An organization representing Russian-speaking Jews has cut funding for its Kiev office because of its criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, or EAJC, in February stopped funding its Kiev office, which is run by Josef Zissels, he told JTA on Thursday.
“I don’t know for sure why they stopped the funding, but I think it may be connected to my statements on Russia,” said Zissels, chairman of the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
Zissels was outspoken against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including its annexation on March 18 of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine. Earlier that month, he was among the co-signers of a highly critical open letter to President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of disingenuously manipulating concerns about anti-Semitism to justify Russia’s actions.
Zissels placed the open letter on the website of the EAJC, though the organization strongly distanced itself from the views expressed there.
Both Zissels and Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Jacob Dov Bleich have been outspoken in their contention that Moscow was behind a series of anti-Semitic attacks throughout the country since the start of the protests against then-president Viktor Yanokovich late last year.
“I have never claimed that the Russian government or Yanukovich administration were anti-Semitic,” Zissels told The Jerusalem Post earlier this year. “It is much worse – they are cynically willing to play the Jewish card in the implementation of their objectives, and are therefore [shown to be] willing to sacrifice Jews.”
According to Bleich, “Anti-Semitism, incitement and the history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine includes in large dose Russian incitement against the Jews in Ukraine. It happened during the czars and it’s happening now by Putin inciting the Ukrainian population against the Jews.”
During a press conference in Moscow on March 3, Putin warned against the “rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.” Any intervention in Ukraine, he explained, would be justified on the basis on combating such forces in defense of minorities.
Putin’s statements of concern for Ukrainian Jewry, Bleich has said, are a “cynical abuse of anti-Semitism.”
The EAJC, which was founded in 2002 by Jewish leaders from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, confirmed in a statement issued last week that the freeze came because of Zissels’ politics.
EAJC President Julius Meinl, the statement read, “suspended funding for several programs conducted by the Kiev office to resolve conflicts arising from... Zissels’ repeated statements which are liable to involve EAJC in the political process and that are not directly related to Jewish social life. The position adopted by [the Kiev office] at a certain stage led to the suspension of the cooperation with EAJC vice presidents, which in turn damaged the Congress.”
Zissels would not say how much money was cut, citing confidentiality issues. “It is unfortunate but this is not a tragedy because we are working on finding alternative sources of funding,” he said. “We will continue to work.”
Zissels alleged that EAJC decided on the move “because many of its leaders have huge business interests in Russia.”
EAJC representatives declined to further comment on the issue when they were contacted by JTA.
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, a senior leader of the Russian Jewish community urged his Ukrainian counterparts to cease speaking out against the annexation of Crimea.
Speaking with the Post, Alexander Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, said that calls by Bleich for Russia to “stop its aggression” were counterproductive.
“Jews and rabbis should stay away from politics,” he declared.
Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, has previously come under criticism for his purported role as Putin’s “court Jew,” as some Jewish activists have alleged, and for his vigorous activism on behalf of the regime.
In a videotape earlier this year, Lazar was shown applauding the annexation of Crimea during a ceremony, engendering resentment among many Ukrainian Jews. The Jewish Daily Forward quoted one senior community leader in Kiev as surmising that the chief rabbi was coerced into attending the event.
In response to Boroda’s comments, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, run by legislator and oligarch Oleksandr Feldman, condemned Russia’s military activity.
Several weeks after the initial exchange between Boroda and Bleich, Lazar pressed the attack, saying that 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.”
Following Lazar’s comments, Vaad spokesman Vyacheslav Likhachev said he did not believe that Lazar was able to freely express his real views.
“When Lazar speaks, it is as a person holding an official position, that of a religious leader in contemporary Russia, and as such, it is impossible for him or any other person in his position to express views that do not align with the Kremlin’s official line and propaganda,” Likhachev said.
Responding to the EAJC’s decision to cut off funding to Zissels, Bleich told the Post he did not think that “the EAJC is a natural union from the beginning.”
“Ukraine is part of Europe and especially now that Ukraine has signed an association agreement with the EU, Ukraine has basically made the European decision.
“Euro Asia doesn’t exist and even if it did, it has nothing to do with Ukraine. So in my opinion Zissels should get the hint and resign from the EAJC and take his organization out of there.”
Amid the ongoing war of words, Alexander Levin, the Kiev-based president of the World Forum of Russian-speaking Jewry, called on newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and “all the world leaders to act to stop the conflict.”