Chabad’s Cozy Rap­port With Author­i­tar­i­ans

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Lili Bayer and Larry Cohler-Esses

In the for­mer Com­mu­nist states of Cen­tral and Eastern Europe, es­tab­lished main­stream Jewish groups are in­creas­ingly wor­ried that Chabad, the in­ter­na­tional Ha­sidic move­ment, is al­ly­ing it­self with au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments.

In coun­tries from Hun­gary to Rus­sia, they say, Chabad is at times play­ing down anti-Semitism in a bid to com­pete with lo­cal Jewish groups and win ac­cess to fi­nan­cial re­sources and po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence.

Chabad, in turn, says that main­stream groups are too em­broiled in sec­u­lar and po­lit­i­cal is­sues, in­clud­ing po­lar­iz­ing dis­putes about democ­racy and civil lib­er­ties, at the ex­pense of guard­ing core com­mu­nal Jewish in­ter­ests of phys­i­cal se­cu­rity and Jewish re­li­gious free­dom. In some cases, Chabad of­fi­cials say, th­ese es­tab­lish­ment groups are also cor­rupt.

The in­creas­ing ten­sions be­tween Chabad and more es­tab­lished Jewish groups are play­ing out in dif­fer­ent ways in dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

In Rus­sia, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has for years fa­vored Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar over the longestab­lished chief rabbi of Rus­sia, Adolf Shayevich. Shayevich aligned with a Jewish um­brella group that sought to keep its distance from the gov­ern­ment in the post-Com­mu­nist era. Lazar has been more sup­port­ive.

In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the rul­ing hard-right Law and Jus­tice party, met in Au­gust with two Chabad rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the leader of a third Jewish group in a get-to­gether that state me­dia por­trayed as a dis­cus­sion with the com­mu­nity. But lead­ers of ma­jor groups who had writ­ten Kaczyński about their fears of ris­ing an­tiSemitism in Poland were not in­vited.

In Hun­gary, prom­i­nent Jews and non-Jews have crit­i­cized Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Or­bán for us­ing an­tiSemitic tropes in his ex­tended na­tional cam­paign against the Amer­i­can fi­nancier Ge­orge Soros. A se­nior Hun­gar­ian Chabad rabbi, how­ever, has de­fended Or­bán.

Chabad, for its part, strongly de­fends its con­cep­tion of and ap­proach to Jewish in­ter­ests. “When

‘Chabad says we can’t dwell on the past. Chabad is wait­ing for the mes­siah.’

you start, as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the com­mu­nity, mix­ing Jewish is­sues with po­lit­i­cal is­sues, even if they’re so­cial, and say­ing you rep­re­sent the whole Jewish com­mu­nity, it doesn’t work very well and is frankly dan­ger­ous,” one Chabad of­fi­cial in the United States said. “You’re mix­ing pol­i­tics with what’s in the in­ter­est of the Jewish com­mu­nity.”

Speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity, he ex­plained: “Anti-Semitism is an is­sue for the Jewish com­mu­nity. Other rights are is­sues all [cit­i­zens] must grap­ple with, not the Jewish com­mu­nity uniquely.”

Founded in 1775 in what is to­day Belarus, Chabad-Lubav­itch saw its ranks dec­i­mated af­ter the Holo­caust. But over the past decades, the move­ment, with its head­quar­ters re­lo­cated to Brook­lyn af­ter World War II, has be­come a global force. Thou­sands of its emis­saries, known as

shlichim, are reach­ing out to Jews of all per­sua­sions in out­posts around the world.

“Chabad plays an out­sized role” in postCom­mu­nist Eastern Europe, said David Sh­neer, pro­fes­sor of his­tory, re­li­gious stud­ies and Jewish stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Colorado, Boul­der. And Chabad, he said, “works with gov­ern­ments that al­low Ju­daism to be prac­ticed no mat­ter their po­lit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion.” It does not, he said, see Jewry as an in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal force in the con­text of civil so­ci­ety, as in the Amer­i­can style. In­stead, “Chabad uses its re­la­tion­ship to state power to be­come the face of Ju­daism,” Sh­neer said.

In some coun­tries with his­to­ries of anti-Semitism and mixed records or worse dur­ing the Holo­caust, Jewish ac­tivists are cur­rently bat­tling their gov­ern­ments’ ef­forts to pro­mote heroic but dis­torted na­tional ac­counts of the coun­tries’ con­duct dur­ing the Shoah. But “Chabad says we can’t dwell on the past,” Sh­neer said. “Chabad is wait­ing for the Mes­siah and needs Jews to do mitzvot,” or To­rah­based com­mand­ments. That’s “about the present and fu­ture, not the past,” he said.

