Israel’s chief rabbis will not be attending a controversial Holocaust memorial ceremony in Russian- occupied Crimea this week despite claims to the contrary by organizers, spokesmen for the two clerics confirmed to The Jerusalem Post.
Neither Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau nor his Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, will travel to Sevastopol to attend the event, which has been termed a “provocation” by a senior Jewish communal leader in Kiev who spoke to the press on condition of anonymity.
Thursday’s event, he told the Post, is “a cynical use of the Holocaust for political ends.”
Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine earlier this year following the deposition of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich by pro-European protesters and annexed it in March.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has invoked the specter of anti-Semitism as one of the justifications for his involvement in both Crimea and eastern Ukraine, where a pro-Russia insurgency has claimed hundreds of lives.
Bringing senior Israeli officials in the form of the chief rabbis, some believe, would serve to add a patina of legitimacy to Putin’s claim that his interventions in Ukraine are aimed at helping the Jewish community.
Few Ukrainian or European Jewish figures with knowledge of the ceremony were willing to speak on the record, stating that they were unwilling to enter into a spat with the Russian Jewish community.
One source familiar with the matter said that he believed the event’s organizers were “jeopardizing the Jews of Ukraine” for “personal interests.”
Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, the source claimed, had placed “heavy pressure” on Jewish figures to attend the gathering, which he is slated to address.
In an invitation to the event sent to the press, Lau was listed as one of a number of influential Israeli rabbis expected to attend.
His name was removed from the list and replaced with that of Yosef in a subsequent email.
Lau and Yosef denied any knowledge of the event, with Lau’s assistant calling it a “scam.”
“No one invited him,” the assistant said. “He would never go there. It’s crazy.”
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said that he had not been approached by either chief rabbi regarding traveling to occupied Crimea.
A spokesman for Lau’s father, former chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, told the Post that Lau senior will meet Putin this week in Moscow, but denied claims by a press agent for the Sevastopol gathering that the meeting was being held “anticipating the Sevastopol event.”
There is no connection between the meeting and the ceremony, he said.
According to the initial press release, the event is organized by a group called the Association of National and Cultural Societies together with the Sevastopol Jewish community and World Without Nazism, a Moscow-based anti-racism body.
A memorial to the Jews killed in the Crimea during the Holocaust has been held every year since 1992, the organizers stated.
The memorial being advertised is not the same as that held annually by the local Jewish community, a local rabbi, Benjamin Wolf, told the Post.
“I heard that there is supposed to be an event. I am not involved in it and I have not, as of yet, received details about it,” he said, adding that the community’s commemorations are scheduled for July 13, while the event being organized by World Without Nazism is to be held on July 10.
"It has been always a very symbolic event in Sevastopol and this year it will have an international impact," a spokeswoman for the event said.
Asked about the discrepancy between the list of invitees and those actually attending, Lazar told the Post that he was “not sure where you got this information” and that “most of it is not accurate.”
Wolf is organizing the gathering, Lazar confidant Rabbi Boruch Gorin told the Post.
Asked about the Israeli chief rabbis, Gorin said that he was not sure if their presence in Sevastopol had been planned, but added that as far he knew, the rabbis “are set to come to Moscow to meet with Rabbi Lazar.”
The gathering is not political in any way, he said, in an emphatic rejection of critiques by those in Kiev.
Alexander Boroda, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, agreed with Gorin that the Moscow Jewish community was helping to arrange the assembly in cooperation with the Jewish community of Sevastopol.
The statement that David Lau was expected to come was inaccurate, but the one stating that Yosef was coming was correct, he said.
Objections by Ukrainian Jews are “complete nonsense,” he railed, stating that the planned event “isn’t connected to any politics.”
The Ukrainian and Russian Jewish communities have clashed a number of times over the past several months, mirroring the larger conflict between their respective countries.
In March, Boroda urged his Ukrainian counterparts to cease speaking out against the annexation of Crimea.
Speaking with the Post, Boroda said that calls by Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich for Russia to “stop its aggression” were counterproductive.
“Jews and rabbis should stay away from politics,” he declared.
In response to Boroda’s comments, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, run by legislator and oligarch Oleksandr Feldman, condemned Russia’s military activity, leading Lazar to claim that the Ukrainian Jewish community should not contact world leaders to offer their views on the conflict.
In a videotape earlier this year, Lazar was shown applauding the annexation of Crimea during a ceremony, engendering resentment among many Ukrainian Jews.
Both Lazar and Boris Shpigel, a Russian politician and the founder of World Without Nazism, are reputed to be close to Putin.
A representative of WWN said that the organization could not explain the discrepancy between the published guest list and the denials by Lau and Yosef, and that there were multiple organizations involved in organizing the memorial.
“This committee… is organizing a series of events dedicated to the mass slaughter of the Jews in Sevastopol and there were a lot of people who were invited but [WWN] cannot give you the answer of who exactly is going to be there.
All the people who feel responsible for what happened and who want to prevent the world from slipping into the old ways of anti-Semitism again will attend,” a WWN spokeswoman told the Post.
According to Bleich, the event is “probably a PR stunt.”
“I can’t say for sure, but if they say people are going and people are saying that they are not going and they are publicizing it, it’s probably just to make PR to try and pressure people to come, I would imagine.”
Bleich has previously suggested that Russia had staged anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine to bolster its contention that Kiev had been taken over by a junta of fascists.