American policy toward the increasingly authoritarian regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin has ignited a fierce quarrel inside one of the fastest-growing and most influential movements in Judaism, Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism.
Chabad officials in Russia and the United States have recently staked out opposing positions on a decades-old American law, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which restricted U.S.-Soviet trade in order to punish the communist regime in Moscow for its mistreatment of Jews.
Jackson-Vanik is largely symbolic today, but it is still on the books, to the annoyance of the post-communist Russian government. The Russian wing of Chabad, which has close ties to the government, recently renewed a campaign to repeal the law. Chabad, the largest Jewish organization in Russia, has described the amendment as a barrier in its relationship with the Russian government.
The Russian Chabad campaign to end Jackson-Vanik recently has begun paying dividends. In late February, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Tom Lantos, met with Chabad leaders in Moscow and soon thereafter announced his support for an end to Jackson-Vanik. The Hungarian-born Lantos, a Northern California Democrat, is often described as the only Holocaust survivor in Congress.
On his return to Washington, however, Lantos quickly heard a very different point of view from Chabad’s leaders in America. In a fierce burst of lobbying, American Chabad rabbis wrote letters and descended on Washington to argue that the time for Jackson-Vanik’s repeal has not yet come. One of those lobbying was Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, often described as the senior leader in Chabad’s world headquarters in Brooklyn. He wrote Lantos a letter and then met with the lawmaker in Washington last Friday, along with influential Chabad rabbis from California and Israel.
“I was deeply troubled to learn that members of Congress may have been misinformed about Chabad’s view on Russia’s possible ‘graduation’ from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment,” Krinsky wrote to Lantos in a March 28 letter. “The official — and categorical — position of Chabad is that it would be a tragic error to repeal Jackson-Vanik at this time.”
Krinsky and the other influential Chabad rabbis have argued in meetings that Jackson-Vanik should not be repealed until the Russian government returns a Chabad library that was seized by the Soviets after World War II and never returned.
Both the library and the Jackson-Vanik amendment have been diplomatic issues for years, but the divisions they are causing now play into a broader debate about the best approach to the Russian government. Especially this week, with the death of former president Boris Yeltsin, a new spotlight is being thrown on the growing authoritarian tendencies of the Putin regime, both at home and on the international scene.
In Russia, Chabad leaders have hesitated to criticize Putin, instead pointing to the stands he has taken against antisemitism and in support of renewed Jewish life in the country. The Chabad movement in Russia is largely independent of Chabad’s Brooklyn headquarters. Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for the Chabad-led, Moscow-based Federation of Jewish Communities, was blunt in stating that the approach taken by American Chabad rabbis is not likely to achieve success.
“They are using methods that look, from abroad, like blackmail,” Gorin told the Forward. “I don’t think that it’s adding to resolving the problem of the library or of the good relations between the worldwide Jewish community and the Russian authorities.”
Subsequent to Gorin’s comments, a California Chabad leader active in the library recovery effort, Rabbi Boruch Cunin, issued several forceful statements indicating that Gorin was not an authorized spokesman for Chabad. In response to a Forward inquiry, the executive director of the Russian Chabad federation, Avraham Berkowitz, confirmed that Gorin was in fact the federation’s spokesman. Later, in a phone message at press time, Berkowitz said that Gorin was “not authorized to speak about the library,” and that Cunin was the only person authorized to comment on it. He did not address the Jackson-Vanik disagreement.
The library in question was last held by the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, and is said to contain texts dating back to the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov. Schneersohn left the library in Poland when he fled from the Nazis. During World War II the library was captured first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets, who have held it ever since. Today it sits in the Lenin Library in Moscow.
The last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994, led numerous campaigns to win back the library, and in his final years he appointed a body to seek the books. That body initiated a lawsuit against the Russian government in 2004, which is still winding its way through American courts. Representatives of the library-recovery group were in Washington last week, including the California-based leader of the effort, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, to lobby against the position on Jackson-Vanik taken by the Russian Chabad branch.
Cunin has successfully recruited other prominent California Jewish communal figures to the library cause. One of them, Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote to Lantos on April 13, seeking to tie the library dispute to the Kremlin’s totalitarian traditions. “Moscow’s persistent rejection of all moral appeals to release these religious texts is a troubling sign that old attitudes toward Judaism still linger,” Hier wrote.
The ongoing debate over Jackson-Vanik is regarded in some circles as an anachronism that survives due to Washington politics. When it was passed in 1974, the amendment barred normal trade relations with countries that had “non-market economies” and that “restrict emigration rights” of their citizens. Neither condition applies any longer to Russia. For years, successive administrations have given Russia twice-yearly waivers from the amendment’s restrictions, but the amendment remains in force.
Several leading American Jewish organizations came out for the repeal of the law in 2000 and 2001, but those voices have been quiet in recent years as the Russian government has again come under criticism for its human rights record. Lantos has been a leading congressional critic of the Russian government, but after meeting with the Chabad leaders in Moscow he said that Jackson-Vanik is not helping.
“This is a goal that our Russian friends have had for a long time, and I believe the time is ripe to move ahead and put behind us this relic of the Cold War,” Lantos said at a February 21 press conference.
Even with Lantos’s support, repeal of Jackson-Vanik is far from assured. The step would require that legislation be introduced in a committee that is not led by Lantos, and there has been less enthusiasm in other quarters of Congress.
For the Russian Chabad federation’s spokesman, though, the steps taken by Lantos show an awareness of the way things work in Russia, which he said has been missing from the thinking of Chabad rabbis in America.
“The only way to resolve this problem — and get the library to Brooklyn — is to use good will,” said Gorin. “Russia is not a country that you can scare. That is the Russian mentality. When you scare these people they become much stronger in opposition to your will.”