Russia's Chief Rabbi concerned about anti-Semitism

12 major Russian parties sign 'antifascist pact'; 25 other parties refuse to do so.

By
March 19, 2006 17:11
russian chief rabbi berl lazar

rabbi berl lazar 298 88. (photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)

"The displays of Anti-Semitism in Russia are linked to the rise of extremism and xenophobia in the country. The government should do more to crack down on extremists," Russia's chief rabbi Berl Lazar warned. The rabbi, in a Jerusalem Post interview, continued "As long as you can find anti-Semitic literature and propaganda in the center of Moscow, as long as the people who disseminate these hideous materials on the internet get away with it, we cannot be sure that there will not be another slaughter of Jews somewhere. There is a very upsetting phenomenon of popular nationalistic movements that attract many young people. They use slogans, such as 'Russia for Russians' and 'Save the motherland'. The influence of these groups on Russia's future might be very damaging." Indeed, Russia has seen an increase in racially motivated crimes in the past several years, including attacks on Jews and dark-skinned foreigners. Twenty-five people have been killed in hate crimes over the past year and more than 200 have been attacked, said Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights. According to Rabbi Lazar, there are continuous attacks on Jewish cemeteries in the country, 15-20 in a year, although there has not been an increase in this phenomenon in recent years. "Jewish graves are being vandalized, also other graves are unfortunately are being abused, not only Jewish ones, which of course doesn't makes us any more at ease. However, the situation is much worse in Ukraine, where there is an ongoing upsurge in anti-Semitic feelings." In January of this year, eight Jews were stabbed in a Moscow synagogue. Lazar related that, according to his own testimony, the perpetrator of the attack, Alexander Koptsev, was affected by computer games and anti-Semitic literature. During his court session some three weeks ago, Koptsev denied his guilt, claiming that "since the criminal code of Russia is written by Jews and Jewish mafia, I refuse to confess." "I was glad to find out that the authorities took this incident very seriously, and unlike before, they understand that there is a serious problem here that should be addressed," the Rabbi said, and added "It is very important that Koptsev be convicted, not merely for attacking people, but for inflaming hatred, inter-religious discord and anti-Semitism." "In the Soviet era, anti-Semitism was institutionalized. Today we know for a fact that this is not the government's policy, but still, we'd like to see more action against the extremists," Lazar insisted. Just three weeks ago 12 major Russian parties have signed "an antifascist pact" against nationalism, xenophobia and inter-religious hatred. The agreement asserted that although such activities were already banned by Russian law, they should also be condemned morally. Another 25 registered parties refused to sign the pact, claiming "they would not take part in a public stunt of this kind". Some of the politicians, who refused to sign the agreement said they would not put their names alongside such politicians as Vladimir Zhirinovski, who is famous for his anti-Semitic expressions. While referring to Hamas leaders ' latest visit to the Russian capital, Lazar said that the visit itself, as well as the sudden shift in Russian politics in the Middle East would not affect the Jewish community in Russia, however he still described the visit as "a mistake", adding that there could be no dialogue with the terrorists until they will denounce violence and change their ways. "When some terrorist group gets international recognition, and the terrorists are given the stage, at the same time they are given the legitimacy for their actions. They might think that their policies are justified and successful. Would we also negotiate with Al-Qaida if it'll come to power in some country tomorrow?" the chief rabbi asked rhetorically, and continued "However, it's also important to remember that president Putin didn't meet the leaders of Hamas, therefore they must realize that they would still have to fulfill some demands prior to full recognition by Kremlin. Historically, Russia had always had relations with Arab and Islamic countries, which can also serve Israel, since Russia can contribute a lot as a mediator". Lazar said that he was surprised about Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal's suggestion to enhance the inter-faith dialogue in Russia, as the rabbi claim the dialogue has been proceeding for years. "Just last week I've met with Russia's chief Mufti, along with the representatives of Buddhists and Protestants. We are meeting constantly and working on a common platform: Not to harm each other and not to inflict violence and hatred. If someone uses religion to justify suicide bombings, it harms the religion." Rabbi Berl Lazar was born in Milan on 1964. He first came to Russia shortly before graduating from the yeshiva Tomhei Tmimim in New York in 1988. A year later he received a blessing from Lubavitch Rabbi Menahem Mendl Shneerson to go to the USSR to revive Jewish life there. In 1990, Lazar became the rabbi of the Mariina Roscha synagogue in Moscow. Since 1995 he has served as a chairman of the Rabbis Association of the CIS. In 1999 he was elected as Chief Rabbi of Federation of Jewish Congregations of Russia. Lazar became a representative of the Russian Religious Confessions Assembly in presidential administration in 2001. Lazar received Russian citizenship in 2000, and was awarded the "Medal of Friendship" by special decree of President Vladimir Putin in 2004. During the years Rabbi Lazar earned a reputation of being an active, energetic and spiritual community leader, acting vigorously for the revival of Jewish life not only in large cities, but also in small towns and remote villages all over the Russian Federation. He acted to build new yeshivas, Jewish schools and community centers. Lazar enjoys good relations with the Putin administration and is often called by his rivals "Putin's rabbi". Although the rabbi was elected as a head of Federation of Jewish Congregations more then six years ago, his opponents claim that the title of chief rabbi in fact belongs to Rabbi Adolf Shaevich. Shaevich has served as Russia's chief rabbi of Russia since 1992, as he was head of Congress of Jewish Religious and Public Organizations of Russia (CJRPOR). He was born in Birobijan, graduated from the Khabarovsk Polytechnic Institute as an engineer-technologist, and studied at Moscow and Budapest yeshivas. Since 1980 he He served as a Rabbi since 1980, and as chief rabbi of the Moscow Choral Synagogue in 1983-1992. The two organizations - the Federation of Jewish Congregations and the CJRPOR have been in conflict with each other since Berl Lazar was elected to be the chief rabbi by FJC, while Shaevich remained to be the head of CJRPOR and therefore, also the chief rabbi. The relations between the two organizations and two rabbis has gone so sour that they don't even greet each other when meeting in public events. Commenting on the Russian "Jewish wars", Rabbi Lazar said that he is tired of answering the question: Who is indeed Russia's chief rabbi? "In fact we've got more important issues on our hands. Although we've made an amazing progress in Russia and today there are thousands of Jews returning to Jewish life and learning about Judaism, there are still cities, towns and villages that do not even have a synagogue," he noted. "Unfortunately, some people here try to imitate the situation in the West: They think that Jews have to be involved in political life, lobbies, create ties with administration, only they do not pay attention to the fact that in the West the Jewish life is organized by now, while here we still have to provide the basics: Jewish schools, community centers, synagogues. If the title will help certain people do their work better - I will only support it. Personally, I wasn't looking for this title, but at some point I was asked to step in, and I agreed for the sole purpose of helping the Jews. Our hands are full with work today and this is the only thing that should be on our minds," concluded Russia's Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar.


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