Given the long tradition of Russian anti-Semitism and concern for the apparently authoritarian instincts of the new Russian president, it was perhaps not surprising that Jewish leaders around the world reacted swiftly to the Russian chief rabbi’s claim last week that the Kremlin was pressuring him to resign his post.
But after hearing Rabbi Adolf Shayevich recant his charge here Monday and describe it as “a misunderstanding,” American Jewish leaders concede they may have jumped the gun.
The controversy seems to be rooted in the communal in-fighting that now characterizes Russian Jewry, but it also reaches to the highest levels of Russian politics, thanks to the bitter rivalry between President Vladimir Putin and prominent businessman Vladimir Goussinsky.
Goussinsky, a media mogul who supported Putin’s political rivals and is now under attack by the Putin government, also is president of the Russian Jewish Congress, which backs Shayevich.
With Goussinsky and Shayevich now embroiled in an incident that has taken on huge national dimensions — even international ones, as President Clinton was reportedly asked to intervene during his visit this week with Putin — it remains to be seen if it will have repercussions for Russian Jews, estimated at 600,000.
Furthermore, the situation raises the question of when — and how vociferously — American Jews should get involved in such situations.
After meeting with Shayevich in New York on Monday, one American Jewish leader said he felt he had been “misled,” while another said the situation was not as black and white as it had seemed last week.
“I think it’s been a miscommunication, and we’re trying to sort through it now,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.
Shayevich explained his actions behind closed doors to members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group.
Speaking later to reporters, he said he had concluded that he was being pressured to resign from several recent incidents, but clarified that the pressure did not explicitly come from Putin or his circle.
Shayevich, who was first installed by the Communist regime as the chief rabbi of the Soviet Union in 1989 and was later elected by the Jewish community as the chief rabbi of Russia, hinted the incident was connected to the government’s conflict with Goussinsky.
“Maybe these are some political games,” the rabbi said at a news conference following his meeting with Jewish leaders here, “and they are trying to pull us into this conflict.”
Shayevich said he sensed something was amiss when he was snubbed and not invited to two major state events — Putin’s inauguration and the official commemoration of the end of World War II — when in the past he had always been invited to such occasions, along with other religious leaders.
Then came alleged warnings from the camp of a rival rabbi, Berel Lazar, the head of the Lubavitch movement in Russia, that Shayevich’s days as chief rabbi were numbered and he should plan his retirement.
Lazar strongly denied any involvement of his organization in pressuring Shayevich.
Prior to Shayevich’s backtracking on Monday, Lazar issued a statement saying, “The government should not mix at all in the issues of the Jewish community, no matter what kind of issues.”
Rivalry for leadership of Russian Jewry has intensified since last November when the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a Lubavitch-dominated group with Lazar as its chief rabbi, reconstituted itself as a legal entity.
The group has had close relations with Putin, who as prime minister under the Yeltsin regime, met with the group’s leaders last year and promised to support its activities.
Some observers have also suggested that Putin is interested in dealing with one Jewish leadership, rather than the fractious community that now exists.
Several conflicts between the Federation and other Jewish groups have emerged recently, most notably last December when the Federation and a Shayevich-led group clashed over the government’s return of Torah scrolls that had been looted by the Nazis or confiscated by the state during the Soviet era.
After initially reaching an agreement with KEROOR, an umbrella group that unites Orthodox and Reform congregations and is headed by Shayevich, to return dozens of scrolls, the government apparently changed its mind.
The government’s change of heart — only 10 scrolls were transferred to KEROOR at the time — came after Lazar reportedly asked that the scrolls be transferred to the Federation.
In light of the more recent events, Shayevich penned a letter to Putin on May 30, demanding that he not “interfere” with the internal affairs of the Jewish community.
“The president has a right to invite whomever he wants to invite, but they shouldn’t make a decision about who should represent the community,” the rabbi said at the news conference.
After being approached by their Russian counterparts, NCSJ and the Conference of Presidents last week issued a statement, reaffirming their support for the elected leadership of the Russian Jewish community.
Citing “disturbing reports of interference by some government officials in the selection of community leadership,” the groups said they expect that the “Russian government will continue the policy of non-interference in the affairs of the Russian Jewish community.”
In Israel, Avraham Burg, speaker of the Knesset, also issued a sharp warning to the Putin government.
Despite the feeling among several Jewish leaders who got involved that they had been misled, Levin said it was not Shayevich’s claim alone that prompted American Jewish leaders to intervene.
His claim was the latest in a series of troubling incidents in recent months that have involved either Jews or Putin’s heavy-handed style.
“This particular incident is less clear, but I’m not sure if the overall environment has changed or not,” Levin said.
“You can look at this in isolation, or as part of a pattern or possible pattern. Leading up to today, it’s been clear there has been an attempt by the government or those who support the government to fracture the Jewish community.”
Prior to Putin’s March 26 election, state-controlled television broadcast a commercial against challenger Grigory Yavlinsky that implied that Yavlinsky’s Jewishness made him less Russian.
The ad also alleged that Yavlinsky had illegally accepted vast amounts of campaign funds from Goussinsky, while noting Goussinsky’s dual Russian-Israeli citizenship.
Then in early May, armed federal tax police, reportedly clad in camouflage and ski masks, raided Goussinsky’s Media-Most offices. Much of his business empire is in media, including newspapers and a national television channel that has been highly critical of Putin.
As for Jewish activists monitoring the plight of Jewish communities around the world, the case in Moscow illustrates the hazards of their job.
Even when approached by a credible source with a plausible claim, there’s the chance the activists’ own credibility will be tarnished in the process, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents.
“That’s why you have to know when to speak and what to say, and which actions are appropriate for which circumstances,” said Hoenlein.
(JTA correspondent Lev Gorodetsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.