Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Russian Jews to make a “hefty contribution” to the country’s multiethnic identity Sunday, in a Rosh Hashanah greeting overshadowed by tensions between the Kremlin and the country’s Jewish community amid the invasion of Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of Jews have left Russia since the onslaught began in February, and thousands more are expected to flee to Israel and elsewhere as Moscow plans a partial call-up of reservists to contribute to the war effort.
In the message, Putin noted that while it was important for Russian Jews to remain close to their customs, he emphasized they had a duty to contribute to Russia.
“It is very important that while retaining their loyalty to old spiritual traditions, Russia’s Jews make a hefty contribution to the preservation of cultural diversity in our country, to strengthening interethnic concord and the principles of mutual respect and religious tolerance,” he said.
Nearly 200,000 Jews now live in Russia, though roughly three times as many are eligible for Israeli citizenship, having at least one Jewish grandparent.
Israeli government officials held an emergency meeting last week to prepare for an expected spike in immigration from Russia after Putin decided to mobilize another 300,000 troops, in a move that sparked protests across the country.
Authorities reportedly plan to bolster the number of flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv and find ways to facilitate the transfer of funds out of Russia.
Nearly 40,000 Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians have immigrated to Israel so far this calendar year, officials said last week. Russia provided half of 2022’s new immigrants, with 23,789 documented immigrations. Ukrainians taking on Israeli citizenship followed with 13,097, and a much smaller number — 1,316 — of Belarussians.
In a sign of the Kremlin’s desire to tighten the screws on Jewish immigration, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a petition to a Moscow court in July to liquidate the offices of the Jewish Agency for Israel — the semi-governmental organization which encourages and facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel.
Though the trial officially opened in July, it has not progressed significantly over the past two months, with all of the hearings ending in postponements. The Moscow court will next hear the case on October 19.
One of the most notable figures to have fled Russia is former Moscow chief rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who left for Israel with his wife two weeks after the war began, after first refusing pressure to support the invasion and then openly opposing it.
Earlier this month, dozens of Russian rabbis met in Moscow to discuss the challenges facing them and their communities, and also as a subtle criticism of Goldschmidt.
While not explicitly mentioning the war in Ukraine, the rabbis issued a resolution calling “for peace and the cessation of the bloodshed.”
The Kremlin’s attempts to justify the war as ridding Ukraine of Nazis, including its Jewish president, has also served to strain relationships with Jews.
In May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that Adolf Hitler was part-Jewish and that many Jews were antisemites, drawing strong protests from Israel and Diaspora Jewish groups.
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins at sundown Sunday; other leaders from across the globe also sent their New Year wishes to local Jewish communities.
United States President Joe Biden wrote in his message that the time of “reflection, repentance, and renewal” could also apply to America writ large.
“In the coming year, we must not only look inward, but also look to each other. We must rebuild our communities through empathy and acts of kindness, bridging the gap between the world we see and the future we seek,” he said.
Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese praised the Jewish community’s contributions to society and hailed the return of in-person gatherings as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down
“Your spirit of unity and community will continue to be a light to Australia as we face a year filled with new opportunities and challenges,” Albanese wrote.
Recently appointed UK Prime Minister Liz Truss delivered a video statement on the eve of the holiday, promising to “champion our Jewish community” in the year to come.
“I am determined to stamp out antisemitism. I will be a staunch friend of Israel, and I will always be on your side,” she said.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev thanked his country’s Jewish community for being an “integral part of our society” and boasted of the “peace and tranquility” experienced by the population in Azerbaijan for centuries.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report