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Russian chief rabbi protests as top official describes Chabad as a supremacist cult

In an article calling for the ‘desatanization’ of Ukraine, Russia’s assistant national security adviser includes Chabad-Lubavitch in his list of ‘neo-pagan cults’

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

Illustrative: Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar (left), during a ceremony unveiling the memorial to members of the Jewish resistance in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, on June 4, 2019. (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/AFP)
Illustrative: Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar (left), during a ceremony unveiling the memorial to members of the Jewish resistance in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, on June 4, 2019. (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/AFP)

A top Russian national security official referred to the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement in Ukraine as a supremacist cult on Tuesday, drawing fierce condemnation from Russia’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, who is himself a Lubavitcher.

In an article for the government-owned Argumenty i Fakty weekly newspaper, assistant secretary of the Russian Security Council Aleksey Pavlov called for the “desatanization” of Ukraine, claiming that the country is home to hundreds of neo-pagan cults.

Pavlov included in his list of cults the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, which began in the 18th century in Russia and is today a major religious force throughout the former Soviet Union and in Russia and Ukraine in particular.

“The main principle of the Lubavitch Hasidim is the superiority of the supporters of the sect over all nations and peoples,” Pavlov wrote.

Though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is largely considered in geopolitical terms, the war has also had religious elements as well, with the head of the Russian church firmly backing the war and referring to it as a sort of crusade.

In his article, Pavlov appeared to be channeling this religious view of the conflict. “I believe that with the continuation of the special military operation, it becomes more and more urgent to carry out the desatanization of Ukraine,” he wrote.

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 also refrained from blaming Moscow for it, leaving the issue of culpability for the conflict vague. Members of the organization have also not-so-subtly criticized the former chief rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas 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.

Russian chief rabbi Berel Lazar addresses a gathering of Russian rabbis in Moscow on September 5, 2022. (Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia)

Pavlov’s article demonstrates 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, calling for 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.

In his letter, Lazar noted that he was a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, as were “90 percent of the rabbis operating in Russia!”

Lazar rejected Pavlov’s claims that Chabad was a cult and that it considers itself to be superior to others, noting the organization’s extensive interfaith work in Russia and abroad.

In recent months, Moscow has cracked down on the activities of the Jewish Agency in Russia, putting the organization on trial for allegedly storing data on Russian citizens improperly. Though an independent organization, the Jewish Agency works closely with the Israeli government and encourages immigration to Israel, in addition to organizing Jewish cultural and educational activities in Russia.

Due to its close ties to the Israeli government, Russian authorities’ moves against the group were initially seen as an attempt by Moscow to exert diplomatic pressure on Israel. Now, however, the moves against the Jewish Agency are seen more as part of an overall crackdown on civil society in Russia, which has been going on for years.

Last month, Putin also appeared to warn Russian Jews against leaving the country, which tens of thousands have done since the start of the war in Ukraine, saying 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.

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