Russia Said To Relent on Bid To Banish Top Moscow Rabbi

By Nathaniel Popper, With Reporting by Ha’aretz.

Published December 02, 2005, issue of December 02, 2005.
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After a massive campaign launched by American Jewish organizations and at least three foreign governments, the Russian government appears to be relenting in its effort to block a leading rabbi from returning to the country.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who has been the chief rabbi of Moscow’s main synagogue for 15 years, was turned back at the Moscow airport when he returned from a trip to Israel in late September. The Russian interior ministry later told Goldschmidt that he was not allowed into Russia because of a law regarding threats to national security.

This week, however, the Russian embassy told the U.S. State Department that Goldschmidt had been removed from the list of persons barred from entry, according to the head of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. The Russian embassy in Washington told the Forward that Goldschmidt was denied entry only because of a visa problem. The embassy said he would receive a new visa if he applied for one.

“If he comes to the consular section with the properly made invitation, he will get his visa,” said Russian embassy spokesman Yevgeniy Khorishko.

Goldschmidt’s case has caught the attention of the international community because it comes at a time when the Russian government is moving to crack down on foreign workers and nongovernmental organizations. Goldschmidt is a Swiss citizen.

In an apparently unrelated development, Arkady Gaidamak, the wealthy president of the Jewish organization that Goldschmidt runs, was detained in Israel on Monday and not allowed to return to Russia. Gaidamak was taken in by police Monday morning and questioned about a massive money-laundering scheme that had been uncovered earlier this year. Gaidamak had announced Sunday that he was founding a new right-wing Israeli political party.

Earlier this year, Soviet-born financier Gaidamak became the major philanthropic supporter of Russia’s Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations, a multidenominational Jewish group founded by Goldschmidt.

In attempting to explain Goldschmidt’s troubles at the border, several observers inside Russia have pointed to conflicts that Goldschmidt had within the Russian Jewish community rather than to any agenda of the Russian government.

“All the information put together tells us that this is from internal disputes within his own organizations,” said Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS. The federation is a Chabad-Lubavitch-led Jewish organization in the former Soviet republics.

Goldschmidt has long been affiliated with the Russian Jewish Congress, a national umbrella organization that has been stuck in a prolonged conflict with the Chabad-led federation. Both have vied for influence as Jewish life in Russia has experienced a revival following the fall of communism.

More recently, however, Goldschmidt has been caught in a dispute with the leader of the Russian Jewish Congress, millionaire Vladimir Slutsker, who is also a member of the upper house of Russia’s parliament. When reached in Italy, Goldschmidt said the dispute came about after Slutsker reneged on a promise to help support a building owned by the Moscow Jewish community, where the Russian Jewish Congress had its headquarters. Goldschmidt actually took his fateful final trip to Israel to meet with a rabbinic court that was mediating the conflict. Slutsker did not appear before the court, and when Goldschmidt attempted to return to Russia he was barred entry.

Slutsker has denied any involvement. He was ousted as president of the Russian Jewish Congress two weeks ago. Goldschmidt said that Slutsker never had contacted him about his plight but that the new president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Vyacheslav “Moshe” Cantor, had contacted him.

“I believe that the current leadership of the Russian Jewish Congress is trying to resolve the problem,” said Goldschmidt, who has spent the last several months in Israel while his family is back in Moscow. Goldschmidt was in Italy this week for a meeting of European rabbis.

He said that the Chabad-led federation, which has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, had not helped him. But Berkowitz, at the federation, said that Goldschmidt had declined the organization’s offer of help.

Among the parties that joined the fight for Goldschmidt were the U.S. Department of State, the National Security Council, the Israeli government, the Swiss government, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the U.S.-based National Conference on Soviet Jewry .

While Berkowitz and representatives of other Jewish organizations in Russia have said that Goldschmidt’s plight can be explained entirely by internal Jewish politics, American Jewish organizations have been more prone to see the hand of the Russian government.

“At a time when Western organizations are held in more suspicion by the Russian government, here are problems for a prominent personality with a Western passport,” said Mark Levin, head of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Last week, on November 23, the lower house of the Russian parliament approved legislation that would force nongovernmental organizations from other countries to register with the government and restrict foreign workers entering the country to work for NGOs. While the legislation still has to pass two more votes before becoming law, American Jewish organizations are already expressing concern.

“Our community gives a lot of support to Russian Jewry,” said Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress-Council for World Jewry. The organization works closely with the Chabad-led federation. “If it becomes more difficult for them to operate, people there will not be able to get the kind of support we’ve been providing them.”

The new legislation would likely apply to one of the most prominent American organizations working in Russia, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which helps feed thousands of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Inside Russia, Jewish organizations are expressing more sanguine views toward the proposed legislation. A top official at the Russian Jewish Congress, Yevgeny Satanovsky, said that the law actually could help the Russian Jewish community.

“The law will stimulate us to develop our own rabbinical faculties,” Satanovsky said. “That’s very important. The country with the great Diaspora cannot be based on rabbis who are not local.”

Berkowitz said that his organization’s lawyers had reviewed the legislation and found nothing that would affect Jewish organizations.

In a separate matter, Berkowitz’s federation found itself being criticized last week after the federation’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, met with two nationalist Russian politicians who have expressed antisemitic sentiments in the past.

On November 22, Lazar met with Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Dmitri Rogozin, who head up two nationalist parties. Rogozin’s party has many members who signed a petition earlier this year, urging that Jews be expelled from Russia. In the past, Zhirinovsky has accused Jews of a host of evils, though four years ago he acknowledged that his own father was Jewish.

The meeting drew an angry response from the Israeli foreign ministry, which has banned contact with both men and their parties.

“Through these meetings, the chief rabbi confers legitimacy on people and parties known for clearly antisemitic positions,” an Israeli foreign ministry official said.

But Berkowitz defended the meeting, which took place in Lazar’s office at Chabad’s main synagogue in Moscow. He said that the nationalist leaders had asked for a meeting with Lazar and that Lazar had accepted because he thought it would send a message to the leaders’ antisemitic followers.

“Rabbi Lazar felt that for them to come to him — and that many people will see that — they are in a sense recognizing the rabbi,” Berkowitz said. “Rabbi Lazar has said if someone has a problem with the Jewish people, let them come meet him.”

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