Issue 6, Article 24, 27 June 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.

Tuesday 27 June 2000

by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service

The two rival claimants to leadership of Russia's Jews both predict that the
competition between them will now spread from Moscow to the provincial
level. In separate interviews with Keston News Service on 23 June, rabbis
BERL LAZAR and ADOLF SHAYEVICH accused each other of unethical
tactics in the pursuit of their mutually exclusive claims to be the country's chief
rabbi. Shayevich also reiterated some of his charges of interference by the
secular authorities in the dispute, though he retracted other such charges.

The intra-confessional dispute erupted on 13 June at a Moscow congress of 140
representatives of Jewish communities from around the country. The congress
added a surprise item to its agenda, the election of a new chief rabbi to replace
Shayevich who has held that position since the Soviet period. Shayevich, who
did not attend the congress, and his supporters dispute the legitimacy of its
abrupt decision to elect Lazar.

Some defenders of religious freedom, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have
pointed to several actions by the government of President VLADIMIR PUTIN
which seem to suggest that the Kremlin is favouring the 36-year-old Lazar (see
KNS 6 June 2000). The Lazar camp vigorously repudiates any such suggestion,
insisting that the secular authorities have been neutral. Lazar's followers also
cite Shayevich's past as a `red rabbi' whose appointment was screened, and
actions closely monitored, by the KGB-dominated Council for Religious
Affairs during the Soviet years.

The Shayevich camp emphasises Lazar's ties to well-connected diamond
merchant LEV LEVIYEV, reportedly linked to controversial tycoon BORIS
BEREZOVSKY. According to their version, the move to oust Shayevich is
part of the Kremlin's crackdown on Berezovsky's rival tycoon VLADIMIR
GUSINSKY, owner of Russia's largest independent television network - a
crackdown which led to Gusinsky's arrest on the same day as Lazar's election.
(Gusinsky is also president of the Russian Jewish Congress.) Lazar told Keston
that any alleged connection between him and Berezovsky, or between his
election and the arrest of Gusinsky, is `a complete lie'.

Actions by the Putin government which have had the effect of strengthening
Lazar and his allies - some say improperly - include the following:

- invitations to members of Lazar's circle to attend high-profile ceremonial
events, such as Putin's inauguration in May, from which Shayevich was at first
excluded, then invited only after lobbying by his allies. In today's increasingly
statist Russia, such invitations matter far more than in the west. - a recent
agreement by the Ministry of Culture with the Lazar-controlled Federation of
Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR), by which the Federation will now
have official standing to negotiate with the Ministry for the return of properties
confiscated by the Soviet regime from Russia's Jewish congregations after the
1917 Bolshevik take-over. - the recent granting of Russian citizenship to Lazar,
a U.S. citizen born in Italy - said to be an example of special treatment not
available to other Jews who have moved to Russia as refugees from former
Soviet republics such as Tajikistan. - a recent agreement by the Ministry of
Justice, reportedly including the personal involvement of the Minister himself,
to changes in the Federation's charter (`ustav') designed to make it easier for
Lazar and his followers to appeal to Jews outside the Lubavitch movement
which forms the core of Lazar's support. - the prominence given by state-
controlled television and other pro-Kremlin mass media to Lazar's 13 June

It is the new agreement with the Ministry of Culture that will probably have the
most widespread effect on the competition between the two rabbis in provincial
Russia. Governors and mayors will now have increased opportunities to favour
one group of Jews over another in returning historic synagogue buildings.
Shayevich supporter TANKRED GOLENPOLSKY of Moscow's `Yevreiskaya
gazeta' (`Jewish Gazette') told Keston in a 22 June interview that the ministry's
new agreement would give Lazar's Hasidic supporters unfair access to
buildings in places like Siberia, which he said never had a strong Hasidic
presence before 1917. Reform rabbi ZINOVI KOGAN, executive director of
the pro-Shayevich Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and
Organisations, (KEROR), who joined Shayevich for part of the 23 June
interview with Keston, predicted that Lazar's supporters will now lay claim to
Jewish properties all over the country.

