As the United States slaps economic sanctions on oligarchs with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin following the invasion of Ukraine, several billionaire Jewish philanthropists are the focus of concerned attention from Israeli and Jewish organizations who have benefited from their largesse.
Topping that list is Roman Abramovich, the dual Russian-Israeli citizen who made a fortune through the privatization of Russia’s oil companies and is now reportedly the second-wealthiest man in Israel.
Representatives of several Israeli organizations and institutions, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer and Tel Aviv University, sent a letter asking U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides to refrain from sanctioning Abramovich for “his contribution to the Jewish people,” according to a weekend report on Israel’s Channel 12 television.
The letter earlier this month reportedly included the signature of Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, asserting that sanctioning Abramovich – who, in addition to his philanthropic donations, has business investments in Israel – would harm Jewish causes.
Last week, as 150,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border ahead of the invasion, Yad Vashem announced that Abramovich, 55, would be donating tens of millions of dollars to the Holocaust memorial. According to Yad Vashem’s announcement, the billionaire’s donation will go toward strengthening the institution’s research work, “at a time in which phenomena of distortion and denial of the Holocaust and political use of the Holocaust are worryingly on the rise throughout the world.”
His donation is set to fund the construction of a new building, along with a book to include the names of the 4.8 million people murdered in the Holocaust that are recorded in Yad Vashem’s database.
Abramovich has also been the subject of intense scrutiny in Britain, where he announced Saturday that he is handing over “stewardship” of the West London soccer club he owns, Chelsea, to its charitable foundation in a blind trust. That move came after a left-wing British lawmaker, Chris Bryant, called for Britain to sanction Abramovich – who also has a mansion in London – for alleged links to the Russian regime.
The oligarch has long denied any direct ties to Putin and Russia, and his attorneys told The Guardian newspaper last week that “it would be ludicrous to suggest that our client has any responsibility or influence over the behavior of the Russian state.”
Abramovich became an Israeli citizen in 2018, in the midst of a dispute over his British visa when tensions between London and Moscow were high following the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in Salisbury, southern England. The oligarch has a fortune estimated at between $12 billion and $13 billion, and owns several luxury properties in Israel.
In 2020, a spokesman for Abramovich told the BBC that the billionaire was committed to supporting civil society in Israel as well as the Jewish community, and over the past 20 years had contributed more than $500 million to health care and education in Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.
In 2019, Abramovich contributed $5 million to the Jewish Agency to help fight antisemitism across the globe – the largest donation the organization had ever received. At the time, the agency’s then-head, Isaac Herzog, said: “I applaud Roman Abramovich for taking the strong initiative to combat antisemitism and am grateful for his contribution to the Jewish Agency’s efforts to ensure Jews are safe in their communities.”
The following year, it was revealed that Abramovich had donated $102 million to the Elad organization – also known as the Ir David Foundation – which has been criticized for its efforts to strengthen the Jewish presence in Arab East Jerusalem.
Abramovich's daughter Sophia made headlines last week when she posted a critical message against Putin on her Instagram account. The post, which blamed Putin for the events in Ukraine and suggested that most Russians don't support him, was since taken down.
Another group of Russian billionaires – some of whom hold Israeli citizenship – who donate generously to Jewish and Israeli causes have already been hit by sanctions put in place against Russian banks.
Mikhail Fridman, a co-founder and trustee of the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Russian Jewish Congress, is the co-founder of Alfa Bank, which is the largest private bank in Russia, and he continues to sit on its board. Forbes listed him as the 11th richest man in Russia in 2020.
Fridman, and his partners German Khan and Petr Aven, established the Genesis Prize in 2012. Branded as the “Jewish Nobel,” it is awarded to high achievers “for their accomplishments and commitment to Jewish values.”
The Genesis Philanthropy Group gives to a long list of causes in Israel and across the Jewish world, including Yad Vashem, the Birthright-Taglit organization that provides free, 10-day trips to Israel for Diaspora Jews, Hillel international and Friends of the IDF.
Along with other private Russian banks, Alfa Bank has been publicly playing down the effect of U.S. and European sanctions thus far.