Ex-Moscow chief rabbi calls on Russia Jews to flee after top official attacks Chabad
Community finds itself in the crosshairs after Russian national security official calls Hasidic sect, the largest Jewish movement in the former Soviet Union, a supremacist cult
Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.
Former chief rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt on Thursday called on Russian Jews to flee the country after a top Russian defense official assailed the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement as a supremacist cult.
In an article for the government-owned Argumenty i Fakty weekly newspaper calling for the “desatanization” of Ukraine, assistant secretary of the Russian Security Council Aleksey Pavlov had claimed that the country was home to hundreds of neo-pagan cults, including the Chabad-Lubavitch sect.
“The main principle of the Lubavitch Hasidim is the superiority of the supporters of the sect over all nations and peoples,” Pavlov wrote.
In a tweet, Goldschmidt, who also serves as the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, decried the security official’s remarks, along with other recent measures by Russian authorities, as antisemitic.
“An attack by the Russian government against Chabad, as well as the attacks against the Jewish Agency for Israel, are antisemitic acts against all of us,” said Goldschmidt, who fled Russia earlier this year after working in the country for decades.
Goldschmidt was referring to an ongoing legal battle that Russian authorities launched against the Jewish Agency, a group that encourages Jewish immigration to Israel and also organizes Jewish cultural and educational activities in Russia.
“We reiterate our call to all of our brothers and sisters still remaining in Russia and able to leave the country to do so,” he said.
Pavlov’s remarks raised major fears among Russia’s Jewish community, which overwhelmingly identifies with the Chabad movement. Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar is himself a Lubavitcher, as are the vast majority of the rabbis in the country and throughout much of the former Soviet Union.
A spokesperson for the Russian Jewish community, Baruch Gorin, who is also a member of Chabad, told Israel’s Kan public broadcaster that Pavlov’s comments raised the specter not just of Jew-hatred but of an official policy of antisemitism by Russian authorities.
“There’s a huge difference between antisemitism and antisemitism that’s a policy of the state. For the past few decades, we’ve gotten used to this not being the case, that this was stricken from the political map in Russia, that there’s no official antisemitism or discrimination against Jews,” Gorin said.
“Now we are under pressure, wondering if what was published in the newspaper — this interview with a top security official — represents the start of an official wave of antisemitism. I think that would be the end of a Jewish presence in Russia. Official antisemitism would drive every Russian Jew out of the country,” he said.
Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine in February, the Chabad movement in Russia has attempted to keep itself out of the crosshairs on all sides. Its rabbis in Russia have denounced the war and the bloodshed, calling for it to end, but have refrained from blaming Moscow for it, leaving vague the issue of culpability for the conflict. Members have also not-so-subtly criticized Goldschmidt, who is not a member of the movement, for his decision to leave Russia and his community in order to more freely criticize the war and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Pavlov’s article demonstrated the precariousness of Chabad’s status in Russia in general and calls into question the success of its balancing act regarding the war.
In response to the article, Russia’s chief rabbi Lazar, who was once considered close to Putin, penned an open letter to Russian authorities on Wednesday, calling on them to condemn Pavlov’s remarks.
“You can call Mr. Pavlov’s logic nonsensical or vulgar and superficial antisemitism, but this is a new variety of old blood libels. And if they are being uttered by a member of the Russian Security Council, this represents a great danger. Therefore, we demand an immediate and unequivocal response from society and from the country’s authorities,” Lazar wrote.