In early 2014, citing what he claimed were threats against Jews, Russian speakers and other minorities, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, sparking an ongoing conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people and decimated Jewish life in the east of the former Soviet socialist republic. Prompted by a popular uprising known as the Euromaidan in which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took over the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, deposing pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, the war wreaked havoc on a country still recovering from generations of Russian imperial control.
In the war zone, local Jewish communities — which had been gradually rebuilt in the decades following the end of Communism — began to fall apart as many of their members joined more than 32,000 of their countrymen fleeing the war for Israeli shores. During the early stages of the conflict, Jewish leaders in both Russia and Ukraine joined the fray, attacking their coreligionists in a war of words that paralleled the larger conflict between their respective governments.
The following article, which opens with a Ukrainian rabbi describing the conflict in almost eschatological terms during a sermon against the Russians, is drawn from journalist Sam Sokol’s recently published book “Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.”
“We have lived together with the Ukrainians for a thousand years and Ukraine is our homeland,” the rabbi thundered. “Today we will read from the scroll of Esther, as we have for thousands of years on Purim. And today that reading is of particular importance. Today, a new Haman, our common enemy with the Ukrainians, is very near…”
It was 2014 and the Russians had just invaded the Crimean Peninsula, severing it from the Ukrainian mainland and triggering a conflict that would claim 13,000 lives over the course of the next five years as fighting between government units and Russian-backed separatist militias turned the east of the country into a wasteland.
In Dnipropetrovsk, an eastern city that was rapidly becoming the headquarters of Kyiv’s counter-insurgency, local Chabad emissary Shmuel Kaminezki had become one of Ukraine’s staunchest rabbinic defenders.
While Kaminezki’s congregants applauded his sermon, not all of his rabbinic colleagues were as enthusiastic about such a Manichean message. Comparing Vladimir Putin to a genocidal Biblical villain and painting the conflict in existential terms did not sit well with Russian Chief Rabbi and fellow Chabad Hasid Berel Lazar.
The Italian-born cleric was quick to respond. Several days later, on March 18, the same day that Crimea was officially welcomed into the Russian Federation, Lazar published an open letter decrying Ukrainian rabbinical protests.
“We, the rabbis in Russia and Ukraine, see our duty to urge all parties, and first of all our coreligionists, to peace and search for mutual understanding at this difficult time,” he wrote. “We understand that there are political problems, but believe people, especially spiritual leaders and community leaders, should not interfere in the sphere of activity of politicians. We must not forget that any rash word can lead to dangerous consequences for many people.”
Co-signed by 54 other Chabad rabbis, both in Russia and Ukraine, the letter somewhat undercut the simple narrative that there was a clear demarcation between Ukrainian and Russian religious leaders, with each taking his own country’s side but could not obscure the basic tensions that the Ukraine Crisis had generated between the two Jewish communities.
Immediately after unmarked Russian troops, known colloquially as “little green men,” began establishing control over Crimea, Ukraine’s Brooklyn-born Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a member of the Karlin-Slolin Hasid sect, held a press conference in New York in which he bluntly accused the Kremlin of borrowing tactics from the Third Reich.
“Things may be done by Russians dressing up as Ukrainian nationalists… the same way the Nazis did when they wanted to go into Austria and created provocations,” Bleich said, intimating that attacks on Jews during the recent revolution in which Ukrainians had deposed their corrupt, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych had been orchestrated by Moscow. “The Russians are blowing [Ukrainian antisemitism] way, way out of proportion. There were many differences of opinion throughout the revolution, but today all that is gone. We’re faced by an outside threat called Russia. It’s brought everyone together.”
Bleich’s statement was more than Russia’s Jewish leaders could tolerate. During his rise to power, Putin had worked hard to bind the country’s organized Jewish community to his regime, sidelining the more independently-minded Russian Jewish Congress and positioning the Chabad-aligned Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR) as the dominant force in Russian Judaism. Chabad, which has been criticized in some quarters for its willingness to stay out of politics and its closeness to national leaders rejected by other Jewish denominations, seemed to have no choice but to go along to get along.
Now, responding to the Ukrainian Jews’ harsh words, Russia’s Kremlin-aligned rabbinic leadership came to Putin’s defense. As the clock ticked down on a Russian deadline for Ukrainian forces in Crimea to surrender, Alexander Boroda, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, urged his Ukrainian coreligionists to remain silent. “Jews and rabbis should stay away from politics,” he flatly stated, asserting that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict was “not connected to the Jews.” And while the current climate was not one of rampant antisemitism, he said, the future was still uncertain. “We feel like one family, the Jews in Ukraine and Russia, like one community, and we worry for the Ukrainian Jews.”
