Prosecutors had been investigating the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia because of its role in publishing and distributing Russian translations of the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th-century code written by Rabbi Joseph Caro. The organization’s leader, Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, was questioned last week as part of an investigation reportedly launched at the behest of Russian nationalists, who said the code incited ethnic hatred and racism.
“It’s not only a story about the Shulchan Aruch,” Kogan told the Forward. “This conflict about the book is an attack on Judaism in Russia… an attack on the right of Jews to be Jews in Russia.”
Several Jewish organizations across the world, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Congress, condemned the allegations and sharply criticized the prosecutor’s inquiry.
“This was as close to a blood libel that I can imagine,” said David Twersky, director of international affairs at the AJCongress. “The smell of this was like it was tsarist Russia.”
The controversy over the investigation comes amid reports of growing Russian antisemitism and claims that government authorities have failed to mount a serious enough response to the trend. Some critics blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin, with a few observers even suggesting that the Kremlin had hoped to demand something from Israel in return for halting the investigation. But the leading Chabad official in the former Soviet Union and one of Russia’s two chief rabbis — Berel Lazar — has forged close relations with Putin. At least in this case, the rabbi’s influence appears to have paid off.
“We spoke to the prosecutor general of Russia and we explained it to him clearly, that in today’s age, to come out with such claims on Jewish texts… it’s really senseless,” Lazar told the Forward. “In no way does [the code] affect today the relationship between Jews and non-Jews.”
Lazar, who heads the Chabad-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union, intervened even though the organization under investigation is aligned with the rival Russian Jewish Congress and includes Reform, Modern Orthodox and secular components.
The investigation came after a letter that was signed in January by 500 Russians — including 20 Russian Parliament members — calling for the state prosecutor to ban Jewish organizations in Russia. Another letter, signed in March by 5,000 Russians but not the members of parliament, pointed to alleged hatred in the legal code.
In the letters, nationalists pointed to religious laws instructing Jews to curse the houses of idolaters and to forbid Jews from worshipping the cross.
It was unclear why the prosecutor decided to pursue the investigation at all, since an apology from the Russian Rodina party leader on behalf of colleagues who signed the January letter appeared to make the allegations moot.
Prosecutors could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Several observers said the inquiry was the product of low-level “street antisemitism” or corruption — not antisemitism in the top echelons of government.
Lazar suggested that the letters — sent around the time that Putin traveled to Auschwitz and Israel earlier this year — were meant to undermine Putin’s overtures toward the Jewish community.
One American observer who refused to be named said some Moscovites feel that Putin engages in a shadow dance with the antisemitic right, suggesting that the nationalists’ letter would not have been released without his approval.
Lazar, however, claims that Putin is committed to the Jewish community.
“I think it’s not a secret of the relationship the president has with the Jewish community in general,” Lazar said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “I must say that lately, after his trip to Israel and me standing by him throughout the visits, it’s not a secret here in Russia.”