The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has pitted Jewish leaders from both countries against each other, touching off a discordant exchange between prominent rabbis on opposite sides of the border.
The discord had been brewing since the onset of the protests in Ukraine in November, but it turned public earlier this month after Russia deployed its military in Crimea in response to what President Vladimir Putin claimed was a “rampage” of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups.
Putin’s claim sparked angry reactions from Ukrainian Jewish leaders, many of whom said it was a false justification for aggressive Russian actions that were more dangerous to Jews than any homegrown nationalism.
On Monday, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, hit back, urging Ukrainian Jews to stay silent on matters of geopolitics and reiterating concerns about anti-Semitism in the post-revolutionary government — concerns that he further suggested Ukrainian Jews were too afraid to voice for themselves.
“The Jewish community should not be the one sending messages to President Barack Obama about his policy or to President Putin or to any other leader. I think it’s the wrong attitude,” Lazar told JTA.
The revolution in Ukraine, a country with bitter memories of Soviet domination but also a large population of Russian speakers, erupted last fall after President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Svoboda, an ultranationalist political party that Ukrainian Jewish leaders consider both anti-Semitic and dangerous, played a prominent role in the uprising that eventually ousted Yanukovych from office last month.
Amid the revolutionary turmoil, several anti-Semitic incidents occurred, including the stabbing of a religious Jew in Kiev, several street beatings of Jews, the attempted torching of a synagogue and, at another synagogue, the spray-painting of swastikas and “Death to the Jews.”
At a March 4 news conference in Moscow, Putin said Russia’s “biggest concern” was “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine,” warning that Russia would make further incursions if minorities were endangered.
In response, Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, or Vaad, and 20 other leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community sent Putin an open letter in which they disputed the existence of unusual levels of anti-Semitism in post-revolutionary Ukraine and accused Russia of threatening the security of Ukrainians.
“Your policy of inciting separatism and crude pressure placed on Ukraine threatens us and all Ukrainian people,” the letter said.
On Wednesday, Vaad placed the letter as a full-page ad in The New York Times and several other newspapers.
To Lazar, a senior Chabad rabbi who spoke to JTA this week at the biannual conference of the Rabbinical Center of Europe in Budapest, the Vaad letter was a case of Jewish leaders involving themselves in issues that don’t directly concern the Jewish community.
It was a sharper version of previous calls for Jewish silence on the Ukraine crisis, including a March 17 statement co-signed by Lazar and 47 other Russian and Ukrainian rabbis, many of them affiliated with Chabad.
“Religious and community leaders should stay out of the political sphere,” the letter said. “Do not forget: Any thoughtless word can lead to dangerous consequences for many.”
But several Ukrainian Jewish leaders said that by using anti-Semitism to justify his actions, Putin had left them no choice but to speak out.
“We were not the ones who brought the Jews into the debate to make it a Jewish question,” said Yaakov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis. “Putin did it by his cynical abuse of anti-Semitism as a justification for his actions.”