The American Jewish Congress, a group known for its historic role at the cutting edge of liberal Jewish activism, signed a strategic agreement this week with a Russian Jewish organization that has close ties to the Kremlin and that is dominated by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement.
The agreement, pledging to fight “religious and ethnic bigotry,” was signed Tuesday at a ceremony in Moscow by the chairman of the American Jewish Congress’s Council on World Jewry, Jack Rosen, and by the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union, billionaire diamond dealer Lev Leviev.
At a time when American officials have begun criticizing Russia openly for recent rollbacks in democratic structures, the accord is raising some eyebrows because of the close links between Leviev’s federation and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Under Rosen, who became president of its newly formed Council for World Jewry in 2002, AJCongress has developed a reputation for jumping into controversial international situations. Two years ago, AJCongress signed a pact with a small French Jewish group known for its combative stance against antisemitism in that country. The move initially caused anger in France’s main Jewish representative body, which accused the American group of aggravating local conflicts and insulting the French government.
In Russia, by contrast, AJCongress has allied itself with a Jewish group known for its close ties with a government often criticized for anti-democratic tendencies. Rosen said that in both countries his group had a single goal — putting the protection of local Jewish communities above politics. “I’m willing to compartmentalize issues that impact Jewish communities, and separate religious issues from political and social-service issues,” Rosen told the Forward this week.
In Russia, the entry of foreign groups into local Jewish affairs is complicated by a history of feuding between Leviev’s Hasidic-led Federation of Jewish Communities, and the Russian Jewish Congress, an older group that includes Reform,
Modern Orthodox and secular components. The two groups have competed to be seen as the main representative body of Russian Jewry, even appointing competing chief rabbis. The acrimony has cooled down since last November, when a new leader took over at the Russian Jewish Congress.
The AJCongress decision to sign an agreement with the federation appears to indicate the dominant position of the Hasidic-led group as the dust has settled. The new leader of the Russian Jewish Congress, Vladimir Slutsker, congratulated the federation and AJCongress on signing their agreement Tuesday.
Rosen said the agreement does not preclude his organization’s working with the Russian Jewish Congress. But the agreement acknowledges the Hasidic-led federation as the representative of Russian Jewry.
The vaguely worded memorandum, signed in the presence of Jewish community leaders from 15 former Soviet republics, deals primarily with cooperation between the two groups in fighting antisemitism in the former Soviet Union. “It’s about two Jewish groups uniting to fight forces of evil,” said Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the federation.
Fears of resurgent antisemitism have been acute in recent weeks, particularly after a group of 20 Russian parliament members signed a letter in January calling for the state prosecutor to ban all Jewish organizations in Russia. The call was repudiated by a 306-58 vote in parliament.
But the agreement also talks about the “development of civil society.” Putin has come under fire internationally in the last year for a series of moves seen as curtailing democracy, including a press crackdown and a decree ending the free election of provincial governors. President Bush, long considered a friend of Putin, criticized the Russian leader openly in a speech in Brussels last week: “We must always remind Russia that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law.”
Both Russian Jewish groups, the Russian Jewish Congress and the Federation of Jewish Communities, have been supportive of Putin and avoided criticizing his moves on democracy.
“We are standing up for the rights and defense of the Jewish community,” Berkowitz said. “Through that, we are hopeful that this will benefit all of society.”
In America, too, Jewish groups have largely avoided criticizing Putin. The president of the Washington-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, Yosef Abramowitz, said the agreement between AJCongress and the federation could only hamper efforts to be more vocal.
“What’s needed,” Abramowitz said, “is the independence to be more thoughtful toward Russia, and less at the behest of the Kremlin or its Jewish allies.”
The chief rabbi of the federation, Berel Lazar, a Chabad emissary who was named chief rabbi of the Russia Federation by Putin two years ago, is known for his friendly relationship with the Russian president. Until recently, the Russian Jewish Congress was considered more critical, but the new president, Slutsker, a Russian parliament member, has called for unity with the Kremlin.
The decision by AJCongress to focus its attention narrowly on Jewish communal needs — rather than on larger political issues — is one sign of a historic shift the group has undergone since its heyday between the 1930s and the 1960s, when it was considered the leading American Jewish voice on civil rights issues, with leaders who were outspoken liberals on foreign policy issues. Today it focuses much of its attention narrowly on Israeli security and international antisemitism.
Domestically, AJCongress remains an outspoken advocate of church-state separation, traditionally the group’s top priority. That legacy makes for a particularly unlikely alliance with Chabad-Lubavitch, an ultra-Orthodox group that has led efforts to lower the church-state barrier in America and elsewhere.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, headquartered in Brooklyn, has been extremely active in rebuilding Jewish religious life across Eastern Europe in the last decade. The entry of its representatives into local communities has often led to conflict with existing community leaders, many of whom are secular or followers of other Jewish denominations. In Russia in particular, the growing influence of Chabad-Lubavitch has led to some conflict with rabbis from the Reform movement, who are not recognized by Chabad-Lubavitch. That lack of recognition probably will not be helped by the current agreement, according to Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
“I’m very disappointed to hear that the AJCongress, which is known for its commitment to religious freedom and equality, would be granting that kind of approval to a religious movement that is so explicitly discriminatory against the bulk of world Jewry, represented by the non-Orthodox movements,” said Regev.
The AJCongress decision to work with the federation, despite philosophical differences, highlights the tremendous success the Hasidic group has had in building a network of Jewish institutions throughout Russia. While the Reform movement has four rabbis in Russia, Chabad has 95. The federation counts 430 local communities under its umbrella. In addition to religious services, it operates some 1,500 local institutions, including day schools and community centers, according to Berkowitz.
This week’s agreement does not provide financial support for the federation, as was the case in AJCongress’s accord with the French group. There is little mention in the agreement of specific projects that the two partners will carry out, but AJCongress and the federation have already held joint meetings with several Russian government ministers. They are also working together to bring mayors of Russian cities to an international conference of mayors hosted by AJCongress each year in Jerusalem.
Berkowitz said the agreement will benefit his federation when they have delegations in Washington, as it no longer will have to rely solely on the contacts of the local Chabad rabbi, who has organized and shepherded their meetings in the past.