That same afternoon Vladimir Putin held a press conference in Moscow in which he both denied that the little green men were Russian troops and stated that any Russia military action would, in fact, be totally legal, as he had received a “direct appeal” from Viktor Yanukovych, the “legitimate” president of Ukraine, to use Russia’s armed forces “to protect the lives, freedom and health of the citizens of Ukraine.”
“What is our biggest concern,” he asked rhetorically. “We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.” Reciting a litany of alleged Ukrainian abuses, Putin asserted that Russia retained the right “to use all available means to protect those people.”
The heads of a number of Jewish organizations, including the leaders of the Ukrainian branches of the Reform and Conservative movements, were livid. In a joint letter to Putin, they accused the Russian ruler of propagating “lies and slander.” Putin may have gotten “Ukraine confused with Russia, where Jewish organizations have noticed growth in antisemitic tendencies last year,” they declared sardonically. “Our very few nationalists are well controlled by civil society and the new Ukrainian government—which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services.” Moreover, they continued, minorities were also well represented in the cabinet, with Volodymyr Groysman, the Jewish mayor of Vinnytsia, having been appointed as a Vice Prime Minister. (He would subsequently be appointed parliamentary speaker and, in 2016, Prime Minister.) Stating that the main threat to Ukraine was Putin himself, the Jewish leaders emphatically concluded they did “not wish to be ‘defended’ by Russia.
Since the end of the Euromaidan, the organized community had become increasingly patriotic. Describing the immediate post-Maidan period, Zelig Brez—the round-faced, bearded, and perpetually friendly director of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community—said that he believed a new political Ukrainian nation had been born in the fires of the conflict, one in which the historic mistrust between the various ethnic groups in the country had begun to disappear. Jews, he said, were “feeling proud to be the citizens of Ukraine,” and are no longer “a very isolated group that was … not so involved in the general community.”
Brez and Kaminezki’s community had more reason than many to feel this way. Their main financial benefactor, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, had recently been appointed as governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast (district) and had been tasked with suppressing budding pro-Russian separatist movements in the region.
It was this patriotic sentiment that was on display when Kaminezki described Putin as Haman, triggering many of his colleagues on both sides of the line to call for rabbis to refrain from making political statements.
Writing in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Kiril Feferman, a Russian Holocaust scholar at Ariel University, explained that “the attitudes of the Russian and Ukrainian rabbis vis-à-vis the Ukrainian crisis mirror to no small extent the line pursued by their governments.”
“The Ukrainian government repeatedly claimed that Ukraine was at war with Russia; therefore, the Ukrainian rabbis acted in accordance with this position by calling upon their coreligionists to unequivocally support Ukraine in this struggle,” he wrote.
“The Kremlin persists in claiming that Russia is not at war with Ukraine, but rather that Ukraine is embroiled in a civil war. This enables the Russian rabbis to steer away from the conflict and call upon Ukrainian Jews to follow their example by not getting entangled in a war that has nothing to do with them. In fact, the Russian rabbis’ position is reminiscent of a Jewish pre-modern communal policy of refraining from getting involved in state affairs, especially the wars waged by Gentiles. It seems that as long as the Kremlin does not ask all political, ethnic, and religious groups to fully commit to supporting Russian policies in Ukraine, the Russian rabbis are able to remain noncommittal.”
Ukraine, on the other hand, was “a young nation-state in the process of state building” which felt threatened and whose “government expects all ethnic and religious groups to support its policies unequivocally. In such a setting, the Ukrainian rabbis do not have the same leeway as do their Russian counterparts, and have no choice but to fully identify with the policies of their government.”
Taking Feferman’s hypothesis into account, the behavior of the rabbis aligned with Lazar can be explained by their distance from the centers of power in Ukraine and their ideological alignment with Chabad. Many of those who did speak out—such as Bleich and local Conservative and Reform leaders—were either close to the Ukrainian authorities or members of more progressive, socially integrated denominations. Lazar appeared to have been banking on this natural reticence to engage in politics to bring his fellow “Chabadniks” in Ukraine around in opposition to their more outspoken colleagues.
This did not mean, however, that Russia’s Jewish leadership did not engage in actions that could be seen as propagandizing for the Kremlin.
Every summer since 1992, the Jews of Sevastopol have held a sparsely attended Holocaust memorial ceremony. Never a large event, it invariably failed to garner the kind of attention lavished on similar gatherings in more prominent cities. Following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, however, the event ballooned from a few dozen participants to several hundred.
