MOSCOW - Most of Russia's Jews will likely vote for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Sunday's presidential elections, according to that country's chief rabbi.
"Maybe if there were a more serious choice of candidates they would vote for someone else. But I haven't yet met a single Jew who is voting for [Russian tycoon Mikhail] Prokhorov, for example," said Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, in an interview with Haaretz.
He added, "I think the fact that a new, young leader has not yet stepped forward in Russia is a problem. All these people - [Gennady] Zyuganov, [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky [presidential candidates for the Russian Communist and Liberal Democratic parties, respectively] - we've already heard their sermons before. It's the same old people."
Lazar has the delicate task of threading the needle between the government in Moscow and the Jewish community - many of whose members have been involved in protests against Putin in the past months.
At a meeting two weeks ago with the country's religious figures, Putin - the leading presidential candidate - asked Lazar, "Tell me, what is a Jew supposed to do on the Sabbath?" to which the rabbi replied, "Observe Shabbat."
"And where should he be?" Putin persisted.
"In synagogue, praying," Lazar said.
"So what are all these demonstrations?" Putin asked.
'I won't tell Jews how to vote'
"When they held the first demonstration on Saturday, everyone in synagogue asked whether they should go or not," Lazar said in the interview with Haaretz. "I said, for we Jews there's no question because we have to be in synagogue, praying." Lazar's office in the Moscow Jewish Community Center, in the city's Maryina Roshcha district, contains several bookcases but not a single photograph of him with Putin.
"I told Putin we don't interfere, the choice is a personal one. We're pro-stability. We don't need the Communists, and the fact that people are taking to the streets means there are complaints, and everyone has to think about how to make life better. But I won't tell Jews how to vote," Lazar said.
The rabbi rejects the idea, widely reported, that the meeting with religious leaders was a show of support for Putin. "We only thanked him for everything he does for the community," Lazar said, going on to praise at length the responsiveness demonstrated by the prime minister and by President Dmitry Medvedev to the needs of Russia's Jewish community and their aggressive fight against anti-Semitism.
"We don't interfere in political issues - whether for good or bad that's for the experts to say," Lazar said. "But when it comes to Judaism, the attitude in the country is special, and it's not because of the United States."
With eight kosher restaurants, including an Asian noodle shop near the Kremlin and the Tel Aviv eatery, which boasts Israeli food, pictures of the eponymous city and Israeli television, Moscow has a lively Jewish community. The most recent census counted only 150,000 Jews in Russia, but Lazar says the number is misleading. "They didn't ask about religion. Those who wanted declared their religion. We believe there are a million Jews in Russia, half of them in Moscow."
Lazar does not believe Putin has a special relationship to the Jews, but said, "He recognizes that they are a kind of force. Not a political or economic force, like in America, that he needs for the election, it's more an appreciation for the Jewish brain, the young entrepreneurs here. Jackson-Vanik used to be a big deal. Now the authorities here say it's no longer important. If America decides to repeal it, then let them," Lazar said. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union's Jewish community became a bargaining chip for the rival superpowers. In 1974 the United States imposed trade restrictions on countries that limited Jewish emigration - a move aimed at the Soviet bloc. The Jackson-Vanik amendment is still in effect.
What, does Lazar believe, is Putin's personal attitude to Jews? "I think he tries to be okay with everyone," the rabbi said. "With him there's no good nation or not-good nation here, only good or not-good people. That's how it is with everything. Sometimes it's extreme, because if someone is not good then he's not good. We [Jews] have the concept of teshuva [repentance in Hebrew] - he doesn't. But if someone is good it doesn't matter to him whether he's Jewish, Caucasian [from the Caucasus], American, Israeli, Arab. It's not part of the picture with him.
"The relationship with Israel is important to him," he added. "He wouldn't break all the rules for [Israel], but good relations are important to him, because of the million Russian speakers there and the cultural connection, and also over technology and agriculture.
"I wouldn't say it's more important than relations with Italy," Lazar continued, "but even though Israel is small it is important, and you see that when Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] or [President Shimon] Peres come here. The memorial to World War II heroes in Israel [planned for Netanya, to commemorate the Red Army's victory over the Nazis and the release of Jews from concentration camps] is important to him."