Following the Russian full-scale, unprecedented invasion of Ukraine, many challenges have arisen. This involves threats to populations in Ukraine, in Europe, globally, as well as domestically in Russia. On top of launching a bloody military campaign, the Kremlin has also been tightening its grip on its own citizens to retain legitimacy during these times. As a result, minorities become in danger and, while little direct consequences have been seen since February, it is likely that threat levels will rise. One of the most dramatically affected groups throughout Russian Imperial
and Soviet history were the Russian Jews, who suffered from tremendous levels of discrimination, harassment by the state authorities, rights violations, and limited power as non-state actors. Modern Russia, on the other hand, has always been proud of its relationship with the Jewish community, with officials stating that there is no antisemitism within the state. Since the beginning of the invasion, Russia has exhibited some antisemitic tendencies at the governmental level, as well as some events that happened to Jewish social and religious institutions which have suffered. The rise at the moment is not significant. However, trends show an increase to a level that presents danger to the community. 1 This presents a very different picture, as community members become vulnerable in times of high uncertainty.
Russia's Jewish community is also prone to a big divide in the religious leadership. Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who led the Moscow Choral Synagogue (Russia's biggest and main synagogue) until summer 2022 could also be considered one of the most important and influential Russian Rabbis. He is a very well-known global figure and has many positions including the presidency of the Conference of European Rabbis. Chief Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, who was also the Chief Rabbi of the Soviet Union, is currently serving as one of the two Chief Rabbis in Russia, who worked closely with Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt. The second Chief Rabbi is Berel Lazar, from Chabad, who has been called "Putin's Rabbi", due to his alleged close ties with the authoritarian regime.2 In light of the distinction between these three very important figures, it seems that the community leadership's opinion might be fragmented on crucial issues.
Many scholars consider unity and effective leadership to be vital for community development.3 As the history of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union was quite traumatic for the Russian Jewry, ensuring community development, safety and freedom should be one of the main priorities for the leadership. However, if the leaders differ on their opinions towards key issues that deal with the domestic political situation and antisemitism, this puts the community at a detriment. In order to proceed with analysing this claim, it is important to provide context on antisemitism in Russia.
The phenomenon of rising antisemitism is not one that started directly with the invasion of Ukraine. Some organisations have closely monitored the situation of xenophobia towards Jewish people, including the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC). A 2018 report featured some incidents that were brought to the public light during that year. One primary incident was of scandalous late politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, who told a Jewish member of the Russian State Duma to leave Russia for Israel. Furthermore, another antisemite prominent in the public media, Maxim Shevchenko, has issued several xenophobic statements towards Jews.5 A particularly important moment occurred when a blog post from Igor Strelkov, the former defence minister of the People's Republic of Donetsk self-proclaimed state, surfaced on the web, undermining the memory of the Holocaust.6 This is significant due to recent attempts to annex and integrate Donetsk into Russia, as well as the rise of self-proclaimed leaders of the occupied territories frequently holding talks with Russian governmental figures. During the same year, the Moscow Choral Synagogue was subject to an inspection from the authorities, and the Kabbalah centre had legal issues.7 Vis-à-vis the civic levels of antisemitism, its presence on social media was deemed as high, while the number of legal verdicts against perpetrators of hate-crimes has dropped when compared to prior years.8 The rise of social media antisemitism has likely continued since its strong presence in 2022.9 On top of that, manifestations of antisemitism have also increased since the beginning of the war.
A good illustration of this systemic discrimination is the legal case that Russia built against the Jewish Agency's office in Moscow, blaming it for the data storage of Russian citizens. The growth of antisemitic rhetoric from the higher ranks of government officials is also a major concern. One such example includes Foreign Minister Lavrov claiming that Hitler "had Jewish Blood"10 when responding to the question of why Zelensky, as a Jew, supports Nazis in Ukraine? Then, a short time later, Alexey Pavlov, senior advisor to the Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolay Patrushev, made a statement wherein he called the Chabad Lubavitcher a religious sect that is responsible for the war in Ukraine.11 At the same time, the Jewish community finds itself in a concerning state, since many of the Russian-Jewish philanthropists and supporters have either left12 or are under sanctions13, including members of such organisations as the RJC, mentioned above.
