Chabad Feuds With Jewish Leaders Over Cozy Ties To Eastern European Autocrats

In the former Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, established mainstream Jewish groups are increasingly worried that Chabad, the international Hasidic movement, is allying itself with authoritarian governments.

In countries from Hungary to Russia, they say, Chabad is at times playing down anti-Semitism in a bid to compete with local Jewish groups and win access to financial resources and political influence.

Chabad, in turn, says that mainstream groups are too embroiled in secular and political issues, including polarizing disputes about democracy and civil liberties, at the expense of guarding core communal Jewish interests of physical security and Jewish religious freedom. In some cases, Chabad officials say, these establishment groups are also corrupt.

The increasing tensions between Chabad and more established Jewish groups are playing out in different ways in different countries. Each case is unique:

*In Russia, Vladimir Putin has for years favored Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar over the long-established chief rabbi of Russia, Adolf Shayevich. Shayevich aligned with a Jewish umbrella group that sought to keep its distance from the government in the post-Communist era. Lazar has been more supportive.

*In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling hard-right Law and Justice party, met in August with two Chabad representatives and the leader of a third Jewish group in a get-together that state media portrayed as a discussion with the community. Leaders of major groups who wrote Kaczyński about their fears of rising anti-Semitism in Poland were not invited.

*In Hungary, prominent Jews and non-Jews have criticized President Viktor Orbán for using anti-Semitic tropes in his extended national campaign against the American financier George Soros. A senior Hungarian Chabad rabbi, however, has defended Orbán.

Chabad, for its part, strongly defends its conception of and approach to Jewish interests. “When you start, as a representative of the community, mixing Jewish issues with political issues, even if they’re social, and saying you represent the whole Jewish community, it doesn’t work very well and is frankly dangerous,” one Chabad official in the United States said. “You’re mixing politics with what’s in the interest of the Jewish community.” Speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly, he explained: “Anti-Semitism is an issue for the Jewish community. Other rights are issues all [citizens] must grapple with, not the Jewish community uniquely.”

Founded in 1775 in what is today Belarus, Chabad-Lubavitch saw its ranks decimated after the Holocaust. But over the past decades, the movement, with its headquarters relocated to Brooklyn after World War II, has become a global force. Thousands of its emissaries, known as schlichim, are reaching out to Jews of all persuasions, on American college campuses and in outposts around the world.

“Chabad plays an outsized role” in post-Communist Eastern Europe, said David Shneer, professor of history, religious studies and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. And Chabad, he said, “works with governments that allow Judaism to be practiced no matter their political orientation.” The Hasidic group does not, he said, see Jewry as an independent political force in the context of civil society, as in the American style. Instead, “Chabad uses its relationship to state power to become the face of Judaism,” Shneer said.

In some countries with histories of anti-Semitism and mixed records or worse during the Holocaust, Jewish activists are currently battling their governments’ efforts to promote heroic but distorted national accounts of the countries’ conduct during the Shoah. But “Chabad says we can’t dwell on the past,” Shneer said. “Chabad is waiting for the Messiah and needs Jews to do mitzvot,” or Torah-based commandments. That’s “about the present and future, not the past,” he said.

Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish journalist, traditionally observant Jew and early member of Solidarity, the trade union that ousted his country’s communist regime, didn’t mince words about what this means in his country. It was, he said, “an act of disloyalty to the existing Jewish community,” for two Chabad rabbis to meet recently with the leader of Poland’s hard-line nationalist ruling party in a session that excluded other Jewish groups that were pressing the leader publicly on alleged government tolerance—and even encouragement—of rising anti-Semitism,

The August 17 meeting, which also included the head of Poland’s Jewish Cultural Society and a controversial Israeli-British public relations consultant named Jonny Daniels, took place after major Jewish organizations wrote Kaczyński, about being “appalled by recent events and fearful for our security.”

Earlier that month, Bogdan Rzonca, a lawmaker with Kaczyński’s own Law and Justice Party, wrote on Twitter: “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust.” Jews protested that party leaders issued no reprimand.

They have also, among other things, criticized the government’s financial support for Radio Maria, a media empire whose anti-Semitic broadcasts have been condemned by the U.S. State Department, the Council of Europe, the Vatican and the Polish government’s own National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council.

Kaczyński ignored the leaders’ letter. Then, under headlines such as “Polish Ruling Party Head Meets With Jewish Community Leaders,” Polish state media played up Kaczyński’s meeting with Chabad and the other two Jewish figures.

“Obviously the government… is handpicking its Jews,” Gebert charged.

The response of the Chabad rabbi Mayer Stambler to this criticism is virtually a declaration of full autonomy. “Chabad-Lubavitch in Poland represents the Jews of Poland, as any other organization here does,” he said in an email to the Forward. The rabbi, who heads Chabad’s Warsaw outreach, added pointedly, “No group can claim to exclusively represent Polish Jewry.”

In their meeting, Stambler related, “We definitely raised the issue of anti-Semitism!”

Kaczyński, he said, “made it clear that he definitely supported Jewish life in Poland. And he certainly supports the State of Israel.” During their talk, the Polish leader acknowledged that anti-Semitism exists in Poland “in various circles and places,” said Stambler, “but it is impossible to accuse him and the leadership of his party of giving encouragement of any kind, [to] anti-Semitism.”

Last May, it was one of Chabad’s representatives in Hungary, Slomó Köves, who came to the defense of the country’s nationalist government when many Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians raised concerns that Orbán was stoking populist hatred by using classical anti-Semitic themes in his campaign against Soros. Hungary’s Jewish umbrella group, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, which, like Chabad, receives government support, has often shied away from speaking out against Orbán directly, but ultimately joined in the criticism. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, sided with Chabad when he rebuked his ambassador in Budapest for raising the same criticism.)

Chabad leaders believe that through years of effort, they have earned the right to act autonomously in what they see as Jewish interests.

“We started with my wife and me,” said Rabbi Baruch Oberlander, the 51-year old chief Chabad rabbi in Hungary, as he sat in his book-filled office in Budapest’s historic Jewish Quarter.

Oberlander grew up in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, a son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. He and his young wife — herself the daughter of a Chabad emissary in Italy — arrived in Budapest in 1989, right before the fall of the Communist regime.

“We came here to teach Judaism in a place where unfortunately they didn’t have the option,” Oberlander said. “The biggest problem of Judaism in Eastern Europe and the whole world is ignorance…. They don’t know what Judaism is all about, so you cannot expect them to stick to religion, to the culture and traditions that they don’t know and don’t understand.”

Oberlander set out to build a new Jewish infrastructure in Hungary: printing new translations of prayer books that have not been updated in seven decades, launching a publication, opening educational institutions and training a new generation of religious scholars.

At the same time, other Chabad shlichim were setting out on similar projects throughout the suddenly defunct Soviet bloc. As young Chabad couples began to expand their activities in the region, some developed close ties with the local authorities.

In 1990, Berel Lazar, Oberlander’s brother-in-law, arrived in Russia, where he found that the revived Jewish community, after years of underground development during the Soviet Jewry movement, already had its own nascent leadership. These activists from various organizations ultimately coalesced around an umbrella group known as the Russian Jewish Congress, led by Vladimir Gusinsky. An early oligarch under the Russian Federation’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, Gusinsky’s holding company included NTV, the leading private television network in Russia’s newly free media.

“Gusinsky was the most important leader of Russian Jewry,” said Alexander Osovtsov, a former executive vice president of the RJC who now lives in Israel. The RJC, meanwhile, was politically “neutral,” he said.

The young Lazar, however, befriended Lev Leviev, a wealthy Israeli-Uzbek in the diamond business. He later expanded his support network to include oligarchs like banker Roman Abramovich — and, when he succeeded Yeltsin, President Vladimir Putin himself.

“The uniqueness of Chabad is reaching out, not waiting for people to come with questions,” Lazar told the Forward in a phone interview.

But there are other incentives. Chabad emissaries get initial funding from the organization when they are sent to a new country, but they are then expected to fundraise locally. This puts pressure on Chabad rabbis to reach out to wealthy businesspeople and well-placed government officials for financial support.

