War of words between Ukrainian and Russian Jews heats up

Heads of Jewish communities continue verbal spat over Russian actions in Crimea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, March 2005 (photo credit: KREMLIN/ JTA)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, March 2005
(photo credit: KREMLIN/ JTA)
The chief rabbi of Russia struck out at Ukraine’s Jewish community this week over its opposition to Russian actions in Crimea.
Rabbi Berel Lazar’s comments came less than a month after Alexander Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, told The Jerusalem Post that Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Jacob Dov Bleich was wrong in calling on Russia to “stop its aggression against Ukraine.”
Boroda’s statement led to a war of words between the two Jewish communities.
“The Jewish community should not be the one sending messages to President Barack Obama about his policy or to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin or to any other leader,” Lazar said during a joint interview with JTA and The Jewish Chronicle of London. “I think it’s the wrong attitude.”
Lazar, Chabad’s top figure in Russia, was responding to a question about a March 5 letter to the Putin from the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, or VAAD, following the incursion of Russian troops into the Crimean peninsula.
“Your policy of inciting separatism and crude pressure placed on Ukraine threatens us and all Ukrainian people,” the letter said.
Russia invaded the semi-autonomous Ukrainian territory of Crimea following the ouster of president Viktor Yanukovich in late February. A recent near-unanimous plebiscite to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation led to Putin annexing Crimea in a ceremony that an enthusiastically clapping Lazar attended.
In an interview with the Post following Boroda’s statement that “Jews and rabbis should stay away from politics,” Bleich castigated the Russian Jewish leader, saying that he tried not to mix in Russian politics and expected the same treatment.
Besides, he added, “this isn’t politics, it’s a moral issue.”
Despite world condemnation of the Crimean annexation, Lazar was adamant that Jews in Ukraine should maintain their silence.
Lazar criticized the Ukrainians for involving themselves in issues that didn’t directly concern the Jewish community. At the same time, he said he was concerned about anti-Semitism in Ukraine under its interim government – one of the reasons Putin gave in support of the troop mobilization.
In justifying its takeover of Crimea, Russia has branded Ukraine’s new authorities as fascists backed by anti-Jewish militants.
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.”
However, despite such concerns and a spate of anti-Semitic incidents, including several physical attacks, Ukrainian Jewish leaders have on the whole accused Russia of fomenting anti-Semitism and staging violent incidents themselves.
“I have never claimed that the Russian government or Yanukovich administration were anti-Semitic,” the VAAD’s Joseph Zissels told the Post recently. “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.”
In a press conference of his own in New York earlier this month, Bleich said that “things may be done by Russians dressing up as Ukrainian nationalists” in the “same way the Nazis did when they wanted to go into Austria and created provocations.”
Speaking with JTA, Lazar suggested Ukrainian Jewish leaders did not feel free to decry anti-Semitic acts there.
But VAAD spokesman Vyacheslav Likhachev said it was Lazar who could not speak freely.
“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.
Lazar, who is also the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, has previously come under criticism from some Jewish activists for serving as Putin’s “court Jew.” Jewish groups that have declined in influence since Lazar’s rise to prominence have decried what they see as his vigorous activism on behalf of the ruling regime and his downplaying of anti-Semitism within Russia itsevlf.