Russia and Ukraine at war among the Jews, anyway

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The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has pitted Jewish leaders from both countries, including prominent rabbis, against each other.

The discord had been brewing since the onset of the protests in Ukraine in November, but it turned public in March after Russia invaded Crimea in response to what President Vladimir Putin claimed was a “rampage” of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Rabbi Berel Lazar in 2005 photo/jta-kremlin

Putin’s claim sparked angry reactions from Ukrainian Jewish leaders, many of whom said it was a false justification for aggressive Russian actions that were more dangerous to Jews than any homegrown nationalism.

On March 24, Russia’s chief Chabad rabbi, Berel Lazar, hit back, urging Ukrainian Jews to stay silent on matters of geopolitics and reiterating concerns about anti-Semitism in the post-revolutionary Kiev government — concerns that he further suggested Ukrainian Jews were too afraid to voice for themselves.

“The Jewish community should not be the one sending messages to President Barack Obama about his policy or to President Putin or to any other leader. I think it’s the wrong attitude,” Lazar said.

The revolution in Ukraine erupted last fall after President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Svoboda, an ultranationalist political party that Ukrainian Jewish leaders consider both anti-Semitic and dangerous, played a prominent role in the uprising that eventually ousted Yanukovych from office in April.

Amid the turmoil, several anti-Semitic incidents occurred, including the stabbing of a religious Jew in Kiev; several street beatings of Jews; the attempted torching of a synagogue; and the spray-painting at another synagogue of swastikas and “Death to the Jews.”

At a March 4 news conference in Moscow, Putin said Russia’s “biggest concern” was “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine,” warning that Russia would make further incursions if minorities were endangered.

In response, Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, or Vaad, and 20 other leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community sent Putin an open letter in which they disputed the existence of unusual levels of anti-Semitism in post-revolutionary Ukraine and accused Russia of threatening the security of Ukrainians.

“Your policy of inciting separatism and crude pressure placed on Ukraine threatens us and all Ukrainian people,” the letter said.

On March 26, Vaad placed the letter as a full-page ad in the New York Times and several other newspapers.

To Lazar, the Vaad letter was a case of Jewish leaders involving themselves in issues that don’t directly concern the Jewish community.

He and 47 other Russian and Ukrainian rabbis, many of them affiliated with Chabad, signed a March 17 statement to that effect.

“Religious and community leaders should stay out of the political sphere,” the statement said. “Do not forget: Any thoughtless word can lead to dangerous consequences for many.”

But several Ukrainian Jewish leaders said that by using anti-Semitism to justify his actions, Putin had left them no choice but to speak out.

“We were not the ones who brought the Jews into the debate to make it a Jewish question,” said Yaakov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis. “Putin did it by his cynical abuse of anti-Semitism as a justification for his actions.”

Ukraine’s interim government has a Jewish vice prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, but also three Svoboda ministers. One of them, Environment Minister Andriy Mokhnyk, in an interview last year accused Jews of destroying Ukrainian independence.

“This party, Svoboda, they are part of the government,” said Lazar. “So you have ministers who are open anti-Semites, which are part of this interim government. This is a concern.”

Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Vaad spokesman and the organization’s researcher on anti-Semitism, said ultranationalists have little power in the interim government. The revolution, he added, has not resulted in a substantial increase in anti-Semitic attacks. Likhachev also suggested, as have other Jewish leaders in Ukraine, that some of the attacks may have been pro-Russian provocations, a suggestion brushed aside by Lazar.

“No one knows for sure,” Lazar said. “But in the last 15 years, I’ve never seen in Russia anything similar. And sadly, in Ukraine, and in certain parts of Ukraine especially, there is a history of anti-Semitism.”

Lazar is considered very close to Putin. He led the Russian president on a tour of the Western Wall in 2012 and attends receptions at the Kremlin, including an event on March 18 at which the formal process of annexing Crimea was begun. Several Ukrainian Jewish leaders dismissed Lazar’s statements as coming from a Kremlin mouthpiece.

“It is impossible for [Lazar] or any other person in his position to express views that do not align with the Kremlin’s official line and propaganda,” Likhachev said.

Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, one of the main Ukrainian figures in Lazar’s own Chabad movement, declined to sign the March 17 statement. He suggested the difference between the Ukrainian and Russian leadership owes something to the varying goals of those countries’ respective Jewish communities.

“Rabbi Lazar takes very good care of Russian Jews,” Kamenetsky said. “What he says corresponds with their goals. His excellent ties with the government are very beneficial to Russian Jewry and to Jews in remote places who, thanks to those ties, are protected.”

Ukrainian Jews, Kamenetsky said, “want something different. We want a free, united and European Ukraine.”

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent