WITH FRIENDS LIKE THIS: Vladimir Putin, Israel, and the Jews.
PART ONE: Revival of Russian Jewry In Putin’s Russia.
By Paul Merkley.
Vladimir Putin: Successor to the Czars. –
Historically-knowledgeable commentators like to draw the analogy between Vladimir Putin, who apprenticed for his present office as President of Russia under several of the worst thugs of the Soviet regime, and the last Czars of the Russian Empire. There is much to be said for this. Putin’s atavistic-patriotic nostalgia for the Great Empire, so much of which had to be let go after the Communist revolution, surfaces in his fondness for ceremonial occasions held in the great palaces, garnished with fanfares and splendid music of the Tchaikovsky age.
There is, however, one feature of the Romanoff legacy that clearly holds no appeal for Vladimir Putin – and that is their profound and loudly expressed contempt for the Jews. Czars Alexander III (1881-1894) and Nicholas II (1894-1918) were patrons of the literary circle that invented the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903) and are rightly blamed by the historians for stirring up the public hysteria that caused the terrible pogroms that marked the last two decades of the czarist regime. The pace of pogroms reached a peak under Nicholas II (who was responsible for the long-remembered Kishinev pogrom, on Easter, April 6-7, 1903.
Significantly, it was this particular pogrom that caught the attention of the western governments (notably that of Theodore Roosevelt) and of the world press in a serious and consequential way. Nicholas’s conspicuous responsibility for the worst of the pogroms was a major item in the indictment against him and his regime as western opinion turned away from sympathy for the Czar when his troubles began in February 1917. The Czar’s own “solution” to the Jewish Question – less demonic perhaps that Hitler’s solution but equally intended to be Final — took the form of the May Laws that cruelly limited the space severely in which Jews were allowed to live, as well as the professions they might practice, and deliberately set about thinning out the ranks of their young people by enforced conscription into the armies.
For any Jew with a modicum of self-respect, emigration appeared to be the only escape. Between 1881 and 1914, some 50,000 or more Jews left every year to an estimated total of 2.5 million Jews. Jews today are understandably wary of the prospect that some of this spirit might come back to life as the cult of the Romanoffs takes hold and as other features of the Czarist age have regained respectability.
Vladimir Putin’s Philo-Semitism.
Unless the issue of Jews and their rights in Russia (or elsewhere) is on the short list of one’s continuing concerns, one is likely to have forgotten the situation of Jews in Russia in the decade before Putin came to power. Beginning in the 1970s, prominent American politicians began applying major economic and other pressures in order to persuade Russian authorities to accede to a general right of Jews to emigrate from Russia; this led to the exodus of about 2 million Jews from the former Soviet Union – a figure more-or-less equivalent to the numbers who emigrated to America (including Canada) in the last two decades of the Czarist regime — with most leaving for Israel, the United States and Canada. After the collapse of the Soviet system it was found that those who remained in Russia (some estimate up to 500,000) had experienced a sort of religious and cultural revival.
In strong contrast to the Romanoffs, Vladimir Putin has acquired during his fifteen years in power a reputation for philo-Judaism. Putin has cultivated the Jewish community of Russia and has actively sought approval of Jews in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, in the confidence that these Jews will assist his campaign to improve his image as a statesman, at a time when it s seems to be in freefall. In so publicly supporting Russian Jews and Judaism, Putin has risked backlash from the larger Russian community where centuries-old anti-Semitic attitudes still run deep.
Some who know Putin well claim that his philo-Judaism runs deeper than friendly disposition and is rooted in a quasi-mystical, quasi-theological-conviction that Russia’s centuries-old persecution of the Jews had exhausted the patience of God many years ago; the due-bill for this sinful behaviour had finally to be paid in the Soviet period as Russia lost the services of two million of the best-educated citizens of Russia just as its economy went into steep decline.
Furthermore, as a military man, Putin respects Israel for its courageous persistence against unappeasable enemies. As he must see it, these enemies have little to show for the several decades during which – under the spell of superstitious contempt for the only civilized nation in its midst — they have been spoiling opportunities for their own national growth and decent patriotism. A man like Putin can find much in the recent History of Russia and the History of Israel to support his vision of what makes nations strong and worthy of the admiration of others, while there is nothing in the story of the Palestinians that commands similar enthusiasm.
While Russia is a member of the Quartet, and is thus committed to the rhetoric and the diplomacy of seeking the Two-State solution, Putin refrains from the chorous of celebration of the heroic Palestinian virtue that is fed by our own left-wing romantics and he tries to exempt himself from public celebration of Mahmoud Abbas.
The last decade has seen the very large growth in numbers of Russians identifying themselves as Jews, attending synagogues and signing on to all the available expressions of Jewish belonging. Relations between Putin and the Jewish community are close and steadily improving. Under Putin, dozens of synagogues have been renovated with government support; Putin has made available funding for the building of Jewish communities centres around Russia and such projects as the enormous Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. He has set up a government agency that maintains contact with Russian expatriates, including those living in Israel.
The Role of Chabad in Jewish Renewal.
A striking common feature that we find in Russian reports on Jews and the State of Russia is that the interlocutor in Putin’s official dealings with the Jewish community almost always appears as a two-headed entity: on the platform and in the official photo we see President Vladimir Putin standing between two dignitaries, each identified in the official text somewhere, as “Chief Rabbi.” [See, eg., en.kremlin.ru/events president news 20775; “A Russian chief rabbi stands by his strongman, aka Putin,” JTA.org, June 4, 2015.] This distribution of official honors between the two major national Jewish organizations is meant to reflect an important fact – of particular interest, I suspect, to those who subscribe to this website – that the spectacular growth in numbers of those who have been won back to Judaism is attributable not primarily to the friendly outreach of the Russian authorities but to missionary efforts over the last decade or so among Russians.
In the forefront of this missionary story is Chabad (also referred to as Lubavitcvh, and Chabad-Lubavitch.) This is the inner-Judaic missionary movement that derives from the lifework of Rabbi Schneur Zalman (1775-1812) — that lifework in turn standing on mystical-intellectual teachings originating in Chassidic circles in Beloruss.
Chassidism is best understood as a revival movement, with its origins in the Eighteenth Century, and more-less resembling Methodism, but with an admixture of mysticism of the sort that in our tradition came – and then largely went – with Quakerism.
Since 1940, the world-headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch has been located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. From 1951, until his death in 1994, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe in the line that began with Zalman, led the movement while its numbers grew exponentially around the world – and especially in Israel. Some scholars insist that Lubavitch, all by itself, accounts for most of the growth in Jewish adherence and in the renewal of interest in Judaism among young people. Chabad represents the growth sector within Judaism today, just as Pentecostals and movements of Renewal do in the worldwide Church.
I propose that Christians are most likely to make sense of this movement and its success if they think of it as a counterpart within contemporary Judaism of “revival Christianity” – which, for practical purposes, coincides today with Pentecostalism and other “Renewal” or “Revival” movements. (The word “Evangelical has been so carelessly misused over the last decade, in academic literature and even more so in journalism, that it has lost the clarity it had when it was used to designate the surviving legacy of the great Revival Movements of the Nineteenth Century. For this reason, I prefer the use of the term “revival Christianity.”)
Forces analogous to “revival Christianity” have played important roles in the history of recent Judaism. They have in common with revival Christianity a rigorous respect for the authority of Scripture, disdain for modern theories of biblical interpretation and powerful concern for traditional morality, based on conviction that the best principles of social order are still those embodied in the Mosaic code.
Vladimir Putin’s alliance with Chabad is close and ongoing. Without doubt, he derives comfort and some presumed political capital from the enthusiastic support that has been given to his domestic policies – and even more significantly, his foreign policies –by leaders of Chabad. Chabad’s leaders have chastised Putin’s critics in Russia as well as Western politicians and leaders of opinion throughout the West who have denounced him for his loyalty to Assad of Syria, while, as Putin’s supporters see it, denying the full dimension of the threat that comes from Islamist movements. Similarly, in the view of Chabad’s leaders, western leaders who gang up on Putin for his alleged collusion in the separatist designs of Putin’s agents in Eastern Ukraine, are in denial about the manifestations of anti-Semitism in the ranks of Ukrainian politicians generally.
Alexsander Boroda, head of the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish communities of Russia, recently told a conference of Jewish leaders in Moscow:
In Russia, there is virtually unlimited freedom of religion and the Jewish community must ensure this situation continues. The support for religious institutions is wider than in the United States and defense of Jews against manifestations of anti-Semitism is greater than in other European countries. We do not have the privilege of losing what we have achieved and the support of the government for the community…. All Russian Jews and especially those considering action against the Putin administration, must understand the grave dangers that they take upon themselves and the potential consequences” of public criticism of Putin . [Jerusalem Post, April 26, 2015.]
Rabbi Berel Lazar, the man whom the Kremlin addresses as Chief Rabbi of Russia and who does indeed speak for the rapidly-growing Federation of Jewish communities of the CIS, calls Putin “Russia’s most pro-Jewish leader,” and credits him with “fighting anti-semitism more vigorously than any Russian leader before him.”
Accordingly, Chabad rabbis have to defend themselves daily against the accusation of being mouthpieces for the Kremlin propaganda line. [“Senior Russian rabbi: Putin ouster would endanger Jews,” Jerusalem Post, April 26, 2015; “A Russian chief rabbi stands by his strongman, aka Putin;” JTA.org, June 4, 2015.]
It is impossible to doubt that Putin is using to his own propaganda advantage the clear proofs of deep and vicious anti-Semitism showing up in the ranks of leaders of the secessionists of Eastern Ukraine. The Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer writes:
If you were relying only on Kremlin-financed media, such as the Russia Today news channel, and that group of journalists who are prepared to do anything to demonize the democratic governments of the West, even shill for Vladimir Putin, for your information of recent events in Ukraine, you would be convinced that a dark wave of anti-Semitism has smashed down on this country. According to the Russian media and those echoing it, the pro-European opposition, now the interim government in Kiev, is dominated by ultra-nationalist neo-Nazis who have already begun to embark on an orgy of pogroms. In some cases, this narrative has been picked up by Jewish figures, rabbis and community leaders, who have voiced their concern for the Jews of Ukraine, even calling for them to flee the country and urging Israel to send its security services in their assistance. These calls have been countered by other rabbis and leaders, loyal to the new government, who are insisting that there is no rise in anti-Semitism and the few acts of violence and vandalism that have taken place could well have been carried out by pro-Russian provocateurs intent on smearing the opposition that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. [Anshel Pfeffer, “Putin, a dangerous friend to the Jews,” Jerusalem Post, March 6, 2014. ]
In other words, all things are relative.
Shmuley Boteach, whom general media routinely introduce to us as “the most famous rabbi in America,” asks the question: “Is Putin a friend to the Jews who deserves support?”
There are many in the global Jewish community who support Putin because he is good to the Jews of Russia … There can be little doubt that he is. Ending the centuries old anti-Semitism which was endemic to Russia and claimed the lives of endless hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, in state-sponsored pogroms, Putin is the man principally responsible for the $50 million Jewish museum of Moscow, to which he also donated a month of his official salary … He has been extremely good to Chabad, giving them official state recognition. He also seems to be good to Israel, establishing strong diplomatic relations with a nation he says has a natural connection to Russia, given Israel’s million- strong Russian-speaking community. Should we Jews love this guy? Does it matter that he’s deeply immoral when we have so few friends as it is? (Jerusalem Post, March 17, 2014.)
A Painful Paradox.
Here we must acknowledge a painful paradox: it is that the most zealous of the Putin-contemners in the public eye today are also among the most vocal supporters of Israel. As a Canadian, I have, at the forefront of my mind, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
On the other side of this coin is the equally awkward fact that Vladimir Putin is among the most constant friends of the Jewish State – certainly more committed to the understanding that Israel has of the meaning of its own history than is the generality of European leaders and more ready to give Israel the benefit of the doubt as she pays from day to day the cost of defending her right to life, surrounded by enemies committed publicly to her annihilation, while simultaneously beset by nearly-universal criticism from intellectuals and policy-makers in our part of the world.
I will turn to this paradox in a subsequent essay.