Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar met this week with Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Dmitri Rogozin, the heads of two Russian nationalist parties that disseminate anti-Semitic propaganda.
The meetings outraged the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "Through these meetings, the chief rabbi confers legitimacy on people and parties known for clearly anti-Semitic positions," said one ministry official.
Following the meeting, a statement on the official Web site of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, which Lazar heads, declared: "There is common ground. Both sides [the Jews and the nationalist anti-Semites - Y.M.] adopt patriotic positions."
The federation is considered the strongest Jewish organization in Russia. It is affiliated with Israeli businessman Lev Leviev, who donates millions of dollars to it every year.
Officially, the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the meeting. "The rabbi holds no official Israeli government position, so he is not subordinate to the government's policy," said a ministry spokesman.
Off the record, however, ministry officials were furious. "The rabbi's obsequious meetings with individuals tainted by blatant anti-Semitism and Russian nationalism arouses anger and disgust," said one. "[The meetings] grant them legitimacy and undermine the Israeli government's policy of rejecting them and avoiding contact with them."
A spokesman for Lazar, who was in New York yesterday, said: "The Foreign Ministry forgets that the rabbi is committed to the well-being of Jews in Russia. The meetings were public and demonstrate the status of the Jews to all the supporters of these parties; moreover, the two leaders with whom he met undertook not to persist with their [anti-Semitic] declarations."
Responding to the report, an associate of Leviev commented that the businessman "doesn't know everything the rabbi does and the rabbi needs no advice from him. Berel Lazar is chief rabbi of Russia and he knows what he is doing. Lazar knows what is beneficial and how to take care of Russia's Jewish community better than any Foreign Ministry official."
During the meeting, Lazar reportedly told Zhirinovsky and Rogozin that many Russian Jews who had immigrated to Israel were now returning, and that this year, more Russian Jews had left Israel than had moved to it.
Zhirinovsky, who serves as deputy speaker of the Russian parliament and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, expressed satisfaction with this, saying: "The Jews are talented people and it's good that they are returning because they can contribute to Russia's development."
Both Zhirinovsky and other members of his party have frequently expressed anti-Semitic views. And Rogozin heads the Rodina (Motherland) Party, several of whose members signed a petition by 500 public figures urging that the Jews be expelled from Russia. The petition also urged the Russian prosecution to ban dissemination of the Shulchan Aruch, a classic Jewish legal text, claiming that it incites to racism. The prosecution indeed began an investigation into the book, but then closed it under pressure from Israel and Jewish organizations.
Due to such incidents, Israel has long boycotted Zhirinovsky, Rogozin and their parties. The Foreign Ministry has also tried to persuade other countries and organizations to join this boycott. The ministry's intervention, for instance, led to Rodina being denied membership in the Socialist International.