However, Russia is known to have claimed that there is no place for antisemitism in the country and has prided itself on comparisons of domestic and foreign levels of antisemitism. For instance, in 2018, Valentina Matviyenko, Chairperson of the Federation Council, stated that antisemitism does not exist in Russia.14 Rabbi Alexander Boroda, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities, at whom we will look more closely later in this paper, explained that there is no antisemitism in Russia, while there is plenty in Europe.15 When the deputy head of the Russian Parliament, former news broadcaster Petr Tolstoi, was accused of having antisemitic views after saying that the Jewish population during the early Soviet years destroyed Russian Orthodox Churches and their descendants continue doing it at present times, he quickly released a public statement in defence of himself.16 The statement consisted of the following: "Only people with a sick imagination and without knowledge of the history of their country can see signs of antisemitism."17
This is not the only case of antisemitic conspiracies that have occurred since the start of the war, as is evident by Pavlov's and Lavrov's comments that were presented previously. Thus, it is clear that antisemitism is still a frequent phenomenon within Russia and, it would therefore be insightful to understand the reaction of community leaders, if their opinions are different, why, and the subsequent implications. In order to analyse the phenomenon further, it is important to understand whether the actual difference between opinions occurs among Jewish religious leadership. So, the main research question that will be analysed in this paper is: How do different wings of the Russian Jewish Community perceive the levels of civic and governmental antisemitism? The main wings will be organised by the two leaders of the Russian Jewish Community—Chief Rabbi Lazar and Chief Rabbi Shayevich, and Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt. Chief Rabbi Lazar is connected with the aforementioned Rabbi Boroda, and they were hosted together by Vladimir Putin on several occasions.18 The hypothesis that arises, considering the provided background information, is that the closer the community leaders are to the Russian authoritarian regime, the lesser their perception of antisemitism levels is. If differences are noted and deemed significant, it would be important to understand how they arise among the leadership of the same constituency.
The methodology chosen to explore the research question consists of two methods to provide a view from both sides of the Jewish community leaders—those connected with the Russian government and those who were not. The first one deals with the latter group and was done through semi-structured qualitative elite interviews with leaders of Jewish communities that were mentioned in the introductory section. The elite category is denoted by leaders who have a significant amount of influence over the religious communities. Relevant interviews were conducted with the following individuals:
- Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President, CER, Chief Rabbi of Moscow
- Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, former Chief Rabbi of the Moscow Choral Synagogue
Both interviews were conducted using the same guide with semi-structured, open-ended questions. The reasoning for this methodology stems from the idea that the leaders have the best insight on the situations and, like political leaders, they represent their communities, following a fairly common argument among the field of social sciences.19 This method has limitations that must be addressed. One is the possibility of bias from the leaders of the community. However, since we are looking for the communities' perception of governmental policies and opinions, bias should not be an issue. The data sample is also limited. However, since it only concerns the religious leadership of the Russian Jewish Community, it would make sense to look at the highest level of leadership possible. Each interview was recorded, transcribed, and translated to look for common themes among the participants' answers to the prompts. Participants gave their consent for their name to be shared and for them to be directly quoted.
The second part of the research was conducted on sects of the Jewish community related to the government, represented by two individuals: Berl Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR) and Kremlin and the chairman of the executive board of the same organisation, and Rabbi Alexander Boroda. This would juxtapose the opinions of people who are cited to be close to the Kremlin and those that are not within the same religious community. Their interviews and articles were taken online in order to compare the rhetoric used by people closer and further away from the government. This fulfilled the goal of getting data to compare the different wings of the Jewish community and determine whether there is a united front on issues. The reason why these individuals were not interviewed separately is because it was not possible to gather their contact information. However, while the methods do not match exactly, it is still possible to see how the leaders view the relationship between the current situation of antisemitism and political decisions taken by Russia.
Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt has been very vocal regarding the unprecedented Russian invasion of Ukraine and criticised the government from the beginning. This resulted in alleged pressure on him to express support for the war publicly, to the extent of which he had to flee the country. From his perspective, antisemitism is almost as vivid now as it was during the Soviet years: "As of today, antisemitism has returned as government policy in Russia. We are talking about since the beginning of the war, there has been a tremendous change in the political system. ... Any kind of dissent is or was repressed. ... Government is or was about to curtail the Jewish activities inside the county."20 When asked about the governmental role in antisemitism, with two examples of the aforementioned comments by Lavrov and Pavlov, Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt stated that the latter is definitely antisemitic. "Pavlov attacked Chabad as a sect, satanic group and one of the reasons for Russia's attack on Ukraine."21 When addressing a question on whether the words of the former should be considered antisemitic, his response was that "It is definitely not philosemitism. It goes into the fake narrative of arguing that the attack against Ukraine is justified. ... Judeo-nazi narrative was frequently used by the Soviet Union against Israel."22 Overall, according to Rabbi Goldschmidt, antisemitic conspiracies that are put forward by the Russian government are very vivid, and civil society reacts to it as a method to maintain domestic stability. "It is a sign from above that the government changed its policy. ... We assume that there are going to be more attacks, physical attacks as well as media and political attacks, against the Jewish community."23 Comparatively, he believes that the current governmental line is a regression to what previously occurred within the Soviet Union. "In many ways we are going back to the Soviet Model, people are calling Russia "Soviet Union lite" and antisemitism is part of it."24 Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt paints a picture of a very difficult life that the Jewish community will have if the situation escalates further, which holds in line with his prediction. "Political and economic situation will continue to destabilise. We can assume that there are going to be attempts to further curtail the possibility of Russian citizens to leave Russia."25 All of this leaves the impression that his perspective on the current political climate and situation within Russia is very negative as it pertains to the governmental relationship and the community. However, would other religious leaders agree?
