became more interested in his Jewish identity while in Russia, taking her to a synagogue she had been warned as a child never to enter. “That’s when Evan started to understand us better,” she said.

“Part of his mission was not only to explain Russia to a Western audience, but to really break the bubble and tell the stories of Russians themselves, which he was able to do, because he is fluent in Russian, ” Berke told JTA.

He said his friend wanted to “tell stories that weren’t just the economic stories that you saw coming out of the country, but that were really about what the people were doing — you know, people in the synagogues, people in synagogues. nightclubs, like all aspects of Russian society.”

Ukrainian servicemen fire a 105mm Howitzer towards a Russian post, near the city of Bakhmut, on March 4, 2023. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

Like many foreign journalists, Gershkovich left Russia in February 2022, after Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine and turned it into a pariah state overnight that intensified its crackdown on dissidents. But he returned later in the year to the long-held assumption that foreigners would be insulated from the harsh treatment of Russian journalists.

“By detaining American journalist Evan Gershkovich, Russia has crossed the Rubicon and sent a clear message to foreign correspondents that they will not be immune to the continued purge of the country’s independent media,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said. . “The authorities must release Gershkovich immediately and unconditionally, drop all charges against him, and allow the media to operate freely and without fear of reprisal.”

Gershkovich recently reported on Russia’s declining economic position and there was a report in Yekaterinburg reporting on the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force, and Nizhny Tagil, a factory town where Russian tanks are made.

Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, joked about Gershkovich and other journalists being found in a grave or a torture chamber when reached by The Daily Beast last week. Prigozhin said he did not know about Gershkovich’s arrest at that time.

Julia Ioffe, a Jew and another Russian-American journalist, said after Gershkovich’s arrest that the Kremlin takes criticism from people of their background differently than from other journalists.

“Even though he was born in the United States, his parents were immigrants from the Soviet Union, Jewish immigrants,” Ioffe told CNN. “There is a feeling in Moscow, especially in the foreign ministry and the Kremlin, that people of this background – my own background – are very sensitive to… our criticism. They feel it is another form of betrayal.”

Moscow’s former chief rabbi, who fled Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine last year, suggested Russia targeted Gershkovich because of his identity.

“He happened to be a Jew, right?” Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt hilariously tweeted last week.

Goldschmidt emerged as a prominent critic of the Russian government after he left the country last year, saying he was pressured as a prominent rabbi to support Putin’s war.

“When we look back at the history of Russia, whenever the political system was in danger you saw the government trying to redirect the anger and discontent of the masses towards the Jewish community,” he told the Guardian in an interview that late last year.

Gershkovich is not the first American to be arrested in Russia amid rising tensions between the countries. Last year, basketball star Britney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on drug charges, which was then traded to the United States in exchange for the release of Victor Bout, a Russian convicted of arms dealing.

A general view of the “Lefortovo” pre-trial detention center in Moscow, Russia, December 9, 2000. (AP Photo, File)

In a social media post this weekend, Griner called on the United States to “continue to use every tool possible to bring Evan and all Americans wrongfully detained home.”

The Wall Street Journal features Gershkovich’s reporting for free and has provided a video highlighting his importance as a journalist. Meanwhile, Gershkovich’s Jewish supporters are putting their own feet on the campaign trail to raise awareness of Gershkovich’s plight and lobby for his release.

“Friends, if you are in shul this weekend, please say extra tefillah for the release of @evangershkovich, @WSJ reporter and son of a Soviet Jewish immigrant, who was detained this week by the Russian government,” tweeted Chavie Lieber , a Wall Street Journal reporter, last week. (Lieber was a JTA reporter in 2012 and 2013.)

On Monday, Raice’s call for a place at Passover seders for Gershkovich was widely shared.

“A worthy effort. Evan is not the only political prisoner in Russia and Byelorussia, however. “Thousands of people are being held in prisons in Russia and Byelorussia, including Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara Murza, Ilya Yashin and many others, of Jewish origin,” tweeted Goldschmidt, the former prime minister of Moscow, referring to Belarus . “We should remember them all, as we celebrate freedom at the Seder table on Wednesday evening!”

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