The recent visit to Israel by Russian President Vladimir Putin represents yet
another example of the extraordinary and unpredictable events continuously
impacting on Israel and the Jewish people.
Putin’s presence in the Jewish
state revived memories of my involvement in the Soviet Jewry struggle, which was
the central focus of my public life for many years. Recruited as a young man by
Shaul Avigur, the Israeli prime minister’s coordinator of the Soviet Jewry
campaign, I was engaged in activities ranging from persuading the Australian
government to become the first country in the world to raise the plight of
Soviet Jewry at the UN to writing a book based on Soviet sources exposing
state-sponsored anti-Semitism, which led to divisions among Western
The climax of my involvement was during 1978 to 1980 – when
my company was designated to handle travel arrangements for the Australian team
at the Moscow Olympics, thus obliging the Soviets to provide me with entry visas
– until then denied.
Thanks to the personal interventions of the
Australian prime minister, in between official Soviet meetings, I was ferried in
embassy cars to the homes of the key Jewish dissidents and refuseniks and
engaged them in regular intensive discussions.
This terminated abruptly
when Australia joined the Olympic boycott.
I was arrested and charged
with espionage for liaising with refuseniks who allegedly “had access to state
security secrets.” I was ultimately expelled and threatened with imprisonment
should I ever set foot again on Soviet soil.
Yet in 1987, seven years
later, I was invited by the KGB-controlled Moscow Arkhipova Synagogue to be
their guest over Rosh Hashana and permitted to give Zionist addresses in my
faltering Yiddish from the pulpit.
This subsequently led to the
establishment of the first Jewish cultural center since the revolution, named
after Solomon Mykhoels, the renowned Yiddish poet murdered by Stalin in 1948,
and the first Hebrew song festivals in municipal theaters in both Moscow and
Leningrad. The sight of theaters, packed with of Jews of all ages, tears
streaming down their eyes as they heard Yaffa Yarkoni and Dudu Fisher singing
Israeli songs, remains permanently seared into my memory.
June 2012 – Jerusalem streets festooned with Russian flags. US President Barack
Obama, who went to Cairo shortly after his election, has yet to visit Israel.
Yet Russian President Putin, who had already visited Israel in 2005, again
included Israel in his first overseas trip immediately following his election.
He was accompanied by a huge contingent including Russian businessmen, Jewish
oligarchs and Chabad Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar.
Putin was the keynote
speaker at the inauguration of an exhibition in Netanya commemorating the role
of the Red Army in the victory against Nazism. He spoke warmly about Israel,
expressing pride that the Jewish state contained the largest diaspora of former
Just a block away from my home, Putin was feted at the
residence of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, followed by a banquet with
President Shimon Peres. He also met a number of former Soviet citizens who are
currently Israeli government ministers, including Foreign Minister Avigdor
Leiberman and Yuli Edelstein, one of the younger refuseniks I befriended during
my Moscow visits.
Putin seemed nonplussed even when it was clear that he
was outraging his Arab allies. There was talk of increased Russian purchase of
defense equipment from Israel – a contrast to the far left calls for boycotts
He visited the Kotel (Western Wall) wearing a yarmulke,
accompanied by Rabbi Lazar – an act which would make his former Bolshevik
predecessors turn in their graves. This also infuriated radical Muslim groups,
especially the extremist Israeli Islamic Movement whose spokesman stated that
the “Russian bear, which licks the blood of our relatives in Syria” had adopted
an approach “that sucked up to the Israeli Establishment at any
When my mind flashes back to the Soviet Jewry protest movement and
in particular, to my visits to Moscow, the Putin visit seems utterly
I recall conversations in Moscow with refuseniks like
Vladimir Slepak, the late Professor Alexander Lerner, Yosef Begun, Pavel
Abramovich, Vladimir Prestin and many others.
Never in our wildest dreams
could we have visualized that one day, we would all be living together in Israel
and witnessing the visit of a former senior KGB officer who had become the
president of Russia.
However, this should not lead us to conclude that
the autocratic President Putin has become a devoted ally of Israel and the
Jewish people. We must remind ourselves that despite warm words, he heads a
country which has ties and provides weapons to some of our greatest enemies
including Iran and Syria. He also tends to support the Palestinian position,
both as a member of the Quartet and at the UN and reiterated this to Palestinian
Authority chairman Abbas in Bethlehem.
INDEED MANY doubt whether, if
Israel’s survival represented an obstacle to Russia’s short-term strategic or
national interests, he would lift a finger on our behalf.
But it is
equally clear that in contrast to all the Kremlin’s leaders from Stalin to
Gorbachev, Putin is certainly not a committed anti- Semite. Despite the endemic
anti- Semitism prevailing in Russia and a very hostile Russian Orthodox Church,
many of whose prelates still retain a medieval concept portraying the Jews as
Christ killers, Putin seems entirely indifferent to Jews. That sharply
differentiates him from his communist predecessors who hated us passionately and
actively encouraged our enemies to strive toward our destruction.
it would seem Putin probably has genuine affection for a country which includes
so many of his former citizens. No doubt without admitting it, he probably also
recognizes that like Israel, Russia faces threats from Islamic fundamentalists
and has strained relations with Turkey.
His visit to Israel
unquestionably sends clear signals. Even recognizing major divergence of
policies in relation to Iran and Syria, and that Putin’s tensions with the
United States and interests in the Arab world preclude us from considering him a
partner, it sends a message to the Arabs that Russia is not an enthusiastic ally
in their efforts to undermine the Jewish state.
Mindful of the fact that
not so long ago a few hundred Soviet Jews backed by Western Jews played a major
role in bringing about the downfall of the Evil Empire, our current relationship
with Russia is a most extraordinary positive development in the ever-changing
panorama of Jewish civilization.
Russia is a far cry from a Western
democracy, but it is also not comparable to the former Soviet totalitarian
regime and less authoritarian than the Chinese communist model. Like any nation
state – particularly one under siege – we are obliged to indulge in some forms
of realpolitik to protect our national interests. We should therefore welcome
the easing of tensions and establishment of diplomatic ties and seek to
strengthen the relationship with Russia – as long as we do so with our eyes wide
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