One of two of Russia's Chief Rabbi's, Adolf Shayevich, has not seen a significant rise in antisemitism since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. "At the moment we do not feel anything of this sort, especially not in the synagogues. A lot less people are coming, as many have left. Nonetheless, everything still works and no one is interfering or putting any rules for us."26 However, he did mention that separate civic levels of occurrence have occurred since February. "There are cases of antisemitism, when drunk people come and maybe throw bottles at the synagogue, but these are cases of 'common' antisemitism, at least for now, thank God."27 The general attitude of Chief Rabbi Shayevich was that governmental antisemitism is not as present as it was during the Soviet Period. However, the 'common one,' as he referred to it, exists. Furthermore, Shayevich underlined that Alexey Pavlov's infamous comments were likely made due to ignorance rather than with malicious intent. "I don't think there was antisemitism behind Pavlov's words. It is just an uninformed person regarding religious questions. ... He probably just found an article against Chabad somewhere and tried to state his perspective without understanding the question further. However, without a clear malicious intent."28 Still, when the conversation shifted to Lavrov, Chief Rabbi Shayevich saw his statements as an attempt to justify Russian measures during the war. "It is very strange. This statement shocked us, as Mr. Lavrov never allowed himself any of such words. ... I don't know what caused him to say what he said. It's a very different situation, in order to sell the military action to come up with such things. ... After knowing him for many years, I never noticed that there was anything antisemitic. I think it was just to make an argument for the war."29 He also mentioned that this definitely affects the civic level of antisemitism. As people see more government officials issuing xenophobic statements, they pick up on it. "Of course, they warm up the feeling of antisemitism among the civic society. ... Unfortunately, I believe there might be quite a few high-ranking people with antisemitic views."30 In his prediction, Chief Rabbi Shayevich said, "A lot will depend on the situation, which has to be resolved somehow, as it leads to a development of certain and varying sentiments within the civil society and, we know by our history, that we are always blamed,"31 to underline the possible grievances that may be directed towards the Jewish community. While the views differ quite significantly, there can be different explanations as to why this occurs. Furthermore, it is possible that one of these interviews presents an outlier if the views within the media interviews done by other religious leaders resemble either of the two. Therefore, in order to understand whether there is unity among the Russian Jewish community, the same issues will need to be analysed by Jewish leaders closer to the government.
The second Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, holds even more reserved views on the majority of issues. During the very beginning of the Russian invasion to Ukraine, Chief Rabbi Lazar simply called to end violence for peace. "Therefore, I appeal to all religious leaders—in Ukraine, in Russia, in Europe and on other continents—to stand together for peace. We, who are faithful to G-d alone, must use our influence and all our capabilities to stop the madness, so that no more people will die. This is our holy duty to the One who created us all and gave us all life in this world."32 Rabbi Lazar's position and close proximity to the Kremlin perhaps does not allow him to state his opinion in full. In his view, he should stay far away from politics, as it is not what concerns him on the macro level. "This is why we keep quiet, because whatever we say can endanger the Jews of Russia and Ukraine. I can go out tomorrow morning and make a statement to the media and nothing will happen to me—I'm a Russian citizen, so I can't be deported—but why would I do that? Why is this story about us?"33 At the same time, he, unlike Chief Rabbis Goldschmidt and Shayevich, believes that antisemitism has almost disappeared in its entirety. "From 2000 until today, thank God, there has been a strong decline, and acts of antisemitism are almost unheard of."34 In many cases, Lazar has cited Putin's actions as what helped remove xenophobia from the masses. Furthermore, Rabbi Lazar believes that any involvement in the political life or public actions that would be deemed unfriendly by the Russian government is something detrimental to the security of the community. "And politics is definitely not our business," Lazar said to Interfax. "To leave the congregation because of politics is, in my opinion, for a rabbi just a betrayal. It means that for such a leader, the main thing is personal interest and not the interests of our people."35 When speaking about Lavrov's comments, Chief Rabbi Lazar again used very restrained language to avoid confrontation with the political elites. "I do not consider myself entitled to give advice to the head of Russian diplomacy. But, it would be nice if he apologised to the Jews and simply admitted that he was mistaken."36 Conversely, when addressing Pavlov's comments, he chose a much more definitive stance and concrete language, as it concerned Chabad itself. "You can call Mr. Pavlov's logic nonsensical or vulgar and superficial antisemitism, but this is a new variety of old blood libels. And if they are being uttered by a member of the Russian Security Council, this represents a great danger. Therefore, we demand an immediate and unequivocal response from society and from the country's authorities."37 Unlike Chief Rabbis Shayevich and Goldschmidt, Berel Lazar typically chooses to opt out for more discreet language and strongly differs in opinion from them, believing that there is little to no antisemitism in Russia at the moment, as well as that no governmental actions are antisemitic, with Pavlov's words being a notable exception. Once again, this shows that out of three main Russian Rabbis, the difference in opinions on antisemitism and domestic politics is quite distinguishable.
