SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (JTA) — Before last week, Holocaust commemorations in this port city were generally low-key gatherings of a few dozen people reciting the Kaddish prayer for victims of the near-annihilation of Crimean Jewry in 1942.
But on Thursday, a memorial service at the Sevastopol Holocaust monument attracted hundreds of visitors, including a delegation of prominent Chabad rabbis from across Europe and an international press corps of journalists from Germany, India, China and elsewhere who arrived on a charter flight from Moscow.
The visitors traveled from the airport to the 2014 Remembrance Day for Victims of the Nazis — a date commemorated here since 1992 — with police escorts that shut down traffic to let the entourage pass. At the spruced-up monument, a security detail of 15 soldiers provided protection.
Radical though it was, the upgrade came as no surprise to locals.
“It’s to be expected that now that we are in Russia, there will be more emphasis on the war on fascism,” said Genady Tebankin, a local Jew who attended the ceremony. “That’s the Kremlin line.”
The event was the first state-sponsored Jewish event in Crimea since Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March, a move Russian President Vladimir Putin justified in part as a move to protect Crimean Jews from surging anti-Semitism.
The commemoration was an ideal opportunity for Putin to burnish his image as a protector of minority rights. Crimea has seen a number of widely publicized anti-Semitic incidents in recent months, including the placing of two pig heads at a synagogue in Sevastopol in November, just days before the revolution broke out that ultimately drove former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power.
In late February, unknown individuals spray-painted “death to Jews” on the entrance to Ner Tamid, a Reform synagogue in the Crimean capital of Simferopol.
The propaganda element of the Holocaust commemoration was clear to critics of the Kremlin, but it was scarcely concealed even by the event’s organizers.
“You can’t hide the fact that it is very important for Putin and the Kremlin that everything takes place in an orderly fashion in Crimea,” said Boruch Gorin, a senior aide to Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, who led the commemoration. “There’s much more media interest in this ceremony this year. And of course, this is also in the interest of propaganda, to show that everything is going all right there and that there’s no anti-Semitism but peace and quiet.”
Misha Kapustin, Ner Tamid’s rabbi and a vocal opponent of Russian annexation, recently made good on a promise to leave Crimea if it became part of Russia. But his position does not seems to be the dominant view among Crimea’s 10,000 Jews. Many community leaders have welcomed the annexation, crediting it with curbing anti-Semitism and giving a second wind to efforts to revive Jewish life in the area.
“The situation has changed for the better,” Binyomin Wolf, the Sevastopol-based chief Orthodox rabbi of Crimea, told JTA. “Jews feel at ease here. They are not ashamed to identify themselves as Jews, and it’s partly because of instructions that come from the top, from high-level bureaucrats to junior ones, that Jews are to be respected and assisted.”
Wolf, Gorin and Lazar are all affiliated with the Russian branch of Chabad, the Hasidic sect that often appears to be Putin’s address of choice for all things Jewish. Before the ceremony in Sevastopol, Lazar and the other visiting rabbis met with Putin for over an hour in Moscow.
Binyomin Jacobs, a Chabad rabbi who is also a chief rabbi of the Netherlands, described the meeting as “warm-hearted and open.” Putin pledged his support for developing Jewish life and preserving religious freedoms now under threat in Europe, including circumcision and kosher slaughter.
The Russian leader also spoke out against Holocaust denial, according to Jacobs, calling it “the revival of neo-Nazism.” Putin has used “neo-Nazi” to describe Ukrainian nationalists, though he did not do so at the meeting, Jacobs said.
Putin also told the rabbis a joke about circumcision, Jacobs said. The punchline was that in the future foreskins may be used to genetically engineer perfect tax inspectors.
On a more serious note, Putin thanked the rabbis for their efforts to oppose fascism.
Such gestures are nothing new for Putin. During the Sochi Olympics, he ordered special arrangements be made so that Lazar could attend the opening on Shabbat. In June, Putin is believed to have intervened to have an alternative date set for Jews unable to take the national matriculation exam, which fell on the holiday of Shavuot. He also recently visited Moscow’s new $50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which the Russian state helped fund.
But while Putin has been vocal in his support of the Jewish community, Russia is facing international criticism for its treatment of another Crimean minority, the 300,000 Muslim Tatars who make up around 12 percent of the peninsula’s population.
After the annexation, Russia banned two of the community’s leaders, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, from entering the region, in what some allege was score-settling for their perceived allegiance to Ukraine. The Council of Europe said the situation of Tatars in Russia “raises the utmost concern,” while intellectuals from across Europe have signed a petition calling for action against Russia over to its treatment of the community.
The Holocaust commemoration in Sevastopol was initiated by Putin and financed largely by the Russian government, according to Wolf, who said Putin’s office was directly involved in making sure the event “is carried out not only well, but as perfectly as possible.”
Anything the community needs, Wolf said, “we get from the new government. The level of care is phenomenal.”
Yet the alliance with Putin has exposed Lazar to criticism by Ukrainian Jewish leaders.
“It is impossible for him or any other person in his position to express views that do not align with the Kremlin’s official line and propaganda,” Vyacheslav Likhachev, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Vaad Jewish group, said earlier this year.
Gorin rejects this criticism, arguing that Lazar’s relationship with the Kremlin is apolitical and ultimately designed to profit not Putin, but Russian Jewry. He also noted that the Kremlin has been involved in and supportive of Holocaust commemorations for the past 15 years, long before the conflict with Ukraine.
“We do our work. If it’s used for diplomacy, or propaganda — depends whom you ask — then we’re not necessarily against it,” Gorin said. “When anti-Semitic acts occur here, we are very vocal. But when the government demonstrates that they want to do everything so that Jews will live peacefully — with that we are prepared to cooperate.”