Russian Jewish group vows to pay IDF legal bill

Jewish group vows to pay

An influential Russian Jewish leader and politician has promised to fund the defense of IDF soldiers caught in legal troubles overseas due to their military service. Boris Shpigel, the president of the World Congress of Russian-speaking Jewry and a senator in the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, promised this week to offer "support, both public and legal," to soldiers facing prosecution for their role in Israeli military operations against terror groups. Shpigel, who chairs the Council's Committee for the Development of Civil Society, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday through an interpreter that IDF soldiers "are at the frontlines of the worldwide battle against terror. I continue to believe this. I supported the IDF's actions against terror organizations in the past and I support them now." Shpigel's promise was targeted at helping IDF soldiers overcome new efforts at prosecution being launched by pro-Palestinian groups following last month's publication of the Goldstone Report, which claimed Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza. Already, IDF troops have faced a series of legal challenges brought by pro-Palestinian groups in nations that allow universal jurisdiction in cases of alleged war crimes. After a few such cases were brought in Spain and Belgium, these countries changed their laws and procedures to make such prosecution more difficult. But cases continue to be brought before British courts, where judges have examined in recent years demands to investigate Defense Minister Ehud Barak, former IDF Maj.-Gen. Doron Almog and others. Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, a former IDF chief of staff, turned down this week an invitation to speak in London over similar concerns. MK Ze'ev Elkin, who serves as a vice president of the WCRJ, explained the initiative by noting that Russian-speaking Jewry worldwide "are connected to Israel by an umbilical cord of family ties." According to Elkin, who made aliya from Ukraine in 1990 and today serves as coalition chairman, "There is no Jewish Diaspora as intimately connected to Israel as the Russian-speaking Diaspora. That's because there is not a single Russian-speaking Jew in the world who doesn't have close relatives or personal friends in Israel. So for them, these soldiers and officers are flesh and blood." In a statement this week denouncing the Goldstone Report, the WCRJ objected to the fact that the report called "Israel's action to contain international terror a war crime and a crime against humanity. In the view of the members and leaders of the WCRJ, the Goldstone Report is not objective." Among the deficiencies listed by the WCRJ was "a lack of attention to Hamas terrorism against the Palestinian population… which was intentionally used as a 'living shield' during the operation against [Hamas's] terrorism in Gaza." The group also accuses the Goldstone Report of "encouraging anti-Semitism worldwide using the infrastructure of the UN." Shpigel took care to note that the WCRJ's views on the Goldstone Report did not necessarily reflect the Russian government's policy. "I can't speak for Russia as a whole, but I can speak as a senator, as the head of a Jewish organization and as a person, and this is my position," he told the Post. But according to an Israeli source familiar with the issue, the Russian government as a whole understands Israel's views on the Goldstone Report and allegations of war crimes in Gaza, something which could be important if the report is presented to the UN Security Council by Arab states with the demand that it be submitted to the International Criminal Court for investigation. Russia would have veto power in such a case. "The Russians recognize the legitimacy of our position," said the Israeli official. "They are also grateful for the fact that during Cast Lead we launched a special operation to get Russian citizens out of Gaza." Asked by the Post for specifics on the planned defense of IDF troops, the WCRJ's Israel director Leon Greenberg said the organization "will hire local lawyers to defend Israeli soldiers and officers wherever they are threatened with prosecution." Shpigel last visited Israel during Operation Cast Lead in January, meeting with then prime minister Ehud Olmert, then foreign minister Tzipi Livni and other senior officials. Originally founded in 2002, the organization was revived in 2008 under Shpigel's stewardship. It facilitates a network of Russian-speaking Jewish legislators from around the world and in January founded a similar network of journalists. Much of its activities are focused on youth education in Russia, Israel and the US, though it also maintains offices in Germany and Australia.