Russia’s Chief Rabbi called on Moscow to condemn a top security official on Wednesday, following the publication of “vulgar” and “antisemitic” comments which he argued pose “a huge danger” to the Jewish community.
In a statement shared with Haaretz, Rabbi Berel Lazar condemned Alexei Pavlov, the assistant secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, over an article (Russian) he had written claiming that “neo-pagan cults” had taken over neighboring Ukraine, which Russia invaded earlier this year.
Citing influential Ukrainian oligarchs Igor Kolomoisky and Viktor Pinchuk’s links to the Chabad Hasidic movement, whose main principle he claimed is its members’ superiority “above all nations and peoples,” Pavlov argued that it has become “increasingly urgent to carry out the desatanization of Ukraine.”
In a letter shared with Haaretz, Lazar, a Chabad Hasid, stated that he “demands condemnation from the government for the nonsense,” which he said constituted “an insult to millions of Jewish believers, including the vast majority of Jews in Russia.”
Such a statement, “uttered by a member of the Russian Security Council…poses a huge danger, therefore, we demand an immediate and unequivocal response from society and the authorities of the state,” he wrote.
Despite reports that local religious leaders have been pressured to support the war, Lazar, widely seen as an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has actually spoken out against the conflict, offering to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow and arguing that it is the duty of every believer to “do everything in his power to save human lives.”
“Our duty to God is to strive with all our might for mutual understanding, for mutual respect, and in no case raise a sword against our brother,” he said in a statement published online shortly after Russian troops entered Ukraine.
Pavlov’s comments come as the Moscow is engaged in a court battle to shut down the Jewish Agency’s operations in the country, following this summer’s Justice Ministry demand that a local court rule on the liquidation of the organization, even as increasing numbers of Russian Jews are seeking refuge in Israel.
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Russia’s security services’, which had “viewed the Jews as a security risk” during the Soviet period, have become much more favorable in their outlook under Putin but Pavlov’s letter may indicate that “their fears are [again] starting to play a more important role in their consideration,” argued Dr. Kiril Feferman, a historian at Ariel University who has studied the role of Russian and Ukrainian rabbis in the conflict.
“Chabad is the only established religion that didn’t declare its loyalty in the current conflict. Berel Lazar was the only one to speak about the need to pursue peace and until recently it was probably enough but the government is demanding more loyalty now.”
Such a move could also be part of a campaign to pressure Israel, he added.
Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian President now serving as Deputy Chairman of the country’s Security Council, recently warned Jerusalem that supplying military equipment to Ukraine would "destroy the political relations between the two countries.”
In the wake of Pavlov’s statement, former Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who recently fled to Israel, issued a statement on behalf of the Conference of European Rabbis calling on Russian Jews calling for mass emigration from Russia.
Pavlov’s statement and his use of the Jews in “war propaganda signifies the return of antisemitism to Russian state policy,” he told Haaretz.
“An attack by the Russian government against Chabad as well as the attacks against the Jewish Agency for Israel, are antisemitic acts against all of us. We reiterate our call to all of our brothers and sisters still remaining in Russia and able to leave the country to do so.”