Lazar, while agreeing that his supporters and Shayevich's will now compete for
control of provincial congregations and synagogues, played down the role of
the secular authorities. The fate of each building should be decided by the local
Jewish congregation in each city, he told Keston, not by provincial governors
or mayors. He said that so far he did not know of a single case in which the
secular authorities had interfered in such cases, either at the provincial or at the
national level. Lazar vigorously denied that the Ministry of Culture's recent
agreement with FEOR, dominated by Lazar's Lubavitch movement, constituted
such interference. FEOR had been trying to get such an agreement for the last
three years, he said. Was it then purely accidental, asked Keston, that the
agreement was finalised just a few days after the 13 June congress had
proclaimed Lazar as chief rabbi? Yes, he said.

Shayevich and Kogan seemed ambivalent about alleging government
interference. While making it clear that they resented what they clearly
regarded as such interference, they were reluctant to cast themselves as
opponents to the increasingly powerful Kremlin. They emphasised that they
have a long-standing agreement of their own with the Ministry of Culture and
that this agreement remains valid. Kogan drew a sharp distinction between
President Putin's chief of staff ALEKSANDR VOLOSHIN, who he said
supports Lazar, and the `pravitelstvo' (the `government' in the British sense of
that term, i.e. the prime minister and his cabinet), which he insisted supports
Shayevich. Even before his interview with Keston, Shayevich had shown his
ambivalence by repudiating on 5 June a 31 May letter which he himself had
written to Putin protesting the Kremlin's interference. `I wrote that letter
hastily, in ten minutes, it was a mistake', he told Keston. He said that he should
have cited `internal' rather than `official' government sources. He added that as
of 23 June he still had not received an official reply from the Kremlin.

Reform rabbi HAIM BEN-YAKOV, a Shayevich supporter, told Keston on 26
June that he thinks Shayevich must have yielded to pressure from the
authorities to retract his charge of state interference. `He is after all a man of
the system', Ben-Yakov said.

Lazar was less ambivalent in his interview with Keston, portraying himself as a
supporter of free competition between the different Jewish structures and an
opponent of the `monopoly' in which, as he put it, `one man has claimed to
answer for all the Jews in Russia'. For that reason, he said, he had opposed the
1997 law which increased state control over religious life. Keston pointed out
that its Moscow bureau (which monitored the debate over the harsh 1997 law
more closely than any other news organisation) never saw any such public
statement by Lazar at the time, and asked him whether he had ever revealed his
position to any Russian journalist publishing within Russia. He answered at
first that he had not protested to the Russian press at the time, but that he had
explained his position to the Ministry of Justice; then, on second thought, he
said that he recalled having gone on record against the legislation. `Even your
own Keston publications mentioned that I was opposed to the 1997 law,' he
said. (In fact Lazar never made any such statement to Keston in 1997, nor was
he ever cited by Keston as opposing the law.)

Shayevich, who openly and actively supported the 1997 law, nevertheless also
now portrays himself as a supporter of religious freedom. He said that even if
he were to resign from his position, Lazar would still not be chief rabbi because
KEROR and FEOR are two separate structures. He seemed reluctant, however,
to accept the idea that these two structures should be equal in the eyes of the
secular authorities; he stressed that in the past it had always been he, not the
head of FEOR, who had been invited to be the Jewish representative in official
state delegations and inter-religious commissions.

Shayevich acknowledged that during the Soviet years he had served as a
member of bodies that worked as instruments of Soviet foreign policy such as
the Soviet Public Anti-Zionist Committee and the Soviet Peace Fund; he said
that simply by virtue of becoming chief rabbi he had inherited all the duties of
his predecessor. He also conceded that his activities, like all other official
Jewish, Christian and Muslim activities, had `depended completely' on the
Council for Religious Affairs. `But nobody can say that he suffered from the
KGB or was imprisoned because of me,' he said.

Shayevich ally Golenpolsky, in words similar to Lazar's, told Keston that there
should not be any such official as `chief rabbi of Russia'; he pointed out that the
post was created during Soviet times, not having existed before 1917.
Nevertheless, he predicted that both Shayevich and Lazar would continue to
press their claims to be the undisputed top leader of all Russia's Jews. The
result, he said, would be to reinforce cynicism especially among the country's
younger Jews.

Rabbi Ben-Yakov told Keston that conflicts over control of provincial Jewish
congregations had already begun. He cited cases in the southern city of Rostov-
on-Don, in Smolensk in the far west and in the Volga town of Kostroma, where
he said Lazar's faction expelled Shayevich's from the local synagogue. He
predicted a pattern of provincial governors and mayors choosing sides
according to their own, non-religious criteria: `they'll decide on the basis of
who has the most money'. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.