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Who Has Putin’s Ear? Jewish Meeting Sparks Intrigue

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During the height of the Cold War, analysts trying to penetrate the thick veil of secrecy surrounding the Communist Party leadership would spend days poring over grainy photos, desperately searching for significance in such seemingly trivial indicators as proximity to the party’s general-secretary at parades and swirls in photographs that might indicate airbrushing.

The practice was called Kremlinology, and with the return of Soviet-style opacity to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it’s once again in fashion with Russia wonks the world over.

Why then, should things be any different for the Jews?

This week’s visit of the European Jewish Congress executive committee to Moscow, the first such meeting ever held in Russia, was pregnant with the type of symbolism that Kremlinologists dream about.

Since the height of the community’s internecine warfare around the turn of the millennium, it has been assumed that the one Jew in Russia with a direct line to Putin was Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, who has presided over a flourishing of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union in recent years through his Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities.

And while no one is suggesting that Lazar is on the way out, what the symbols do suggest is that EJC President Moshe Kantor’s star — and with it, his influence within the armored walls of the Kremlin — may be on the rise.

Kantor, who was elected EJC president in June, denied any connection to Putin during his election campaign, amid cries from the opposition that he might be soft on Russia about Iran’s nuclear program.

Russia is seen as one of the key impediments to meaningful sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council. Putin will be traveling to Tehran next week to attend high level meetings with the Iranian government. Russia is currently building a nuclear reactor in Bashir.

On Wednesday, Putin held a very public meeting with the EJC in the Kremlin, followed by private talks with Kantor about Iran and xenophobia in Europe.

For a man who told JTA last June: “I have no relations with Mr. Putin,” he found himself very quickly and very publicly at the side of the Russian president.

Kantor, a billionaire tycoon who counts on good relations with the Kremlin, has taken a strong stance on the threat of a nuclear Iran in the past. But he seemed to come away from the meeting with Putin with a more muted tone.

Anti-Semitism is as big a threat to European Jewry as a nuclear Iran, Kantor told JTA following his meeting with Putin. He said he raised the issue of Iran with the president.

“To my understanding, these two bombs are equally dangerous for Europe and for the Jewish street.”

Kantor said sanctions against Iran are meaningless. “Sanctions can produce only talk about new sanctions,” he said. “Sanctions without other means of convincing — diplomatic, economical, expert attempts — are not relevant.”

As for the Putin-Kantor meeting itself, the significance could be found as much in what doesn’t appear as what does. In the case of this week’s visit, the line that wasn’t painted was Lazar’s.

A federation spokesman told JTA that Lazar was in Pittsburgh, attending the wedding of his younger brother this week, but that he probably wouldn’t have been invited to the Kremlin meeting had he been here.

Indeed, several observers said that it would have been odd if Lazar had been invited, as it was a gathering of European Jewish leadership, and not Russian.

“It was a meeting of the European Jewish Congress, and I mean, Lazar is not a member of the European Jewish Congress,” said Rabbi Yakov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine who was present at the meeting. “I think it would have been quite odd if Lazar would have been there.”

Kantor, who lives in Geneva but still has substantial business interests in Russia, is also president of the RJC. The RJC, although not a community organization like the federation or KEROOR, has been largely marginalized during the struggle for power that led to the Chabad-led federation’s domination.

Even if the significance of Lazar’s absence at the Kremlin is overstated, the EJC’s itinerary this week wasn’t.

On Monday, instead of visiting the Federation’s Marina Roscha synagogue, an enormous modern structure often shown to visiting delegations as an indicator of the rebirth and vitality of Jewish life here, the delegates went to Moscow’s historic Choral Synagogue and met with the city’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, himself allied with the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia (KEROOR).

Goldschmidt is a longtime rival of Lazar, and in 2005 was denied a visa to return to the country for what the Interior Ministry called “national security reasons.” It was a move seen by many as orchestrated by Lazar, though Lazar has denied this.

While the itinerary was prepared by the EJC and not by the Kremlin, Kantor’s preference for the Choral Synagogue could have significance if he does indeed have Putin’s ear. Then again, it might not.

“There is a mythology that the only one Jew in the whole Russian federation who can meet with Mr. Putin is Rabbi Lazar. That is not true,” said Evgeney Satanovskiy, the president of The Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow and a vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

A federation spokesman vigorously denied any rift between Putin and Lazar. Whether there’s a rift or not, Lazar’s failure to get the Jackson-Vanik amendment repealed by the U.S. Congress during an intensive lobbying trip last year certainly didn’t help his standing with Putin, who seems to prize efficiency as highly as loyalty.

Removal of the Soviet-era law, designed to pressure the USSR into better treatment of its religious minorities, has been a major initiative of the Russian president, as he seeks to improve Russia’s standing in the West.

Whether there is any real meaning in these signs at all is open to debate. What is certain is that community members here welcome Kantor’s election and visit as an indicator of increasing pluralism within a community that has suffered greatly from it’s internal battles.

“Of course it means that the time of Jewish conflict will finish and must finish in Russia,” Satanovskiy said.

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