When Vladimir Putin offers you a gift — you accept it.
That’s according to Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi, who said he had to accept Putin’s offer to move a contested Jewish library to a new Jewish museum in Moscow controlled by Chabad in Russia.
The Schneerson Library, a collection amassed by the early rabbinic leaders of the Chabad Hasidic movement, has been at the center of a decades-long legal battle between Chabad’s American leadership and the Russian government.
Putin’s decision to entrust the library to Chabad in Russia pitted the Hasidic movement’s representatives in New York against its brethren in Moscow, sparking a testy war of words earlier this year. But Lazar said he had no choice.
“The president didn’t ask us, he just told us” to accept the books, said Lazar, who is himself a Chabad rabbi. “Saying no to the Russian president, in general, is not something done in Russia.”
Lazar spoke about the library during a wide-ranging interview at the Forward’s New York offices on August 30, in which he also discussed the health of Russia’s Jewish community and defended Russia’s controversial new anti-gay law.
Although Lazar, who has close ties to the Kremlin and to Jewish oligarchs, is probably the most powerful religious Jewish figure in Russia, he is personable and unassuming. He arrived at the Forward offices without an entourage and interrupted the interview several times to take phone calls about his hat and coat, which he had left in a rented car, and to talk to his children in Yiddish.
His answers were straightforward. Mainly, he criticized America’s belief that legal and political pressure could force Russia to change. He said that Americans failed to understand Russian culture, society or the Russian soul.
Sometimes, the chief rabbi rejected Kremlin initiatives too. He dismissed Russia’s 2010 census, which reported just 156,00 Jews in Russia. He said the number is artificially low because census workers only asked people for their nationality. And many Jews and people with Jewish backgrounds, he said, answer simply “Russian.”
“We believe there are probably around a million” Jews in Russia, Lazar said, by which he meant people with a Jewish parent or grandparent.
He also scorned a recent Russian announcement of financial incentives to lure more Jews to the Jewish autonomous region, Birobidzhan.
Lazar said there are few opportunities for young people in Birobidzhan and the freezing climate is terrible. “We are going to support Jews there until the last one leaves and then shut the light,” Lazar said.
Lazar played down his links with the Kremlin. But there is little doubt that Chabad has been wildly successful in Russia and other former Soviet republics thanks to close ties with business and political elites.
On August 28, Lazar attended the opening of a new $4.5 million community center and synagogue in the center of Novosibirsk. The synagogue, which Lazar said was financed mostly by domestic donors, is the first ever to exist in the town.
“It is the pride of the Jewish community that even in Russia we are able to build such buildings,” Lazar said.
Moscow’s new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which opened in November, cost $50 million and was partly funded by oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin. Lazar said books from the Schneerson Library are being transferred to the museum each month. It will take about six months before the transfer is complete.
Putin’s proposal, made in February, was denounced by lawyers acting on behalf of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement, based in New York.
The Aguch, as it is known, maintains that the library, which was nationalized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, belongs to Chabad in America.
Two years ago, Royce Lamberth, a federal judge in Washington D.C., ruled that the collection had to be returned to Chabad. In retaliation, the Russian government instructed museums to stop lending artwork to their American counterparts in case they were seized by Chabad’s lawyers.
In January, Lamberth imposed a $50,000-per-day fine on Russia for each day it did not return the books. Russia’s Ministry of Culture and the Russian State Library retaliated by filing a lawsuit in a Moscow court against the Library of Congress.
The suit seeks the return of seven books from the Schneerson Library that it loaned to the Library of Congress during the mid-1990s.
The Aguch is also suing Russia for the return of the Schneerson Archive, a collection of books, manuscripts and handwritten documents of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, which was seized by the Nazis during World War II and then captured by the Red Army. Lazar said that Russian officials have suggested that the archive too might end up in the Moscow museum, but no decision has yet been reached.
Lazar said he would rather see the library and archive return to America, but for now, Chabad’s museum was the best option. Although his decision to accept the Schneerson Library has been unpopular among some Chabad rabbis in America, Lazar said that Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, chairman of the Aguch, advised him to accept the books and “was supportive of the idea.”
Lazar said that pressuring Russia would never succeed and that he has repeatedly advised the Aguch to drop its legal action. “As long as there is a lawsuit… Russia [is] never going to give back the books,” he said.
He had similar advice for the Anti-Defamation League, which recently called for Congressional action over Russia’s new anti-gay law.
In August, ADL national director Abraham Foxman called on Congress to pass legislation that would punish Russia for a recent bill passed that has been largely viewed as violating gay rights. Foxman suggested a law similar to the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials implicated in the death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.
But Lazar said legal and political pressure does not work with Russia. He pointed out that Russia retaliated against the Magnitsky law by making it illegal for Americans to adopt Russian children.
Apart from criticizing ADL’s tactics, Lazar appeared to support Russia’s controversial law, which bans “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships.” Lazar said the Jewish community did not want its children to see people “marching through the streets with the wrong message.”
Besides, Lazar said, street demonstrations are perceived more negatively in Russia than in America. “There is a different mentality, a different social understanding of what demonstrations are,” Lazar said.
“I think the American negative criticism against Russia is really because they don’t understand the soul of the Russian people,” he added.