With Putin’s ascent to the presidency in 2000, Gusinsky, who insisted on his media network’s journalistic independence, drew the Kremlin’s ire by running many pieces critical of the government. Lazar made a decision: He quit the Congress, and claimed the title of chief rabbi.

“Gusinksy was using his business and his position as a Jewish communal leader to oppose Putin politically,” the American Chabad official said. “And Rabbi Lazar and others said, ‘Look, it’s very fine for Jews to be part of that debate, but don’t bring the whole Jewish community down by picking a fight with the ruling party in the name of all Jews and Judaism.’”

Gusinsky, in defiance of the Kremlin, supported his media outlets’ investigation into the bombing of several buildings in Moscow that the government attributed to Chechen terrorists. Gusisnky’s NTV probed evidence cited by some independent investigators who raised the possibility that the bombings were in fact the work of the FSB, Russia’s successor intelligence agency to the KGB, seeking to influence upcoming elections.

The Kremlin response came quickly, on several fronts. A fraud investigation against Gusinsky eventually moved him to flee the country. And as part of Putin’s campaign to weaken Gusinsky, the newly elected president invited Chabad’s Lazar, instead of the longtime chief rabbi Shayevich, who was aligned with the RJC, to his inauguration. Since then, Lazar has been the Kremlin’s openly preferred Jewish leader, attending speeches and state events and receiving significant support from the government.

“Mr. Lazar is not independent,” Osovtsov said. “He is one of the members of Putin’s team. He’s the main Jew of Russia, according to the authorities and Putin’s personal decision.” Osovtsov pointed to Lazar’s recent conciliatory meeting with a pro-Putin politician who made openly anti-Semitic statements as evidence of the rabbi’s unquestioning loyalty to Putin.

“We’re not dealing with the Kremlin differently than any other government,” Lazar said in response. “The Kremlin has done a lot to support religion.” He cited examples, like the government’s support for the construction of a museum, and the return of Jewish community properties. “The Jewish religion [in Russia] is on par with all other religions,” he added. Moreover, “when it comes to values and morals,” the Kremlin’s position resembles that of Russia’s religious groups, he said.

Chabad officials insist that Russia is a unique case. But others in the region see Chabad rabbis trying to emulate Lazar’s approach in Russia.

In Poland, everyone is “a little bit hesitant because of what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine, with Chabad being very close to Putin,” said Jonathan Ornstein, who serves as the executive director of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow. “I think that’s a little bit of what we had now with that meeting. The meeting was harmful for Polish Jewry.”

Chabad, Gebert said, “is certainly competing for the attention of the authorities…. By meeting with those it wants to meet with, [the government] sends a clear signal to the existing Jewish community,” whose leaders complain that the government is tolerating anti-Semitism.

“We have never claimed to represent all Jewish organizations or that we are the exclusive representatives of the community,” Stambler said in response. But at the same time, he added, “As an apolitical organization, we seek to maintain a positive relationship with the government, with all political parties, with relevant NGOs and with others.”

In Hungary, Chabad competes with the umbrella Jewish organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, known under the acronym MAZSIHISZ, with both groups receiving government funding and unclaimed properties belonging to Hungary’s prewar Jewish community.

“We step up not only in favor of issues that directly affect the Jewish people,” said András Heisler, president of MAZSIHISZ, which eventually spoke out against Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign. “But we keep in mind the problems of the whole Hungarian society, from the issues of poverty up until exclusion, from persecution of Gypsy [Roma] people up until the xenophobia. We are not driven by interests of the government or the opposition, but the Torah and our conscience.”

It’s a striking counterpoint to Chabad’s narrower definition of Jewish interests.

“Many times people advocate for certain policies as ‘Jewish values,’” the American Chabad official said. “But are they really? They’re surely important values, but… just because some Jews feel strongly about something does not automatically make it a ‘Jewish value.’”

Contact Lili Bayer at feedback@forward.com or follow her on Twitter, @liliebayer

Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at cohleresses@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @CohlerEsses

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