RUSSIA: Total Eclipse of Soviet-Era Chief Rabbi.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 24 July 2001

With the appointment in March of Berl Lazar in place of Adolf Shayevich on the presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations, the Putin administration placed its definitive seal of approval on the former as the legitimate leader of Russia's Jews. Until the Council reshuffle, the two chief rabbis were both routinely included on the guest lists of prominent church-state functions, such as last November's Interreligious Peace Forum in Moscow. By contrast, the two rival leaders of another divided confession in Russia – Islam - still are.

As an Italian-born US citizen, Lazar's meteoric rise to the top of Russia's religious establishment is particularly remarkable. In order to rank among the minimum ten persons comprising the legal entity of a religious organisation, according to Russia's 1997 law on religion, a foreign citizen must be 'permanently and legally resident in the Russian Federation'. The two Catholic apostolic administrations (dioceses) of southern European Russia and eastern Siberia are still without legal status because the foreign citizens who head them have been denied residence permits. Officials told Bishop Clemens Pickel, a German, and Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Pole, that the only way they could obtain a residence permit - let alone Russian citizenship - would be 'to marry a Russian'. Lazar was evidently given no such ultimatum - his wife is a US citizen.

Lazar was voted chief rabbi at a 13 June 2000 conference in Moscow attended by approximately 140 representatives of Jewish communities throughout Russia and 26 predominantly Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis. The question of whether this gathering had a mandate to speak for the majority of the country's practising Jews is still keenly disputed. Shayevich was 'appointed during Soviet times to follow the government line,' according to Avrohom Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (of which Lazar's Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia - commonly known by its Russian acronym 'FEOR' - is the key member). Lazar, by contrast, 'was democratically elected,' Berkowitz told Keston News Service on 26 March, 'the majority of communities are within the federation [FEOR] and so voted for him.'

A board member of the Russian Jewish Congress, which until 1 March was presided over by out-of-favour oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, Tankred Golenpolsky maintained that at the 13 June meeting there had been no one present - 'least of all Shayevich' - from the Gusinsky-backed rival organisation to FEOR, the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organisations of Russia (commonly also known by its Russian acronym, KEROOR). In an interview with Keston on 4 April, Golenpolsky likened the June meeting to the recent take-over of Gusinsky-owned independent Russian television station NTV: 'the people concerned weren't there.'

In fact, however, a handful of KEROOR representatives were invited to the 13 June meeting, head of 'Khesed Barukh' Jewish community Igor Bukhman told Keston in Kursk (335 miles, 540 kilometres south of Moscow) on 19 May, of whom he was the only one to address the meeting - and voice opposition to the chief rabbi vote. 'I said that this open argument is inadmissible - first one and then the other going to the Kremlin - there shouldn't be fights between rabbis over political interests,' said Bukhman. In his view, Judaism 'should not be a card in some kind of political game - the consequences are always bad. Politics should not interfere in religion.'

Whereas Bukhman considered the chief rabbi dispute to be '80 per cent political,' Golenpolsky doubted that it had any religious basis whatsoever. 'The whole thing was political: content, not even overtones,' he remarked. And while Bukhman merely suspected that Lazar was elected chief rabbi 'in order to kick the political stool from under Gusinsky,' commenting that 'it happened because the rabbis allowed it to happen,' Golenpolsky laid the blame for the action squarely on the Putin government: 'Gusinsky, with his money, allowed organisations to be independent, which the government does not want.' According to director of KEROOR Zinovy Kogan, Vladimir Putin initially accepted Shayevich as part of an inherited nomenklatura, but when in early 2000 Shayevich conveyed a request to the Russian president from by-then persona non grata Gusinsky to attend a Kremlin prize-giving ceremony, he became furious: 'from that point onwards Shayevich was Gusinsky's man in his eyes.'

Berkowitz, by contrast, argues that Gusinsky had no bearing on events. Even after Gusinsky had left his post as president of the Russian Jewish Congress and could therefore no longer be considered a factor, he pointed out, Lazar had still replaced Shayevich on the presidential religious council: 'The government is respecting the decision of the Jewish communities.'

Apparent indications of government support for Lazar since his election have included the signing in late June 2000 of a contract outlining cooperation between FEOR and the Ministry of Culture, a September 2000 meeting between a senior representative of the general public prosecutor's office and Lazar as representative of Russia's entire Jewish community, and prominent visits by President Putin to FEOR's main synagogue in Marina Roshcha in September and December 2000. Only the replacement of Shayevich by Lazar on the presidential Council, however, has provoked public protest from KEROOR communities at 'such clear discrimination against traditional Judaism in favour of Chabad, represented by Lazar'.

Speaking to Keston on 8 June, Kogan was in fact unable to suggest any other instance of clear preference, and maintained that the transition period in which one or other, or both, chief rabbis might be asked to represent Russia's Jews is not yet over. Whereas Lazar is the sole Jewish representative among the trustees of the recently-founded All-Russian National Military Fund, explained Kogan, Shayevich was invited to an official visit by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in early June. He admitted, however, that KEROOR has already learned that only Lazar will be invited to state commemorations of Revolution Day on 7 November.

To what extent does the dispute concern Jews in Russia's provinces? In the city of Petrozavodsk (575 miles, 925 kilometres north of Moscow), the independent Jewish community 'does not care at all' who is chief rabbi, its leader Dmitri Tsvibel told Keston on 19 April. In his view, the arguments in Moscow 'are all about money and sphere of influence, nothing else', with the absence of a religious element in the dispute reinforced by the fact that 'it is not clear what Lazar represents - there is nothing from either Lazar or Shayevich on doctrinal issues, no theoretical articles'. Tsvibel saw the institution of chief rabbi of Russia as in any case highly unnatural. 'It is not the practice for Jews to have a chief rabbi. Each community lives its own life with no structures, no heads. Christians have a strict hierarchy, but we don't. And two chief rabbis - that's a lot.'

Besides the individual financial interests of its members, Tsvibel suggested to Keston that one reason for government support for Lazar's active organisation might be to convince the United States that, since the Jewish community was experiencing healthy growth, there were no problems with antisemitism in Russia. Bukhman, however, thought ill-feeling towards Jews would only increase in Russia as a result of what had happened: 'I doubt that a strain of Judaism led by foreigners can be supported by the Kremlin for very long. There will be accusations of the Fifth Column.' Golenpolsky agreed. Quite apart from the fact that 'antisemitism existed, exists and will always exist in various forms here,' he remarked, 'people will look at this situation and think, "What are those bastards up to again?"' (END)