Russian Jewish leader wants closer Kremlin ties

Vladimir Slutsker, right, and Yevgeny Satanovsky, speak to the media during a news conference, Nov. 17 in Moscow. (Ilya Dolgopolsky)

Vladimir Slutsker, right, and Yevgeny Satanovsky, speak to the media during a news conference, Nov. 17 in Moscow. (Ilya Dolgopolsky)

MOSCOW, Nov. 17 (JTA) — Culminating a shift for his organization, the new leader of the Russian Jewish Congress has announced the group’s unconditional support for the Kremlin. In a news conference Wednesday, Vladimir Slutsker also indicated that his organization, a leading Russian Jewish organization, was unlikely to pay special attention to Israel-related matters, and would focus instead on domestic issues. Slutsker’s outlook raises the possibility that Russian Jewish organizational life will be marked by less acrimony than in recent years, but some observers worry that it also presages less independence for the group, whose founder was one of the leading critics of Russian governmental policy, particularly in Chechnya. Slutsker, 48, a banker and member of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of Parliament, was little known to the public until he was picked last month to head the RJC. He said at the news conference that he would try to keep the group apolitical. “The RJC should not be involved in politics, which means fighting for power, money or influence. It was that fight for power that led RJC to its current crisis,” he said in a veiled reference to RJC’s founder and former president, Vladimir Goussinsky. Some critics accuse Goussinsky, an influential Jewish media mogul and outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, of vying for too much political power. Goussinsky was expelled from Russia in 2000 on charges of tax evasion spearheaded by the Kremlin. Since its founding in 1996, the RJC has raised more than $70 million from domestic donors to support various Jewish projects. The group also aspires to represent Russian Jewry on political and social issues before the government, but its role has diminished in recent years. Slutsker, who was officially installed as RJC leader Tuesday, elicited a mixed reaction among Jewish leaders, though none appeared willing to criticize him openly. For its part, the Kremlin welcomed the appointment. “I am confident that under your leadership, the activities of the congress would be aimed at strengthening the unity of nationalities and religious faiths of Russia,” Vladislav Surkov, the powerful deputy head of Putin’s administration, wrote Wednesday in his official greeting to Slutsker. The letter marked the first time in several years that the Kremlin, which has favored another Jewish group, the Federation of Jewish Communities, has sent an official communication to RJC, JTA has learned. At the news conference, Slutsker made it clear that under his presidency the RJC would be loyal to the Kremlin — a departure from the image the group acquired under Goussinsky and has been unable to shed since then. “If we pursue a policy aimed at strengthening of interethnic and interfaith peace, we will receive an appropriate support from the leadership of Russia,” he said. “The policy of RJC will not run against objective interests of the leadership of the country. We all want to live in a comfortable, peaceful and friendly society.” When asked to describe the community’s primary concerns, Slutsker said they coincide with those of Russia as a whole. “There is an open conflict between fundamentalist Islam and the Western world going on. The interest of the Russian Jewish Diaspora is to avoid, together with other Russians, the escalation of the scenario that is currently developing,” he said, referring to a growing threat of terrorism. Some Jewish leaders said they expected Slutsker to take an openly pro-Kremlin stance, in line with Putin’s plans to centralize control over political and public aspects of Russian society. “As an official, as a member of Parliament, Slutsker could hardly say anything else,” said a leading Jewish activist who asked not to be identified. Under Slutsker’s predecessor, Yevgeny Satanovsky, the RJC took an active interest in Israeli issues. But Slutsker’s words at the news conference gave the impression that he would change course. “By fighting terrorism in Russia, we are helping Israel. We are Russian citizens and we are not indifferent to the fate of Israel, but RJC does not plan any special programs that would help in Israel’s fight with Palestinian terror,” he said. Some Jews took Slutsker’s words to mean that he would avoid Israeli matters entirely. “This is sad. It looks like he would like to have a Jewish community in Russia that is devoid of any special attachment” to Israel, one Jewish analyst said after the news conference, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If so, we are soon going to have community leadership obsessed with praising the Kremlin on any occasion, isolated in its deep focus solely on domestic matters.” Satanovsky will remain a member of the RJC executive, overseeing the group’s charitable programs, while Slutsker will take over policy and financial matters, public relations, contacts with other community groups and religious affairs. Slutsker also announced that the RJC will establish close ties with the Federation of Jewish Communities, a Chabad-led group and the largest Jewish organization in Russia. At the same time, Slutsker denied rumors that he was going to work toward a unified structure that would include both the federation and the RJC. Officials with the federation, which has often been at odds with the RJC in recent years, welcomed Slutsker’s appointment, and a spokesman said the federation would be happy to work with Slutsker. Slutsker confirmed that he is a longtime friends of Rabbi Berel Lazar, a Russian chief rabbi and federation leader, but denied that the two had discussed the future of the Jewish community. “I have personal friendly ties with Lazar, and our relations are focused mostly on spiritual issues. We do not discuss political issues with him,” Slutsker said. Slutsker also is known as one of the leading enthusiasts of Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition that in recent years has grown in popularity among both Jewish and non-Jewish Russians. “I myself am a religious person, but that doesn’t mean that we would provide more support to religious organizations” in the RJC, Slutsker said. He said the communal unity he favors mainly would mean speaking in unison on issues of concern with other groups, including the federation. “We will make sure that in cases of anti-Semitism or in connection with other events that influence the life of Russia, some appropriate statements are made jointly by major Jewish organizations, both secular and religious,” he said. “The RJC is a secular charitable group, and the RJC can become a platform for such unity.” Slutsker denied that he dislikes Reform Judaism, as some of those who know him have indicated. “I’m not familiar with Reform Judaism that well, but I think there should be no conflicts or obstacles” between the RJC and the Reform movement in Russia, he said.

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