Lastly, this paper will analyse Rabbi Alexander Boroda, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, another Rabbi that is considered to be close to Putin. His proximity to Putin found itself in Ukraine's list that called other countries to put sanctions on him.38 When addressing the Russian invasion, Boroda made some very controversial remarks on numerous occasions. "It is hard to understand that in Ukraine, where there is a fairly large and largely prosperous Jewish community, there is a parallel glorification of criminals responsible for the deaths of these Jews' ancestors."39 Furthermore, he connected the Ukrainian population to nazi-supporters, going along with the Russian state-narrative. "In recent years, there has been a systematic glorification of Nazi criminals, torchlight marches and the like,"; "bewilderment at the fact that neo-Nazism was actively asserting itself in a country like Ukraine."40 At the same time, Boroda does not believe that there is any growth of antisemitism in Russia. "I must say that Russia is a pleasant exception, there is no rise in antisemitism in Russia, neither at the domestic level, nor at the level of any organisations, much less at the state level."41 The only case in which he believes antisemitism is on the rise falls in reference to statements issued publicly by Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt. "Goldschmidt's actions impacted the growth of antisemitism—a rabbi who fled Russia and started to smear the Jewish community, which made a bad impression. However, it didn't put us under pressure."42 When addressing the situation with FM Lavrov, Boroda's language was even more restrained than Chief Rabbi Lazar's. "It seems to us necessary to call for an end to the appeal to the national origins of opponents. And also, with references to the history of World War II, which requires proper reverence and piety, because the echoes of those events are still an open wound for the people of the world."43 However, Lazar, when addressing Pavlov's comments, condemned the advisor's words. "Such statements create a reason for enmity between people. The broadcasting of this opinion in the media contributes to inter-confessional conflicts and real discord between people."44 This narrative is also different from the three presented above on key issues, indicating that the leadership among the Russian Jewish community lacks consensus and unity. But what does this all mean?
Despite the need for a united front on several issues, it seems that the Russian Jewish community lacks one. This poses a challenge for the minority as it seems that in times of uncertainty, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, it is under duress. Without having unity in opinions, leadership is in a fractured state. Such fissures can be denoted by some groups of Jews leaving Russia, while another divergent group takes a pro-governmental position, leaving community members vulnerable towards antisemitism. Due to the aforementioned uncertainty shown by the interviews conducted in this paper, Jews could once again become scapegoats in Russia.
Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt argues that Jews should leave Russia en masse to flee the authoritarian regime and the implications that this holds for the future of community life, as antisemitism is resurfacing as part of government policy. We can see that many are indeed following Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt's recommendations, as immigration from Russia to Israel is at the highest point it has been in years with roughly 38,000 new immigrants.45 Others decide to stay in Russia, where the community still functions. Chief Rabbi Shayevich, on the other hand, is very aware of the destabilising political situation and rising uncertainty, believing that this could lead to Jews becoming scapegoats as part of conspiracy theories. Chief Rabbi Lazar states that the situation is stable and antisemitism is visible only on a very limited scale. Rabbi Boroda, the executive chairman, offers public support for Putin's atrocities in Ukraine and states that antisemitism is absent within Russia.
This difference in opinion on important issues leaves the Russian Jewish people within a community without effective leadership, making it more difficult to create a prosperous life. Furthermore, this damages the dynamics of potential advocacy that the community could be doing if it was united. As a non-state actor, the Russian Jewish Community already has little power to act within the realm of the country's political life and the current state of leadership—the current factionalisation only works for the detriment of the community. This paper has depicted the state of affairs within the Russian Jewish Community. The next steps are to increase the sample of interviews, including but not limited to Chief Rabbi Lazar and Rabbi Boroda, to improve the quantity of data and juxtapose responses on the same questions. Additionally, it would be useful to analyze other minority communities in Russia, and around the world, to understand the real effects of fragmented leadership on the prosperity of discriminated communities.
About the Author
Petr Pesov is a second-year MAIA student at SAIS Europe with a focus on security and strategy, as part of a cooperative degree between Johns Hopkins University and Tel-Aviv University. (TAU). Additionally, to SAIS, Petr recently became a PhD candidate in Conflict Resolution at TAU. His research interests include intergroup conflicts, security, nationalism, narratives.Footnotes
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