Holding Torah scroll, Kyiv rabbi curses Russians standing by amid Ukraine invasion

Contentious St. Petersburg-born Rabbi Azman accuses Russia of attacking indiscriminately, unlike Israel; another chief rabbi compares Putin to Hitler, calls to destroy tank convoy

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Moshe Azman is seen in a video statement, March 2, 2022. (Screenshot: Twitter)
Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Moshe Azman is seen in a video statement, March 2, 2022. (Screenshot: Twitter)

A prominent Kyiv-based rabbi on Tuesday issued a fiery condemnation of Russian people, and specifically Russian Jews, for standing idly by as Moscow pummels Ukraine for the sixth straight day in an attempted invasion.

“Remember that he who does not care and he who agrees silently — that is an accomplice to a crime. A war crime! A crime against humanity!” said the St. Petersburg-born Rabbi Moshe Azman, one of several men who claim to be Ukraine’s chief rabbi.

“I never thought, even in my worst nightmare, that I might have to perish under the shells of Russia, where I was born, where I went to school, where I have many friends, who are silent. Basically, no one has called and asked [how I’m doing]. People call from all over the world. From all over the world. Jews and non-Jews. Even Arabs call me from Israel and support me,” he said, speaking in Russian, in a video statement shared on social media late Tuesday night.

In addition to his disputed status as Ukraine’s chief rabbi — at least three other men also claim the title — Azman made waves last year when he came out in support of the storming of the US Capitol building. He also maintained close ties with several of former US president Donald Trump’s associates involved in the so-called Ukrainegate scandal, in which Trump attempted to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless Kyiv announced it was investigating US President Joe Biden’s son.

In his video, Azman accused the Russian military of indiscriminately bombing Ukraine using Grad rockets, simple 122-mm rockets fired from a truck-mounted launcher, which he contrasted with the Israeli military’s use of “high accuracy missiles” to kill terrorists “so as to not, God forbid, hurt the peaceful population.”

“Here? Look. Look at the videos. Maybe you’re not shown this. They shoot with Grad. Gras are not high-accuracy weapons. Grads, tanks, ballistic rockets, planes. What’s going on? War. War! War!” he said.

Holding a Torah scroll, Azman said he “curses” those who are “silent accomplices in this horrible crime.”

“I’m standing with the holy Torah. This Torah has been given to us by the Almighty. And I’m telling you on the Torah,” he says.

In a no less bellicose interview, another chief rabbi of Ukraine, Yaakov Bleich, who is recognized as such by the World Jewish Congress and European Jewish Congress, told CNN that he considered Vladimir Putin to be a Nazi and called for the world to intervene.

“From Friday it went from a war against the Ukrainian army to a war against the people,” Bleich told the outlet. “I’m not gonna call it a genocide because he’s just killing everybody indiscriminately, he doesn’t care about what their genetics are or where they’re coming from.

“He’s killing those people that he said he wants to protect. He’s bombing Kharkiv, which has many Russian-speaking people. Wasn’t he coming to save the Russian-speaking people?”

On Putin’s claim that he seeks to “de-Nazify” Ukraine with the offensive, Bleich says: “The Nazi that should be de-Nazified — his name is Vladimir Putin.”

Bleich said he’s calling on the entire world to act: “Let’s get up and do something. We can still stop him. We couldn’t stop Hitler in World War II — well maybe we could have but we didn’t — but now we could stop [Putin].

“The world can stop him, NATO can stop him, the United States can stop him. And we can save millions of lives, just by destroying his echelon, 37 miles long of tanks and armored vehicles, where he’s going to destroy the capital of Ukraine and the people that live there. It’s time for the world to do something,” he said.

Last Thursday, following months of build-up, Putin ordered troops to invade the increasingly pro-Western Ukraine to “de-militarize” and “denazify” the country, which has a democratically elected Jewish president.

Ukraine says more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict as of Wednesday. The International Criminal Court has opened a war crimes investigation against Russia.

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