Rival Russian Jewish Leaders Lend Backing to Putin

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Russia’s arrest of a Jewish oil magnate has drawn heavy criticism from abroad, but the feuding leaders of the country’s two major Jewish organizations are both voicing support for the government action.

In a rare moment of agreement between bitter rivals, Berel Lazar, chief rabbi for the Chabad-Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Russian Jews, and Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, both defended the arrest of business tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose father is Jewish. Indeed, while some foreign observers have detected whiffs of antisemitism in the prosecution of Khodorkovsky, the two Russian Jewish leaders said that his arrest might actually be a step forward in the battle against anti-Jewish bigotry.

In interviews with the Forward, Lazar and Satanovsky said that Khodorkovsky had been trying to gain too much power in the political arena, criticizing, in particular, his support of Russia’s Communist Party, which contains strong strains of Soviet-era antisemitism.

“The future of the country shouldn’t be in the hands of one man who has money,” Lazar said. “[Khodorkovsky] supported the Communist Party, and that is not for the best of the country.”

Satanovsky told the Forward that Khodorkovsky’s “activity was destructive for the country. And there were too many personal ambitions.”

Both Lazar and Satanovsky, however, were careful to add that Khodorkovsky’s case would have been better handled without his dramatic arrest on a Siberian airport tarmac. Since his October 25 arrest, Khodorkovsky, the former chairman of Yukos Oil, has been in jail on charges of theft and tax evasion.

The arrest has been criticized abroad by many media outlets in the West. Many see it as a ploy by Russian President Vladimir Putin to quash a political foe. It also caused turmoil in the Russian economy and led to the October 30 resignation of Putin’s chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin.

Several officials at American Jewish groups who monitor Russian affairs speculated that the words for the government represented an effort on the part of both Jewish communal leaders to strengthen their relationships with Putin.

Lazar’s federation and Satanovsky’s congress have been fighting a long battle for recognition as the central body representing Russian Jewry. Lazar’s federation boasts a larger number of member congregations, most of them Orthodox. But Satanovsky has said that his congress should be the official representative because of its commitment to religious pluralism.

The rivalry has been particularly intense since 2001, when the Kremlin officially recognized Lazar as the religious leader of the Russian Jewish community, pushing aside the congress’s Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, who until then had occupied the post.

In discussing the Khodorkovsky affair, the two leaders did not miss an opportunity to continue this old fight.

Satanovsky said that Lazar’s vocal endorsement of the Kremlin’s actions was aimed at cultivating a “role as the special Jew” for Putin in order to strengthen the position of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He claimed that Lazar’s strain of chasidic Judaism was a dangerous “new religion” built around the worship of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the deceased Brooklyn rebbe who is considered the messiah by some Lubavitcher chasidim.

For his part, Lazar said that reconciliation with the congress is not easy: “Satanovsky has claimed he is ready to come closer to us, but we have seen only words, no actions.”

Despite their differences they agreed on the fundamental issues at stake in Khodorkovsky’s arrest.

Both men said that while they could not say whether Khodorkovsky was guilty of the charges leveled at him by prosecutors, his work in the political realm had made him a clear and present danger to the functioning of the Russian state.

Khodorkovsky had given major donations to two smaller parties that stand in opposition to Putin’s United Russia party. But it was Khodorkovsky’s support for the Communist Party, which has run a close second to Putin’s party in recent opinion polls, that made Lazar and Satanovsky nervous.

“The danger of a Communist putsch in our country was a reality,” Satanovsky said. “Khodorkovsky had thought he could control the Communists; he is not the first to make this mistake.”

The Communist Party in Russia, Satanovsky and Lazar noted, has a number of high-ranking officials who are notoriously antisemitic.

Khodorkovsky’s father is Jewish, and while he has not been publicly involved with the Jewish community, some have suggested that he is being persecuted because of his ancestry.

Lazar dismissed this notion out of hand: “Khodorkovsky himself said that antisemitism was not the issue in his persecution. We should not cry wolf.”

Foreign observers have been less quick to dismiss the possibility that antisemitism lurks behind Khodorkovsky’s arrest, noting that he is just the latest of several Jewish moguls — or oligarchs, as they are called — who have been the targets of Russian prosecutors.

Speaking about the crackdown on the oligarchs, a leading rabbi in Ukraine, who asked to remain anonymous, updated Elie Wiesel’s old adage, saying that “Not all Jews are victims, but all the victims are Jews.”

“In every case the prosecution has been focused on the Jewish oligarchs,” said Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, an American-based activist group that works on human rights issues in the former Soviet Union. “There are plenty of billionaire oligarchs that seem to have done all right.”

Lazar and Satanovsky’s unwillingness to entertain the notion that antisemitism is behind the prosecution of Khodorkovsky may have something to do with memories of the much harsher and more overt state-sponsored antisemitism in the Soviet Union, Naftalin said.

Their less skeptical attitude toward the Kremlin’s motives can also be read as part of the larger split between the opinion of Russians and many foreigners on Khodorkovsky’s case. In a recent poll, only 13% of Russians disapproved of the arrest, a statistic that many observers attributed to the general antipathy in Russia toward the wealthy.

But many observers said that Lazar and Satanovsky’s support for Putin stems from more than just a skepticism of Khodorkovsky’s wealth.

“This is the only way for either of them to survive,” the editor of a Russian-Jewish newspaper said on condition of anonymity, “to show they are necessary in the corridors of power.”

The balance of power in these corridors is especially tenuous now. Voloshin, the erstwhile chief of staff, was widely viewed as the most important Kremlin backer of the alliance with Lazar’s federation. Now that he is gone, there seems to be an opportunity for a shift in the dynamics of Jewish power in Russia.

Lazar, however, insists he is unconcerned.

“It’s no secret that I have a very good relationship with the president,” Lazar said. “The relationship has nothing to do with Voloshin, and his resignation does not concern me.”

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