In July 2014, large delegations of rabbis and journalists, flown into Crimea from Moscow in a chartered plane and whisked through the streets by a police escort, mingled with locals at the monument, now guarded by Russian troops. This was a logical next move for Russia. Vladimir Putin had previously made himself out to be the savior of the Jews, first during his March 3 press conference, when he used the issue of antisemitism as a justification for military intervention, and later at a meeting of rabbis shortly before the commemoration.
Addressing Israeli and European rabbis in Moscow shortly before the commemoration, Putin had made a statement widely interpreted as intimating that his western neighbor had slipped into fascism. Praising his own country’s efforts to preserve the memory of pre-war Jewry, the Russian president stated that he wanted “to assure you that in Russia, we will not only always remember these tragedies, but also forever carefully maintain the memory of those who perished.”
“And we will do everything to ensure that such tragedies do not reoccur in the future,” he said. “Of course, the revival of Nazi ideas here and there is particularly alarming. I want to thank the Jewish community and public organizations that are actively and bravely… continuing to uncompromisingly fight against any displays and any attempts to revive Nazi ideology. I want to say that in this regard, we consider you to be our closest allies and I am asking you to view us in the same light.”
The next day in Sevastopol, there was little illusion about the fact that the entire spectacle had been arranged in order to make Moscow look good. Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for Berel Lazar, was incredibly blunt about what was happening. “You can’t hide the fact that it is very important for Putin and the Kremlin that everything takes place in an orderly fashion in Crimea,” he told the JTA. “There’s much more media interest in this ceremony this year. And, of course, this is also in the interest of propaganda, to show that everything is going all right there and that there’s no antisemitism but [rather] peace and quiet.”
It was obvious from the beginning that the main purpose of the event was to give a gloss of legitimacy to the occupation by presenting it as beneficial to local minorities, and media outreach during the run-up to the commemoration demonstrated clearly that Russia was also interested in promoting a narrative of international acceptance of its conquest. In invitations to the event sent to reporters by the Russian public relations firm Mikhailov and Partners, Israeli Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef were listed among a number of influential Israeli rabbis expected to attend. Bringing senior Israeli officials would have indicated an Israeli acquiescence to Russian revanchism. Unfortunately for the Russians, both rabbis’ offices denied any knowledge of the event, with Lau’s assistant calling it a “scam.”
“No one invited him,” he told me. “He would never go there. It’s crazy.”
The questionable claims kept piling up. Despite assertions by both the Federation of Jewish Communities and Mikhailov and Partners that the Crimean Jewish community was involved in organizing the event, local Chabad rabbi Benjamin Wolf was clear that he was not and had received minimal advance information. By the time of the event itself, however, Wolf and other locals interviewed were effusive in their praise for their new masters. Speaking with the JTA, Wolf asserted that “the situation has changed for the better” and that the government was giving the Jews everything they needed. “Jews feel at ease here,” he told the news agency. “They are not ashamed to identify themselves as Jews, and it’s partly because of instructions that come from the top, from high-level bureaucrats to junior ones, that Jews are to be respected and assisted.”
Ironically, despite the conflict initially appearing to drive Russian and Ukrainian Jews apart, for the most part this split didn’t hamper day-to-day cooperation on the ground. In fact, the conflict between the two countries’ Jewish communities remained largely rhetorical. As the war in the east escalated and Ukrainians began to flee in large numbers from the conflict zone, Russia’s Jewish community, together with Diaspora organizations like the JDC, began pumping money into Ukraine in order to resettle Jewish refugees and rabbis on both sides began working together for humanitarian purposes.
By late 2014, as the exodus from the east swelled to a flood, local Jewish communities began to wither away. While exact figures from that period are hard to come by, we do know that by mid-September Lyudmila Saprikina, the head of the Donetsk branch of Hesed -a social services organization run by the JDC- estimated that somewhere around 70 percent of the city’s Jews had fled.
Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities involved itself in a variety of refugee resettlement efforts, including the establishment, together with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, of a refugee transit camp in Zarychany, a suburb of Zhytomyr.
The Moscow-based Federation worked closely with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in providing funding for the refugees, Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, the former head of the Jewish community of occupied-Donetsk, told the Times of Israel. The Federation, said the rabbi, who now heads a congregation of displaced Jews in Kyiv, matched the IFCJ Dollar for Dollar, which, if correct, means that the organization must have poured millions into Ukraine.
“They really care and are still giving, even when they are having budget problems, in order to help the Jews here,” he said.
It seems that while war drove Russia and Ukraine’s Jewish communities apart, when push came to shove and Jews were suffering, it also united them.