The Rabbi and the Man in the Kremlin

Vladimir Putin's support for the Federation of Jewish Communities translates into prestige, power and money. What does he get in return?

Amiram Barkat
Amiram Barkat

Three days before the presidential elections in Ukraine, in which Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych ran against opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin uttered the following warning: "We trust that in the circles closest to Yuschenko there will not be people making anti-Russian and Zionist statements. We are closely following such statements and we will not allow this."

An official Kremlin spokesman tried to explain that this was a slip of the tongue and that Putin meant to say "anti-Semitic," rather than "Zionist."

On the same day this slip of the tongue was uttered, on the Chabadnik Internet site run by the Or Avner educational network, which is funded by Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev, a petition was published calling for the immediate removal of Vadim Rabinovich, the president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress. According to the petition, Rabinovich "tried to harness the Jewish community in Ukraine on behalf of one of the candidates."

Rabinovich, who defines himself as a fervent Zionist, is considered a long-standing personal friend of Yuschenko. He says he was "quite dismayed" when he saw the petition. "The Jews are always making trouble for one another," he says. "For 15 years now, I've had a good personal relationship with Yuschenko, but on the political level I'm neutral." He says he has spoken to the rabbis who signed the petition and most of them said their names had been added without their knowledge or agreement. "This petition was a very stupid thing," Rabinovich says.

The petition was signed by 32 Chabad rabbis in Ukraine whose congregations are members of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, which is considered the Jewish organization closest to Putin. Hence there is the suspicion that the initiators of the petition were harnessed to help Putin in his fight against the "Zionists" who are among those close to Yuschenko.

Rabinovich evaded answering a question about this. The spokesman of the federation in Israel, Tal Rabina, argues that the two events support the opposite conclusion: The Federation of Jewish Communities makes a point of distancing the Jews from politics. "In the case of Putin, Rabbi (Berel) Lazar (the chief rabbi of Russia on behalf of the federation) immediately picked up the phone to the Kremlin and following this the clarification was issued. In the case of Rabinovich, there is a group of rabbis who wanted to raise an outcry against the attempt to involve the Jewish community in the support of one of the candidates in the elections. The federation deals solely and exclusively with internal Jewish matters and makes a point of refraining from taking positions on political issues." Sources in the Federation of Jewish Communities also took the trouble to note: "We have already seen what has happened in the past, when Jews like (oligarch Vladimir) Guzinsky tried to involve the community in politics."

The waning of the Congress

Vladimir Guzinsky, a media tycoon and hero of the age of privatization during Boris Yeltsin's presidency, was the dominant figure in the Russian Jewish Congress. The conflicts between Guzinsky and Putin severely damaged the strength and prestige of the congress. Its budget, which at its peak was $10 million a year, has plummeted in recent years to less than $1 million annually. For the sake of comparison, the budget of the Federation of Communities was $70 million last year, $40 million of which was in Russia alone.

The joint communal activity of Lazar and Leviev, who is the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities, began at the end of the 1980s. The federation has been impressively successful in recent years, but at the same time there has been increasing criticism of its policy. This year there is a conflict between the federation and the Liaison Bureau - Nativ - over the return to Russia of Jews who immigrated to Israel. The Nativ people claim the federation is intentionally exaggerating the phenomenon to encourage more Jews to return to Russia. According to Nativ, the number of holders of Israeli passports who are currently in Russia is no more than 13,000. However, Lazar claims "the numbers are huge, far more than 50,000."

Other critics of Lazar say he has refrained from expressing criticism of the impotence of the authorities in dealing with the increasing anti-Semitism in the country and that he intentionally makes the situation of the Jews in Russia sound better than it really is in order to deter them from immigrating to Israel. Lazar rejects all these accusations. "The (Russian) administration is interested in fighting anti-Semitism," he says. "This has not yet got to the little policeman, but it is trickling down slowly. The fact that a Jew feels good here today is a blessing. They say that this is not a blessing for (Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon, because the million Jews we know here don't want to immigrate to Israel. That's just plain nonsense. Our desire is that Jews here be in Israel, but this is not the way."

In 1992, Leviev and Lazar tried to get a permit to open an Or Avner school in St. Petersburg and they needed an authorization from one of the deputy mayors. The first deputy to whom they applied, a Jew, hesitated. The second deputy, who provided the authorization with no delays, was Vladimir Putin. When Lazar was chosen as chief rabbi of Russia in June 2000, Putin was quick to recognize him. Lazar was chosen by the communities that are members of the organization he heads. Putin ignored other organizations in the country, which refused to accept the federation's choice.

Since then the federation has made use of Putin's services quite a few times in order to obtain ownership of properties throughout Russia. With the president's help, the federation obtained ownership of old synagogues that had been diverted to other uses and of buildings where schools and community institutions will be located. In the federation they like to tell of hostile or corrupt local politicians who gave its representatives the runaround but changed their approach after a phone call from the "friend" in the Kremlin. Putin's support of the federation is worth a lot more than a few hundred pieces of real estate. It translates into prestige, power and money.

In September 2000, Putin participated in a ceremony for the dedication of a Jewish community center in the Marina Rusha neighborhood of Moscow. The luxurious, modern seven-story building has become the liveliest Jewish center east of Israel. In recent years it was decided to dedicate a corner of the first floor to plaques of recognition for the largest donors. After some thought, it was decided that the size of the plaque would be directly proportional to the size of the donation.

Without Khodorovsky

One of the plaques dwarfs all the rest. It is emblazoned with the name - in Yiddish and Russian - of Roman Abramovich. Abramovich is the owner of the Sibneft oil company and the British Chelsea soccer club. On the 2004 Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest Russians, he appears in second place. His personal wealth is estimated at $10.6 billion. Not far from his plaque is that of Viktor Vekselberg, whose personal wealth is estimated at $5.9 billion. Between them is the plaque of aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska, with a personal fortune of $4.5 billion.

However, the most famous man of all, who until recently topped the list, is not there. "No. Mikhail Khodorovsky hasn't contributed," says the guide, who is from Chabad.

Lazar sorts the donors to the federation into three categories: those who give in secret, those who did it for the sake of heaven, and those who don't. "It could very well be that there are people who want to donate to us, because they understand that Jews are a power and they want to be close to the Jewish community," he admits.

What does the Federation of Jewish Communities give in return for the generous support of the man who is called "the democratic czar of Russia?"

"You have to ask Putin this question," says Rabina. "The sole aim of the Federation of Jewish Communities is to act for the benefit of the welfare of the Jewish communities, taking into account the situation as given." However, sources close to Chabad admit in private conversations that the federation repays Putin with its willingness to provide a sort of kashrut certification. The experience of the past shows that the need for this arises when Putin wages fights against oligarchs, Jews or "Zionists." Is it possible that the case of Vadim Rabinovich was another case of this?



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