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Russia and Ukraine at war — among the Jews anyway

(JTA) — The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has pitted Jewish leaders from both countries against each other, touching off a discordant exchange between prominent rabbis on opposite sides of the border.

The discord had been brewing since the onset of the protests in Ukraine in November, but it turned public earlier this month after Russia deployed its military in Crimea in response to what President Vladimir Putin claimed was a “rampage” of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups.

Putin’s claim sparked angry reactions from Ukrainian Jewish leaders, many of whom said it was a false justification for aggressive Russian actions that were more dangerous to Jews than any homegrown nationalism.

On Monday, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, hit back, urging Ukrainian Jews to stay silent on matters of geopolitics and reiterating concerns about anti-Semitism in the post-revolutionary government — concerns that he further suggested Ukrainian Jews were too afraid to voice for themselves.

“The Jewish community should not be the one sending messages to President Barack Obama about his policy or to President Putin or to any other leader. I think it’s the wrong attitude,” Lazar told JTA.

The revolution in Ukraine, a country with bitter memories of Soviet domination but also a large population of Russian speakers, erupted last fall after President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Svoboda, an ultranationalist political party that Ukrainian Jewish leaders consider both anti-Semitic and dangerous, played a prominent role in the uprising that eventually ousted Yanukovych from office last month.

Amid the revolutionary turmoil, several anti-Semitic incidents occurred, including the stabbing of a religious Jew in Kiev; several street beatings of Jews; the attempted torching of a synagogue and, at another synagogue, the spray-painting of swastikas and “Death to the Jews.”

At a March 4 news conference in Moscow, Putin said Russia’s “biggest concern” was “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine,” warning that Russia would make further incursions if minorities were endangered.

In response, Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, or Vaad, and 20 other leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community sent Putin an open letter in which they disputed the existence of unusual levels of anti-Semitism in post-revolutionary Ukraine and accused Russia of threatening the security of Ukrainians.

“Your policy of inciting separatism and crude pressure placed on Ukraine threatens us and all Ukrainian people,” the letter said.

On Wednesday, Vaad placed the letter as a full-page ad in The New York Times and several other newspapers.

To Lazar, a senior Chabad rabbi who spoke to JTA this week at the biannual conference of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe in Budapest, the Vaad letter was a case of Jewish leaders involving themselves in issues that don’t directly concern the Jewish community.

It was a sharper version of previous calls for Jewish silence on the Ukraine crisis, including a March 17 statement co-signed by Lazar and 47 other Russian and Ukrainian rabbis, many of them affiliated with Chabad.

“Religious and community leaders should stay out of the political sphere,” the letter said. “Do not forget: Any thoughtless word can lead to dangerous consequences for many.”

But several Ukrainian Jewish leaders said that by using anti-Semitism to justify his actions, Putin had left them no choice but to speak out.

“We were not the ones who brought the Jews into the debate to make it a Jewish question,” said Yaakov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis. “Putin did it by his cynical abuse of anti-Semitism as a justification for his actions.”

Meylakh Sheykhet, Ukraine director for the American Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, told JTA, “Jewish principles of justice and truth [compelled Jewish] Ukrainians to fight lies, falsifications, radical pro-Russian propaganda orchestrated by Putin.” Had Ukrainian Jews said nothing, Sheykhet said, “It would resonate as supporting Putin, and Jews would be seen as a fifth column in Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s interim government has a Jewish vice prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, but also three Svoboda ministers. One of them, Environment Minister Andriy Mokhnyk, in an interview last year accused Jews of destroying Ukrainian independence. Mokhnyk also defended party members’ insistence on using the word “zhyd” as the standard Ukrainian-language designation for Jews, despite complaints by Ukrainian Jewish leaders that the term is derogatory.

“This party, Svoboda, they are part of the government,” Lazar told JTA. “So you have ministers who are open anti-Semites, which are part of this interim government. This is a concern.”

Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Vaad spokesman and the organization’s researcher on anti-Semitism, said ultranationalists have little power in the interim government. The revolution, he added, has not resulted in a substantial increase in anti-Semitic attacks. Likhachev also suggested, as have other Jewish leaders in Ukraine, that some of the attacks may have been pro-Russian provocations, a suggestion brushed aside by Lazar.

“No one knows for sure,” Lazar said. “But in the last 15 years, I’ve never seen in Russia anything similar. And sadly, in Ukraine, and in certain parts of Ukraine especially, there is a history of anti-Semitism.”

Lazar is considered very close to Putin, leading the Russian president on a tour of the Western Wall in 2012 and attending receptions at the Kremlin, including an event on March 18 at which the formal process of annexing Crimea was begun. Several Ukrainian Jewish leaders dismissed Lazar’s statements as coming from a Kremlin mouthpiece.

“When Lazar speaks, it is as a person holding an official position, that of a religious leader in contemporary Russia. And as such, it is impossible for him or any other person in his position to express views that do not align with the Kremlin’s official line and propaganda,” Likhachev said.

Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, one of the main Ukrainian figures in Lazar’s own Chabad movement, declined to sign the March 17 letter. He suggested the difference between the Ukrainian and Russian leadership owes something to the varying goals of those countries’ respective Jewish communities.

“Rabbi Lazar takes very good care of Russian Jews,” Kamenetsky said. “What he says corresponds with their goals. His excellent ties with the government are very beneficial to Russian Jewry and to Jews in remote places who, thanks to those ties, are protected.”

Ukrainian Jews, Kamenetsky said, “want something different. We want a free, united and European Ukraine.”

Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for Lazar, told JTA that Lazar’s attendance at the March 18 event was ceremonial and did not imply the rabbi had any position on Russia-Ukraine relations.