Kon­stanty Ge­bert, a prom­i­nent Pol­ish jour­nal­ist, tra­di­tion­ally ob­ser­vant Jew and early mem­ber of Sol­i­dar­ity, the trade union that ousted his coun­try’s com­mu­nist regime, didn’t mince words about what this means in his coun­try.

The re­cent meet­ing of two Chabad rab­bis with the leader of Poland’s hard-line na­tion­al­ist rul- ing party while groups press­ing him pub­licly on ad­dress­ing ris­ing anti-Semitism were ex­cluded, was noth­ing less than “an act of dis­loy­alty to the ex­ist­ing Jewish com­mu­nity,” he told the For­ward.

The Au­gust 17 meet­ing, which also in­cluded the head of TSZK, Poland’s Jewish Cul­tural So­ci­ety, and a con­tro­ver­sial Is­raeli-Bri­tish ac­tivist named Jonny Daniels, took place af­ter ma­jor Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions wrote Kaczyński, about be­ing “ap­palled by re­cent events and fear­ful for our se­cu­rity.”

Ear­lier that month, Bog­dan Rzonca, a law­maker with Kaczyński’s own Law and Jus­tice Party, wrote on Twit­ter: “I won­der why there are so many Jews among those per­form­ing abor­tions, de­spite the Holo­caust.” Jews protested that party lead­ers is­sued no rep­ri­mand.

They have also, among other things, crit­i­cized the gov­ern­ment’s fi­nan­cial sup­port for Ra­dio Maria, a me­dia em­pire whose anti-Semitic broad­casts have been con­demned by the U.S. State Depart­ment, the Coun­cil of Europe, the Vatican and the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment’s own Na­tional Tele­vi­sion and Ra­dio Broad­cast­ing Coun­cil.

Kaczyński ig­nored the lead­ers’ let­ter. Then, un­der head­lines such as “Pol­ish Rul­ing Party Head Meets With Jewish Com­mu­nity Lead­ers,” Pol­ish state me­dia played up Kaczyński’s meet­ing with Chabad and the other two Jewish fig­ures.

“Ob­vi­ously the gov­ern­ment… is hand­pick­ing its Jews,” Ge­bert charged.

The re­sponse of the Chabad rabbi Mayer Stam­bler to this crit­i­cism is vir­tu­ally a dec­la­ra­tion of full au­ton­omy. “Chabad-Lubav­itch in Poland rep­re­sents the Jews of Poland, as any other or­ga­ni­za­tion here does,” he said in an email to the For­ward. The rabbi, who heads Chabad’s War­saw out­reach, added point­edly, “No group can claim to ex­clu­sively rep­re­sent Pol­ish Jewry.”

In their meet­ing, Stam­bler re­lated, “We def­i­nitely raised the is­sue of anti-Semitism!”

Kaczyński, he said, “made it clear that he def­i­nitely sup­ported Jewish life in Poland. And he cer­tainly sup­ports the State of Is­rael.” The Pol­ish leader ac­knowl­edged that anti-Semitism ex­ists in Poland “in var­i­ous cir­cles and places,” said Stam­bler, “but it is im­pos­si­ble to ac­cuse him and the lead­er­ship of his party of giv­ing en­cour­age­ment of any kind, [to] anti-Semitism.”

Last May, one of Chabad’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Hun­gary, Slomó Köves, came to the de­fense of the coun­try’s na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment when many Jewish and non-Jewish Hun­gar­i­ans raised con­cerns

that Or­bán was stok­ing pop­ulist ha­tred by us­ing anti-Semitic themes in his cam­paign against Soros.

Hun­gary’s Jewish um­brella group, the Fed­er­a­tion of Hun­gar­ian Jewish Com­mu­ni­ties, which, like Chabad, re­ceives gov­ern­ment sup­port, has of­ten shied away from speak­ing out against Or­bán, but ul­ti­mately joined in the crit­i­cism. (Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, how­ever, sided with Chabad when he re­buked his am­bas­sador in Bu­dapest for rais­ing the same crit­i­cism.)

Chabad lead­ers be­lieve that through years of ef­fort, they have earned the right to act au­tonomously in what they see as Jewish in­ter­ests.

“We started with my wife and me,” said Rabbi Baruch Ober­lan­der, the 51-year old chief Chabad rabbi in Hun­gary, as he sat in his book-filled of­fice in Bu­dapest’s his­toric Jewish Quar­ter.

