It is now 500 days since Vladimir Putin launched his war against the civilian population of Ukraine, days that have been peppered with anti-Jewish comments and imagery. In a search for a scapegoat for last week’s mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenaries, Putin looked back into Russian history and repeated the claim that revolution and retreat in World War I was ‘a stab in the back’ by disloyal forces. For Hitler, that scapegoat was the Jews.
Putin has been eager to retain the support of the Russian far Right — and antisemitism has been weaponised to further this agenda. The bizarre comment and carefully chosen words of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s urbane Foreign Minister, in suddenly asserting that Hitler was of ‘Jewish blood’ and that ‘the most ardent antisemites are, as a rule, Jews’ was a clear example of this.
Putin himself recently declared that Volodomyr Zelensky, according to ‘Jewish friends’, really wasn’t Jewish — and therefore the claim that he was little more than a neo-Nazi committing genocide against Russians in the Donbas could be justified. This throwaway comment was designed to appeal to both nationalists and antisemites.
There were two sharp reactions to such deranged utterings — one was from Zelensky himself and the other from the Chabad Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Moshe Azman. Both have used their powers of persuasion and expertise at public relations to secure support, both military and financial, for Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian aggressor.
Both men — one an acculturated Jew, the other a Lubavitcher chassid — share a childhood of growing up in the Soviet Union. Russian was their first language. Both follow in the tradition of Jewish dissidents and iconoclasts.
While Zelensky came of age in Kryvyi Rih (Krivoy Rog) in Soviet Ukraine, Azman was born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Zelensky lost relatives when the Nazis invaded the USSR while Azman recalled the Stalinist Great Purge in the 1930s when many Jewish communists went to their deaths. What unites them is the experience of living in a totalitarian environment, defined by the KGB.
Zelensky famously refused to leave Kyiv at the outset of the invasion. Azman also declined to leave, making a passionate appeal, clutching a Torah scroll, to both Jews and non-Jews in Russia — to ‘those who are not indifferent’. He recalled his background as a Jew in Leningrad and said that he could not believe that he might now die by Russian shells. He angrily charged that those who remained indifferent were ‘partners in crime’.
His principled denunciation of Putin and the war put him at odds with the Chabad Chief Rabbi in Russia, Berel Lazar, who has traditionally followed the Chabad approach of cultivating authoritarian figures while remaining silent about rights abuses in order to develop Jewish life in difficult situations. In an interview with the Moscow Times in November 2001, Lazar said that he believed that antisemitism at a government level was a thing of the past.
Chief Rabbi Azman has distinguished between Israeli attacks on Gaza where precautions were taken to eliminate civilian casualties and Russian actions such as the Iskander missile attack on a family pizza parlour in Kramatorsk last week.
Azman’s dislike of Russian interference in Ukraine stretches back nearly two decades to his support for the Orange Revolution and its candidate for president, Viktor Yushchenko while other Ukrainian rabbis were happy to endorse pro-Kremlin figures.
Azman has left the safety of his Kyiv synagogue and visited the sites of devastation and destruction, bringing with him food, clothes, computers, mobile phone chargers and medical equipment. He has been able to fund his many endeavours by using traditional Chabad methods in approaching often non-religious Jewish philanthropists in the US and elsewhere. He has also attempted to soften Israel’s neutral stand on the war by cultivating the current controversial government coalition which includes the Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich. He was not averse to congratulating Netanyahu and the far Right straight after last year’s Israeli election.
Following the recent destruction of the Kakhovka dam, he visited the Kherson region to view the man-made devastation and to ascertain what was needed. Moshe Azman has been both bold and public — unafraid to act as a Jew for non-Jews. For many, his example embodies how Jews should act in dark times.
Jewish News 7 July 2023