In a year where the conflict between Ukraine and Russia was fought not only with weapons but also with rhetoric about opposing anti-Semitism, Berel Lazar has been Vladimir Putin’s Jewish point man in the propaganda war. Following a spate of anti-Semitic incidents that accompanied Ukraine’s February revolution, the Russian president smeared Ukraine’s revolutionaries as “anti-Semites and neo-Nazis.” Though far-right groups tainted the revolution, it was a broad-based movement, sweeping up Ukrainians of all backgrounds, including Jews.
Ukraine’s Jewish communal leaders hit back, accusing Putin’s security services of encouraging Russian neo-Nazis.
Enter Lazar, Russia’s 50-year-old chief rabbi and the highest-ranking Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in the former Soviet Union. Lazar appealed for unity among Russian and Ukrainian Jews. He also claimed that anti-Semitism was a bigger problem in Ukraine than in Russia. And he warned Ukrainian Jewish leaders not to get involved in matters “that don’t directly concern the Jewish community.”
Meanwhile, in March, Lazar appeared for Putin’s choreographed announcement of the annexation of Crimea in front of Russia’s political elite. In a show of political and religious unity, Russian state television broadcast images of Lazar applauding alongside Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Lazar arrived in Russia from New York 25 years ago. Though he remains affiliated with Chabad-Lubavitch, he has carved out his own fiefdom in Russia, helped no doubt by his fealty to Putin. Lazar defended Russia’s controversial homophobic laws in the run-up to this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. This past year, he oversaw the transfer of the Schneersohn Library — a collection of Hasidic texts that Chabad in the United States has been fighting bitterly to return to New York — to the Chabad-controlled Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.