Ober­lan­der grew up in Brook­lyn’s Wil­liams­burg neigh­bor­hood, a son of Hun­gar­ian Holo­caust sur­vivors. He and his wife — her­self the daugh­ter of a Chabad emis­sary in Italy — ar­rived in Bu­dapest in 1989, right be­fore the fall of the Com­mu­nist regime.

“We came here to teach Ju­daism in a place where un­for­tu­nately they didn’t have the op­tion,” Ober­lan­der said. “The big­gest prob­lem of Ju­daism in Eastern Europe and the whole world is ig­no­rance…. They don’t know what Ju­daism is all about, so you can­not ex­pect them to stick to re­li­gion, to the cul­ture and tra­di­tions that they don’t know and don’t un­der­stand.”

Ober­lan­der set out to build a new Jewish in­fras­truc­ture in Hun­gary: print­ing new trans­la­tions of prayer books that have not been up­dated in seven decades, open­ing ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions and train­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of re­li­gious schol­ars. At the same time, other Chabad

shlichim were set­ting out on sim­i­lar projects through­out the sud­denly de­funct Soviet bloc. As young Chabad cou­ples be­gan to ex­pand their ac­tiv­i­ties in the re­gion, some de­vel­oped close ties with the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.

In 1990, Berel Lazar, Ober­lan­der’s brother-in-law, ar­rived in Rus­sia, where he found that the re­vived Jewish com­mu­nity, af­ter years of un­der­ground de­vel­op­ment dur­ing the Soviet Jewry move­ment, al­ready had its own nascent lead­er­ship. Th­ese ac­tivists from var­i­ous or­ga­ni­za­tions ul­ti­mately co­a­lesced around an um­brella group known as Rus­sian Jewish Congress, led by Vladimir Gusin­sky. An early oli­garch un­der the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion’s first pres­i­dent, Boris Yeltsin, Gusin­sky runs a hold­ing com­pany that in­cludes NTV, the lead­ing pri­vate tele­vi­sion net­work in Rus­sia’s newly free me­dia.

“Gusin­sky was the most im­por­tant leader of Rus­sian Jewry,” said Alexan­der Osovtsov, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the RJC who now lives in Is­rael. The RJC, mean­while, was po­lit­i­cally “neu­tral,” he said.

The young Lazar, how­ever, be­friended Lev Le­viev, a wealthy Is­raeli-Uzbek in the di­a­mond busi­ness. He later ex­panded his sup­port net­work to in­clude oli­garchs like banker Ro­man Abramovich — and later, Vladimir Putin him­self.

“The unique­ness of Chabad is reach­ing out, not wait­ing for peo­ple to come with ques­tions,” Lazar told the For­ward in a phone in­ter­view.

But there are other in­cen­tives. Chabad emis­saries get ini­tial fund­ing from the or­ga­ni­za­tion when they are sent to a new coun­try, but they are then ex­pected to fundraise lo­cally. This puts pres­sure on Chabad rab­bis to reach out to wealthy busi­ness­peo­ple and well-placed gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials for fi­nan­cial sup­port.

With Putin’s as­cent to the pres­i­dency in 2000, Gusin­sky, who in­sisted on his me­dia net­work’s jour­nal­is­tic in­de­pen­dence, drew the Krem­lin’s ire by run­ning many pieces crit­i­cal of the gov­ern­ment. Lazar made a de­ci­sion: He quit the Congress, and claimed the ti­tle of chief rabbi.

“Gusinksy was us­ing his busi­ness and his po­si­tion as a Jewish com­mu­nal leader to op­pose Putin po­lit­i­cally,” the Amer­i­can Chabad of­fi­cial said. “And Rabbi Lazar and oth­ers said, ‘Look, it’s very fine for Jews to be part of that de­bate, but don’t bring the whole Jewish com­mu­nity down by pick­ing a fight with the rul­ing party in the name of all Jews and Ju­daism.’”

Gusin­sky, in de­fi­ance of the Krem­lin, sup­ported his me­dia out­lets’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the bomb­ing of sev­eral build­ings in Moscow that the gov­ern­ment at­trib­uted to Chechen ter­ror­ists. Gu­sisnky’s NTV probed ev­i­dence cited by some in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors who raised the pos­the

sibil­ity that the bomb­ings were in fact the work of the FSB, Rus­sia’s suc­ces­sor in­tel­li­gence agency to the KGB, seek­ing to in­flu­ence up­com­ing elec­tions.

