(photo credit: file photo)
Moscow's chief rabbi will not be allowed to return to Russia for now, the country's Internal Affairs Ministry has decided. The ministry's decision, written earlier this month in a letter that surfaced only this week, said Pinchas Goldschmidt was being kept out of Russia for national security reasons.
Goldschmidt, a Swiss citizen, has led Moscow's central synagogue for nearly 15 years. His visa was annulled at a Moscow airport, after returning from a trip to Israel, forcing him to take a return flight to Tel Aviv, and has remained in Israel since.
The issue comes as Russia's commitment to human rights is increasingly being questioned around the globe.
"Fortunately, the Jewish community has not been a target and has continued a supportive relationship with the Russian government, but when something like this happens, it makes people begin to wonder," said Mark Levin, the executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.
The ministry's letter cites Article 27 of Russia's immigration law, which prevents foreigners deemed a threat to Russian national security from entering the country. The security argument is the most tangible reason the Russian government has given for why it refused to allow Goldschmidt to re-enter the country in late September.
"This latest rejection shows how absurd the whole situation is for Rabbi Goldschmidt," Levin said. "To even have him considered a national security threat is ridiculous." Levin said his group would continue to inform governments around the world about the situation, saying the US, Israeli and Swiss governments have been pressing for Goldschmidt's return.
Until this week, Russian authorities had not provided an official explanation for Goldschmidt's ban, except for a vague Foreign Ministry comment that the agency was looking into the situation.
Russian officials were unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Goldschmidt's wife Dara, an American and the principal of a Moscow Jewish day school, and his five children aged 5 to 15, joined him in Israel in late September. They returned to Moscow last week because Dara had to return to work and the children had to attend school, Goldschmidt said. He added that after he was stopped at the airport he applied for a new visa but was refused. "I'm being forcibly separated from my family," he told JTA.
Some members of the Moscow Jewish community have accused Vladimir Slutsker, a former president of the Russian Jewish Congress, of being behind the visa scandal. Slutsker denied the accusations. Shortly before Goldschmidt was banned from Russia, he and Slutsker were involved in a dispute over a piece of property owned by the Moscow Jewish Religious Community, Goldschmidt's group, but used by the RJC.
A prominent Jewish community leader said Goldschmidt's situation could be linked to government attempts to minimize foreign participation in non-profit and religious sectors.
Russia is considering amendment to its law on NGOs to make it harder for foreign groups and individuals to work in Russian non-profits. The human-rights community has criticized the proposed amendments, which they see as an attempt to isolate Russia from Western countries. Minority religious groups, including Jewish groups, have remained calm, as the proposed measures may not affect their activities directly.
Rabbi Goldschmidt's situation "may have to do with these attempts to regulate the activities of religious organizations, particularly of foreign missionaries," said Mikhail Chlenov, head of the Va'ad Jewish community organization.
Still, he added, "whatever the reason, this is absolutely outrageous. The man has worked here for 15 years, he has many followers. He definitely cannot be a threat to Russian national security."
JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.