Russian Jewish leader urges silence over Crimea

by Sam Sokol

A senior leader of the Russian Jewish community has urged his Ukrainian co-religionists to remain silent regarding the Russian military’s takeover of the Crimean Peninsula last week. Russia, whose Black Sea fleet is based in the semi-autonomous region, sent troops in over the weekend, claiming to protect its citizens. There is a large ethnic Russian minority in the province, which has traditionally identified itself with its eastern neighbor.

Moscow has given Kiev until Tuesday morning to surrender its forces in the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainians are currently in the midst of calling up their army reserves.

In response to the incursion, several religious leaders in Ukraine, including Chief Rabbi and President of the Jewish Federation of Ukraine Jacob Dov Bleich, called on Russia to “stop its aggression against Ukraine” and pull out its troops.

The letter also appealed to the international community to “stop [the] foreign invasion into Ukraine and brutal interference into our internal affairs.”

Alexander Boroda, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, told The Jerusalem Post by phone on Monday that Rabbi Bleich’s entreaties were counterproductive.

Stating that the current conflict in the Crimea is “not connected to the Jews,” Boroda declared that “Jews and rabbis should stay away from politics.”

While the current climate is not one of rampant anti-Semitism, “we don’t know what will be tomorrow,” he said.

“We feel like one family, the Jews in Ukraine and Russia, like one community, and we worry for the Ukrainian Jews,” the Russian Jewish leader added.

Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, has previously come under criticism for his role as President Vladimir Putin’s “court Jew,” as some Jewish activists have alleged, and for his vigorous activism on behalf of the ruling regime.

While widespread anti-Semitism has not been reported in the Crimea since the invasion, there has been at least one incident in which the Jewish community was targeted.

Graffiti calling for “Death to the Jews” was found on a synagogue in the Crimea’s Ner Tamid Reform synagogue last week, prompting Anatoly Gendin, head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Crimea, to assert that “Jews are [being] held responsible” and are being “blamed” for the “disasters” facing those living in the Crimea.

A pig’s head was thrown at the construction site of a new Chabad synagogue in Sevastopol last year, during a public campaign against the hassidic group, which locals deemed a cult. Sevastopol’s self-proclaimed Chabad Chief RabbiBenjamin Wolf was assaulted on his way home from synagogue in 2007, suffering a broken nose and a concussion.

Wolf, who is currently in Israel, was unwilling to submit to an interview with the Post, but did send a statement indicating that the Crimean Jewish community, which he estimated at 50,000 people, is preparing “assistance of medical supplies, food, fuel, technical measures and financial support to Jews and local residents.”

According to the World Jewish Congress, there are some 15,000 Jews in Crimea.

“I keep in close contact with representatives of the various cities and examine the needs of the Jews there,” the rabbi said, praying for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

In a statement released Friday, Rabbi Michael Kapustin of the Ner Tamid Reform synagogue in Simferopol, in the Crimean Peninsula, said he would go to his synagogue to light candles even though services were canceled for security reasons.

“The city is occupied by Russians. Apparently Russians intend to take over the Crimea and make it a part of Russia,” Kapustin said. ”If this were the case, I would leave the country. In this case, I will leave this country since I want to live in democratic Ukraine.”

Aside from Ner Tamid, however, other Jewish institutions have not shut down, Rabbi Menachem Margolin of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, who reports having been in contact with local Jewish groups, told the Post.

Life is “continuing as usual” and preparations for the upcoming Purim and Passover holidays are being “held as scheduled,” he asserted.

Schools, he added, are also open.

Rabbi Bleich’s was not the only Jewish protest lodged against the Russian incursion.

A representative of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, a communal body founded by oligarch and legislator Oleksandr Feldman, told the Post that, while “there is no specific Jewish reaction,” the Jewish community “as citizens of Ukraine are united in condemning the Russia intervention.”

“We, of course, support Rabbi Bleich and other religious leaders.”

In a statement on Monday, Feldman said that a united Ukrainian civil society “condemns Russian Federation military intervention and calls upon President Putin to immediately withdraw the troops.”

“We call upon all our fellow citizens not to allow any expressions, actions or inactions, which can be used by extremists in their goals,” he added, in what appeared to be a plea for ethnic tolerance.

“Today’s Ukraine is a native home for tens of millions of people of 130 ethnic groups and national backgrounds.

We believe it is inappropriate and strongly condemn any ideological and violent attempts and calls to destroy Ukraine’s integrity.”

Ukraine’s Jewish community is far from monolithic and other organizations, including the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (Vaad), have thus far refrained from issuing public statements on the Russian occupation.

The World Jewish Congress called upon “all sides” in the conflict to protect the Jewish community and other minorities.

“There should be no incidents of the kind that hit Simferopol,” WJC President Ronald Lauder said Monday.

““This ugly vandalism underscores the need for protection of Jews and other minorities and for heightened vigilance around their institutions in this unsettled period.”

“Our concern is that anti-Semitic elements not exploit the unrest to commit acts of violence against individual Jews or Jewish institutions.”

The Jews of the Crimea should emigrate to Israel, “which was created for Jews who are in danger in the Diaspora,” Alex Selsky, CEO of the World Forum of Russian Speaking Jews told the Post. “If the Jews feel insecure they definitely can make aliya to Israel.”

“If they decide to stay in the Diaspora, we will help them to secure their communities; but this conflict is not Jewish and we don’t have a political statement on it,” he added, noting that a team of Israelis affiliated with the Otzma organization is set to arrive in Kiev next week to prepare a seminar on self-defense.

Calling on local Jews to stay out of the conflict, the Forum official said that he is “afraid that the tension from the Crimea will affect and cause anti-Semitism in other areas” should it become in any way a Jewish issue.

“The situation is very dangerous,” local Rabbi Moshe Azman told the Post, echoing the Jewish organizations’ sentiments. “We pray to stop a war.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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