Putin’s Jewish embrace: Love, or strategy?by cnaan liphshiz & talia lavin, jta
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Russian police had to pass security checks to enter the Sochi Winter Olympics, but Rabbi Berel Lazar was waved in without ever showing his ID.
Lazar, a Chabad-affiliated chief rabbi of Russia, was invited to the opening ceremony of the games last month by President Vladimir Putin’s office. But since the event was on Shabbat, Lazar initially declined. So Putin ordered his staff to prepare an alternative entrance and security-free route just for the rabbi, according to one of Lazar’s top associates, Rabbi Boruch Gorin.
To him, the Sochi anecdote illustrates Putin’s positive attitude toward Russian Jewry — an attitude Gorin says is sincere, unprecedented in Russian history and hugely beneficial for Jewish life in the country.
Others, however, see more cynical motives behind Putin’s embrace of Russian Jewry.
“Putin has been facing international criticism for a long time now over human rights issues,” said Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli Knesset member who was born in the Soviet Union. “He needs a shield, and that’s the Jews. His warm relations with Russia’s so-called official Jews are instrumental.”
In recent weeks, Putin has positioned himself as a defender of Jews as part of his effort to discredit the revolution that ousted his ally, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. During a March 4 news conference, Putin called the anti-Yanukovych protesters “reactionary, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces.”
Few would dispute that Putin has been friendly to Jewish institutional life in Russia, especially to the Chabad Hassidic movement.
Gorin, a Chabad rabbi and chairman of Moscow’s $50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, credits Putin personally for providing state funding for the institution, which opened in 2012.
“Putin has facilitated the opening of synagogues and Jewish community centers across Russia, at the Jewish community’s request,” Gorin said. “His friendship with the Jewish community has given it much prestige and set the tone for local leaders.”
Putin’s relationship with the Jewish community is consistent with his larger strategy for governing Russia. His brand of Russian nationalism involves cultivating relationships with Russia’s many subgroups and regions as a means of projecting his government’s authority.
Mikhail Chlenov, secretary-general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, says Putin’s pro-Jewish tendencies are part of the reason that anti-Semitic incidents are relatively rare in Russia. In 2013, the Russian Jewish Congress documented only 10 anti-Jewish attacks and acts of vandalism, compared with dozens in France.
Under Putin, harsh laws have led to a crackdown on ultranationalist groups that once flourished in Russia. At the same time, anti-extremism legislation also has been used to prosecute political protesters, including the punk rock collective Pussy Riot.
“Putin may be good for Jews, but he’s bad for Russia,” said Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and a journalist for the L’chaim Jewish newspaper.
Putin traces his earliest connection to Judaism back to his childhood in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, when he befriended a Jewish family who lived in his apartment block.
“They were observant Jews who did not work on Saturdays, and the man would study the Bible and Talmud all day long,” Putin wrote in his 2000 autobiography. “Once I even asked him what he was muttering. He explained to me what this book was and I was immediately interested.”
Another influential Jewish figure for Putin was his wrestling coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, who sparked the boy’s interest in sports and got him off the streets, where the young Putin would often get into fights.
Bronfman calls Putin’s childhood accounts “a smokescreen” and likens them to the Russian leader’s friendly gestures toward Israel, which he last visited in 2012.
Putin, who led Russia to sign a visa waiver program with Israel in 2008, said during his visit that he “would not let a million Russians live under threat,” referring sympathetically to the regional dangers facing Israel and its Russian-speaking immigrant population. But at the same time, Russia has criticized European sanctions on Iran, a major Russian trading partner, and negotiated the sale of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Syria.
“It’s all pragmatic with Putin,” Bronfman said. “He says he regards the million Russian speakers living in Israel as a bridge connecting Russia to Israel, but when it comes to Russian interests in Syria or Iran, this friendship counts for very little.”
Zvi Gitelman, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, said the relationship between Putin and the Chabad organization in Russia is one of mutual convenience.
Shortly after taking office, the Putin government clashed with several prominent Jewish business moguls, including Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, both of whom went into self-imposed exile.
“When he went after these oligarchs, Putin sensed that this could be interpreted as anti-Semitism,” Gitelman said. “He immediately, publicly, demonstratively and dramatically embraced Chabad.”
Chabad, meanwhile, has expanded throughout Russia.
“Chabad, with the help of Putin, is now the dominant religious expression of Judaism in a mostly nonreligious population,” Gitelman said.
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