Photo Credit: Rabbi YY Rubinstein
Rabbi YY Rubinstein

A few weeks ago, I was flying back to New York from England. I spent two hours learning Torah and another two writing a piece for The Jewish Press. Then I decided to search through the plane’s movies for a documentary and was intrigued to find one about Vladimir Putin. It was made by Oliver Stone, the famous director who made films like Scarface, Platoon, and Natural Born Killers.

Stone’s documentary work includes a tribute to his dear friend Hugo Chavez. Stone defended his decision not to interview Chávez’s opponents (gosh! why would anyone do that?) and praised Chávez as a leader of social transformation in Latin America.

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In a 2010 interview with the British newspaper, The Times, Stone complained about Jewish “domination” of parts of the U.S. media and foreign policy, noting that his view on Adolf Hitler was not understood due to Jewish control of the media.

In the four-part documentary on Putin, in which Stone displays his adoration of the Russian leader, he asks one softball question after another. Russia, bad guys? “Nyet!” Cyber mischief? “Ha ha ha, nyet. Don’t be silly.” Interfering with other countries’ elections? “Fooey! We never do such things. What makes people say hurtful stuff about us?”

I watched more of the same, a useful idiot nodding and smiling encouragingly at another one of his friends. It was embarrassing stuff, but I took in all four episodes, trying to look beneath the sickly veneer applied to the Russian president by his fan.

Since then, Russia has been accused of more recent nefarious naughtiness, which President Putin once again has totally and unequivocally denied. On March 4 of this year, an ex-Russian intelligence officer and double agent for the UK’s MI6, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, were poisoned in Salisbury with a nerve agent called Novichok. The British government accused Russia of attempted murder, announced a series of punitive measures, and threw out a bunch of Russian diplomats. Twenty-eight other countries did the same.

Russia denied the accusations and accused Britain of the poisoning. The British authorities identified two Russian nationals, using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as suspects in the Skripal’s poisoning. The two men were interviewed on Russian television and claimed they were businessmen and tourists visiting the city.

“We always wanted to see Salisbury, didn’t we, Ruslan?”

“Yes, Alexander! With its beautiful cathedral… number one UK Tourist destination.”

Oliver Stone’s pal Putin carried on denying any Russian involvement whatsoever. Then things got sticky. The two Russians claimed to have planned their holiday long in advance, but their flights were actually booked at the last minute. Their passports had consecutive numbers and, in one case, markings indicating the owner belonged to military intelligence.

On September 26, the investigative website Bellingcat positively identified the man known as Ruslan Boshirov as the highly decorated GRU colonel Anatoliy Chepiga. He had personally received a rarely-bestowed medal from… President Putin. The real identity of the suspect named by police as Alexander Petrov was Dr. Alexander Mishkin, also of the GRU.

The reality behind Putin’s denials is coming out with regard to interference in Western elections. The commissioning by the Clinton campaign of a dossier of accusations against Donald Trump to advance its candidate is a proven fact. The dossier was compiled by an ex-British intelligence agent whose information came from… Russia.

The FBI acted on that information to monitor and  the Trump campaign. What the Mueller investigation will or will not show about alleged Russian manipulation by the Trump campaign to damage Clinton will be revealed after the mid-term elections.

The Iranians, too, flatly deny allegations of having promoted American and Western politicians who are sympathetic to them across social media. The disappearance of Jamal Khashooggi similarly produced a Putin-style response from Saudi Arabia. Total denial seems to be the new norm.

Actually, perhaps it is not new. We just read in last week’s parshah about Pharaoh’s abduction of Sarah. He denied knowing she was a married woman, something a careful reading of the text and rabbinic tradition indicates was a clear lie. Avimelech, when he later abducted her, even went so far as to deny his guilt to G-d Himself.

It seems that rulers and politicians have been lying ever since there were rulers and politicians. Actually, I wouldn’t expect it to be otherwise. Rulers and politicians might have to lie and obfuscate. After all, their job is to protect their people and national interests, and national interests tend to be messy. Hiding the mess comes with the job description. I think we would be as naive as an Oliver Stone to think anything else.

Perhaps we should simply keep in mind Pirkei Avot 2:3, which cautions, “Be careful of rulers. They befriend people to use them for their own purposes. They appear benign when it suits them” – and abandon you when it suits them, too.

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