With the 2014 Winter Olympics starting Feb. 7 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 legislation aimed at the homosexual community, political detentions and allegations of Olympic corruption as well as the recent terrorist threats against the Games.
“I personally don’t plan to attend or follow the Games and actively encourage boycotting/not attending the Games,” said Anya Levitov, managing partner at Evans Property Services in Moscow. The various sensitive issues in Russia “make these Games anything but an event to follow.”
At the forefront of international criticism leveled at the Russian government in the months leading up to the Sochi Games is the country’s recent legislation against “gay propaganda.”
Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and activist who is both Jewish and openly gay, told 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,” said Gessen. Furthermore, while the law itself only bans propaganda, there has been an increase in anti-gay violence around the country.
International Olympic Committee member Gian-Franco Kasper has claimed that as much as a third of the record-high $50 billion price tag for the Olympics has been siphoned off, while Boris Nemtsov, a critic of Putin’s government, told ABC News he has evidence that Russian officials and business executives stole at least $30 billion of the funds meant for Olympics-related projects.
In a separate interview, Levitov said that the Olympic sports venues were hastily built and may be hazardous to spectators and players.
“The [Olympic] construction was done by migrant workers, many of whom were sent back home without pay,” charged Levitov, adding that anti-immigrant sentiment has been growing in the country in recent years.
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,” Putin recently told reporters, explaining that some contractors had won tenders due to low bids that they subsequently inflated.
Putin’s presidency has not been associated with the kind of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism that was prevalent during the Soviet era. But Levitov believes that “the rise of state-sanctioned xenophobia and anti-gay hatred … as any intolerance, is ultimately a threat to the Jews.”
International Paralympic Committee editorial manager Stuart Lieberman — who will be reporting on the March 7-16 Paralympic Games, which are also taking place in Sochi — disagrees with boycotting the Olympics.
“I don’t think you can be entirely separate from politics [as it relates to the Olympics], but I don’t think you should be avoiding countries for reasons like this,” he said. 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 over the course of the games.
Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, the Chabad emissary to Sochi, does not take a political stand on any of the human rights or corruption issues in Russia.
“I view my role in this community as a spiritual one; I’m here to cater to the needs of the Jewish community as well as to visiting tourists,” he said. “It is our goal as an organization that the spiritual and religious needs of those living and visiting Sochi are met and hopefully expanded.”
Edelkopf did, however, note 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.
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 have started to impose long-planned restrictions of access into and movement within Sochi. Up to 70,000 personnel will be patrolling the Games, according to some estimates.