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Across the Former Soviet Union Russian, U.S. Jewish Groups Form Long-distance Relationship

March 3, 2005
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A U.S. Jewish group known for its historical commitment to church-state separation has forged a partnership with a Russian Jewish group known for its ties to religious Judaism. The new partnership was formalized in Moscow on Tuesday with the signing of a memorandum between the American Jewish Congress and the Federation of Jewish Communities, a Chabad-led umbrella group that says it unites Jewish groups in 500 communities across the former Soviet Union, including 170 within Russia.

Officials with both groups said the agreement aims to combat anti-Semitism in Russia and improve U.S.-Russian relations.

The agreement also provides each group with something each wants: the AJCongress, which has been seen as declining in status in recent years, gets as its partner the most active Jewish group in Russia, while the federation gains a foothold in the mainstream American Jewish community.

The AJCongress president, Jack Rosen, and the president of the federation, Lev Levayev, agreed to work together to protect civil and religious rights of Russian Jews, consolidate efforts and resources to fight anti-Semitism and develop Russian-American and Russian-Israeli political relationships.

AJCongress leaders said they realize that it might seem odd on the surface for it to partner with a group known for promoting religion. But Rosen said religious orientation isn’t an issue.

“It’s not about religion. We don’t have favorites. We’re working with different Jewish organizations overseas,” Rosen said. “The federation does excellent work on behalf of the Jewish community in the region.”

If Jewish groups “that are part of the federation want to participate, we are here to lend them help,” he added.

Aside from consultation on the issues and occasional joint statements, the new partnership may intensify contacts between American and Russian political leaders, Levayev, an Uzbek-born diamond merchant who now lives in Israel, told reporters on Tuesday at a news conference here.

“We should bring U.S. senators here so that they see for themselves how things have changed” in Russia, said Levayev, who has been instrumental in helping the federation develop new Jewish institutions and programs throughout the region.

He added that this political contact eventually could help to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 30-year-old piece of U.S. legislation linking trade policy to human rights that Kremlin officials — with whom the federation has close ties — see as anachronistic.

He said he expects some U.S. lawmakers to visit later this year, although he declined to go into specifics.

The AJCongress leaders said they believe the partnership will help Russian Jews battle anti-Semitism more effectively at a time when anti-Jewish rhetoric appears to be on the rise in this part of the world.

Rosen said the organizations scheduled this week’s agreement before a recent anti-Semitic letter signed by some Russian lawmakers was publicized.

“But the fact that we are doing this now is a very public statement” on how important both groups think it is to fight anti-Semitism, he said.

Jewish observers in Russia tend to agree that the issue of Russian anti-Semitism requires international pressure to be put on the Kremlin. But it may be difficult for the newly forged alliance to be critical of the Kremlin on democracy in Russia even though many believe Russia is sliding away from a commitment to human rights.

U.S. Jewish groups are “handcuffed on the Putin issue” mainly out of fear that such direct criticism may backfire at Russia Jews, a U.S. Jewish leader told JTA on condition on anonymity.

But leaders of the AJCongress, which recently formed another, similar partnership with a French Jewish group, said that their organization is not necessarily going to agree with its new Russian partner on all political stances.

“Neither of us is giving up independence,” Rosen said.

Both groups could gain from the arrangement.

This week’s memorandum marks a certain breakthrough for the federation, which has become the most influential Jewish group in the former Soviet Union and has made great strides in rebuilding Jewish communal life in the region but until recently felt it was often on the sidelines when it came to contacts with American Jewry.

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the federation’s executive director, said the new partnership could show that the group — although directed by Chabad rabbis and supporters — is very different from what Chabad is usually seen to stand for.

Berkowitz acknowledged that “by having a formal relationship” with AJCongress, a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, his group will now “have a voice in the States.”

David Twersky, the director of the AJCongress-Council for World Jewry, the group’s international affairs branch, spoke of a “distortion” that has taken place among American Jews.

“When the organized Jewish community in America deals with Russian Jews, it only deals with the Russian Jewish Congress,” he said referring to another leading Jewish group here that until late last year was widely regarded as the federation’s major competitor on political and community-building issues.

The RJC was once the pre-eminent group among Russian Jewry but it has lost influence to the federation in recent years.

The RJC’s new leader, Vladimir Slutsker, is seen as an ally of the federation, and this week he tried to dispel the fears that a new partnership between the American and Russian groups would worsen the relations between the two Russian Jewish groups.

In a news release this week, the RJC welcomed the signing of the memorandum and noted it had its own partner in the U.S. Jewish community, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of 52 Jewish groups.

For its part, the AJCongress, through the federation, could enjoy increased access to Russian and political leaders throughout the region.

It was the federation — and Levayev, its politically well-connected president — who organized a Moscow meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the Conference of Presidents in June 2003.

Rosen said the federation was instrumental in increasing the participation of mayors from the former Soviet Union — including Belarus and Georgia — at the annual AJCongress-sponsored mayors’ conference in Jerusalem.

The Israeli government “didn’t have any headway in this part of the world,” Rosen said. “The federation opened the gates. Is it bad when we had a mayor from Belarus coming to a pro-Israel conference in Jerusalem?”

The new U.S.-Russian Jewish partnership did not go unnoticed by other Russian Jewish organizations.

The Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia criticized the agreement as a “publicity stunt” that the federation has undertaken in order to obtain a more legitimate status as the sole representative of Russia Jewry in the eyes of American Jewish groups.

Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for the federation, called this criticism regrettable and inaccurate.

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