In writing this column, I am acutely aware that Vladimir Putin is important to world Jewry.
He has allowed Judaism to flourish in Russia like never before. He essentially controls Syria and thus has an important say in Israel’s security. And he will occasionally show Israel some degree of friendship, as when he visited days before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
But none of this changes the fact that Putin is a monster. Along with Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Ayatollah Khameini of Iran, he is the face of evil in the modern world. His brutal invasion of Ukraine is simply a confirmation of all that we knew about him before. A cold-blooded killer, who will ruthlessly do whatever it takes to stay in power, from murdering his political opponents at home and abroad to crushing his neighbors who refuse to bend the knee.
How will the Jewish community now navigate the need to protect Russian Jewry and how will Israel maintain some level of friendship with the tyrant while upholding their cherished values? Facing these conundrums are the very essence of some of the bizarre things we’ve seen over the past few days.
No Jewish organization in the world is more vital to the future of the Jewish people than Chabad and none is more dependent on Putin, given its vast and critical operations in Russia and in the countries under its sphere of influence. This may explain why even Chabad of Ukraine, whose communities are literally under Putin’s barbaric bombardment, have yet to criticize Russia and Putin by name. I’m guessing they fear for the Jews of Russia and fear that any condemnation of Putin by Chabad in one part of the world will invoke retribution in Russia.
The same seems true of Israel. Naftali Bennett has been walking the impossible line of condemning the invasion of Ukraine on the one hand, without mentioning who is doing the invading on the other. Only Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has condemned Russia by name. Therefore, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: What should the Jews do about Putin?
To give you an idea of how relevant this question is, consider the fact that for years I have been publicly inveighing against Putin as a murderer, a brutal dictator and a ruthless autocrat. I have questioned Chabad of Russia’s closeness to the dictator, especially at the time of the 2014 invasion of Crimea where some Chabad Russian rabbis were seen to publicly defend Putin.
I have asked why Israel moved the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz from Poland to Jerusalem, mostly to accommodate Putin, who would never travel to Poland, which despises him. And I criticized Keren Hayesod, the Jewish Agency, the world’s largest Jewish charity, for bringing its foremost donors to hear Putin speak in Moscow in the fall of 2019.
In each of these cases where as a rabbi I publicly condemned Putin, I faced ferocious criticism from people who made three points. First, that Putin is good to the Jews and is a friend of Israel. Second, that he is the most powerful man in the world and we need him as a friend. And third, that Russia liberated the death camps in the Second World War while the Ukrainians participated in the genocide. One of my close relatives called me recently to tell me how disappointed they were in me for being such a passionate critic of Putin when he is championing the cause of the Jews.
TO THESE and other critics I respond as follows:
First, there is nothing that is terrible for the world that could possibly be good for the Jews. We are the people who are charged with being a light unto the nations. We are the guardians of the world’s morality, the progenitors of the Ten Commandments, which is why the world has hated us for so many thousands of years. We dare never defend murderers and killers, even if they protect Jewish lives in the short term.
Putin is a fake and a fraud. Even as he allows synagogues and Jewish schools to flourish, he arms Iran with advanced weaponry, while they openly pledge a second holocaust of the Jews. Putin allows Judaism to flourish only so long as the Jewish community remains fearful, docile and subservient. God help the Jewish community, if they so much as express even an iota of sympathy for the people of Ukraine.
Second, the world today cannot be seen solely through the lens of the past in general, and the holocaust and World War II in particular. Yes, Russia absolutely fought Hitler harder than any other foe and lost some 20 million citizens in the process. But it’s also true that Stalin was the first to make a major pact with Hitler, which allowed the Second World War to commence, and it’s also true that Stalin was one of the worst antisemites to ever live.
This does not change our profound gratitude to the Soviets for liberating our people in Auschwitz, Majdanek and other death camps. It simply means that the same gratitude for the past has nothing to do with our responsibility to condemn Russian atrocities in the present, especially in Ukraine.
Judaism does not visit the sins of the parents upon the children. Whatever Ukrainians did in the Second World War has nothing to do with how their children are being slaughtered by Putin in 2022. Suppose Putin was invading a democratic Germany right now. Would we say they deserve it because of the Holocaust or would we condemn his aggression against a modern democracy? How much more so does that apply to Ukraine, a country with a Jewish president and prime minister.
Putin is a KGB killer, a gangster and a war criminal. When a man, woman or nation is wicked, however good they may temporarily be to the Jews, the friendship will inevitably dissipate. They will eventually turn on the Jews, since our mission is to spread morality and ethical monotheism. And can we really support dictators who are our friends if they are murderous and immoral? Can the Jewish community befriend a man who is the shield protecting mass murderer Bashar Assad, who gasses innocent Arab children?
Take a closer look and, as I have argued before, you will see that not only is Putin not the friend to Israel we think he is but he actually poses a huge danger to the Jewish state.
Putin is the foremost defender of Iran at the UN and regularly exercises his veto to protect the mullahs.
In 2012, Putin had deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov warn Israel against “any possible military scenario against Iran” which he threatened would be “catastrophic for the region and for the whole system of international relations. Therefore, I hope Israel understands all these consequences... and they should also consider the consequences of such action for themselves.”
THAT’S THE real Putin. The mafia don constantly issuing his vile threats, including against Israel.
Russia has called the international sanctions against Iran “overt blackmail” and a “crude contradiction of international law.”
In 2013, The Daily Mail quoted a Kremlin source as saying that Putin was preparing to offer Iran “missile systems and a second nuclear reactor... If it goes ahead Iran will be supplied with five advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles, capable of taking down aircraft or guided missiles, valued at $800m.”
With Iran threatening to wipe Israel off the map, one can only wonder why Putin, the great friend of the Jews, is protecting Iran’s nuclear program and arming Iran with advanced weapons systems.
The answer, of course, is that Putin has no friends. He fits all the criteria of a narcissist, megalomaniacal dictator who will cultivate friendships that burnish his image. And for now it suits his purposes to feign attachment to the Jews and thereby silence our community who are usually the first to protest atrocities anywhere in the world. And we must do so now for the brave people of Ukraine who are choosing death over dictatorship.
Chabad must distance itself from this crazed murderer who has disrupted the world order. I am not suggesting that Chabad of Russia openly criticize him lest those words, God forbid, be their last. But they must make sure they are not used by Putin to offer legitimacy to a tyrant who has become an international pariah and who will no doubt seek to cloak himself in Jewish approbation.
Chabad dare not forget how Putin refuses to return the library of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Chabad. The issue may sound trivial when compared to a barbarous war, but the Rebbe made it clear that Russia had stolen the celebrated “Schneerson Library” accumulated by successive Chabad leaders. The Rebbe had the movement launch lawsuits and use every diplomatic connection to retrieve the stolen archive from Russia. When the Rebbe died he was broken at Russia’s refusal to return the trove of incomparable Jewish manuscripts. Yet, Chabad of Russia never challenged Putin on the theft.
Always beware a dictator. When he is ousted, righteous people will point fingers and you really don’t want to be around. We can only pray that Putin has overplayed his deranged hand and that the Russian people will now rise to make him fall.
The author, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous rabbi in America,” has just published Kosher Hate about the necessity of fighting evil. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.