One of Russia’s largest national Jewish organizations distanced itself from one of its former leaders over the weekend, after telling state television that he supported his country’s invasion of Ukraine.
In an interview that aired on Saturday with 360, a Moscow-area network founded by the government, Rabbi Shlomo Zlotsky, compared Ukrainian forces to Palestinian terrorists, claiming that both use human shields by locating “military units inside hospitals, maternity hospitals.”
Zlotsky, who was identified as the First Vice-President of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia (KEROOR), also intimated that just as Israel is subjected to a “constant rigging of facts” to make it appear as an aggressor, so is Russia.
“One of the arguments I gave, voiced by [President Vladimir Putin], is that the operation was initiated because of the genocide that the Ukrainian side arranged in Donbas,” he said, repeating Kremlin propaganda alleging the mass murder of Russian-speakers in two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
“I received a huge number of calls from people. They just didn't know about this fact. People in the world don't know about it. Why don't they know about it? In Israel, the vast majority of society does not know about the facts at all,” he said, indicating that he believed Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine to be the right one.
“The decision was made by a responsible person who showed himself as a tolerant person, a person who respects all peoples. We have never seen any attacks on any nations from him. And it is obvious that this is a difficult decision,” the rabbi declared.
In response, KEROOR issued a statement on its Facebook page declaring that Zlotsky “has not been a full-time employee of KEROOR, is not the Vice President of KEROOR and is not authorized to make any statements on behalf of KEROOR for many years.”
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Reacting with shock, a community source told Haaretz on Monday that Zlotsky’s behavior was “something unexpected,” speculating that the rabbi had been placed under pressure by the Kremlin.
Keroor is an umbrella group representing Jewish communities across the country and the primary Orthodox rival of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which is run by Berel Lazar, a member of the Chabad Hasidic movement recognized as Chief Rabbi by the Kremlin.
Last month, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Haaretz that the Russian government has leaned on leaders of the country’s Jewish community to publicly endorse the Ukraine invasion and has repeatedly threatened to retaliate against those who do not comply with such directives.
One Jewish community source – who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the fear of Kremlin reprisals – said he felt as if his country had gone “back to Soviet times.”
The same source described “pressure on community leaders, including threats to shut down Jewish institutions, if no statements are made in favor of the invasion.” A second source with knowledge of the Kremlin's conversations with Jewish leaders confirmed the threats.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, several community leaders and institutions have made statements that could be interpreted as either being explicitly or implicitly supportive of President Vladimir Putin’s stated goal “to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine.”
While cautioning that “many Ukrainians have always opposed nationalist ideas,” Rabbi Alexander Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, told news agency Interfax last month that Jews worldwide “condemned the surge of neo-Nazism” in Ukraine.
Putin has long used allegations of Nazism to legitimize his actions against Ukraine. In 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, he claimed that his actions were motivated by concerns over an alleged “rampage” of reactionary, nationalistic and antisemitic forces across the country.
A senior community official, who also spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity, said that rather than directly demand statements in support of the war, government-controlled news outlets have reached out to ask community figures, such as Boroda, to comment on the conflict.
Statements that do not conform with the Kremlin’s official line are discarded and only interviews that serve the regime’s purposes are published, the community official explained.
One prominent rabbi who put out a less supportive statement of the war effort was Berel Lazar, who, despite being close to the Kremlin, asserted that “our duty to God is to strive with all our might for mutual understanding, for mutual respect and in no case raise a sword against our brother.”