The Krem­lin re­sponse came quickly, on sev­eral fronts. A fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tion against Gusin­sky even­tu­ally moved him to flee the coun­try. And as part of Putin’s cam­paign to weaken Gusin­sky, the newly elected pres­i­dent in­vited Chabad’s Lazar, in­stead of the long­time chief rabbi Adolf Shayevich, who was aligned with the RJC, to his in­au­gu­ra­tion. Since then, Lazar has been the Krem­lin’s openly pre­ferred Jewish leader, at­tend­ing speeches and state events and re­ceiv­ing sig­nif­i­cant gov­ern­ment sup­port.

“Mr. Lazar is not in­de­pen­dent,” Osovtsov said. “He is one of the mem­bers of Putin’s team. He’s the main Jew of Rus­sia, ac­cord­ing to the au­thor­i­ties and Putin’s per­sonal de­ci­sion.” Osovtsov pointed to Lazar’s re­cent con­cil­ia­tory meet­ing with a pro-Putin politi­cian who made openly anti-Semitic state­ments as ev­i­dence of the rabbi’s un­ques­tion­ing loy­alty to Putin. “We’re not deal­ing with the Krem­lin dif­fer­ently than any other gov­ern­ment,” Lazar said in re­sponse. “The Krem­lin has done a lot to sup­port re­li­gion.” He cited ex­am­ples, like the gov­ern­ment’s sup­port for the con­struc­tion of a mu­seum, and the re­turn of Jewish com­mu­nity prop­er­ties. “The Jewish re­li­gion [in Rus­sia] is on par with all other re­li­gions,” he added. More­over, “when it comes to val­ues and morals,” the Krem­lin’s po­si­tion re­sem­bles that of Rus­sia’s re­li­gious groups, he said.

Chabad of­fi­cials in­sist that Rus­sia is a unique case. But oth­ers in the re­gion see Chabad rab­bis try­ing to em­u­late Lazar’s ap­proach in Rus­sia.

In Poland, ev­ery­one is “a lit­tle bit hes­i­tant be­cause of what’s hap­pen­ing in Rus­sia and Ukraine, with Chabad be­ing very close to Putin,” said Jonathan

‘We have never claimed to rep­re­sent all Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions.’

Orn­stein, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­tre of Krakow. “I think that’s a lit­tle bit of what we had now with that meet­ing. The meet­ing was harm­ful for Pol­ish Jewry.”

Chabad, Ge­bert said, “is cer­tainly com­pet­ing for the at­ten­tion of the au­thor­i­ties…. By meet­ing with those it wants to meet with, [the gov­ern­ment] sends a clear sig­nal to the ex­ist­ing Jewish com­mu­nity,” whose lead­ers com­plain that the gov­ern­ment is tol­er­at­ing anti-Semitism.

“We have never claimed to rep­re­sent all Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions or that we are the exclusive rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the com­mu­nity,” Stam­bler said in re­sponse. But at the same time, he added, “As an apo­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion, we seek to main­tain a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship with the gov­ern­ment, with all po­lit­i­cal par­ties, with rel­e­vant NGOs and with oth­ers.”

In Hun­gary, Chabad com­petes with the um­brella Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Fed­er­a­tion of Jewish Com­mu­ni­ties in Hun­gary, known un­der the acro­nym MAZSIHISZ, with both groups re­ceiv­ing gov­ern­ment fund­ing and un­claimed prop­er­ties be­long­ing to Hun­gary’s pre­war Jewish com­mu­nity.

“We step up not only in fa­vor of is­sues that di­rectly af­fect the Jewish peo­ple,” said An­drás Heisler, pres­i­dent of MAZSIHISZ, which even­tu­ally spoke out against Or­bán’s anti-Soros cam­paign. “But we keep in mind the prob­lems of the whole Hun­gar­ian so­ci­ety, from the is­sues of poverty up un­til ex­clu­sion, from per­se­cu­tion of Gypsy [Roma] peo­ple up un­til the xeno­pho­bia. We are not driven by in­ter­ests of the gov­ern­ment or the op­po­si­tion, but the To­rah and our con­science.”

It’s a strik­ing coun­ter­point to Chabad’s nar­rower def­i­ni­tion of Jewish in­ter­ests.

“Many times peo­ple ad­vo­cate for cer­tain poli­cies as ‘Jewish val­ues,’” the Amer­i­can Chabad of­fi­cial said. “But are they re­ally? They’re surely im­por­tant val­ues, but… just be­cause some Jews feel strongly about some­thing does not au­to­mat­i­cally make it a ‘Jewish value.’”


PAY­BACK? Once an im­por­tant leader of Rus­sian Jewry, Vladimir Gusin­sky ran afoul of Vladimir Putin, found him­self the sub­ject of a fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and wound up flee­ing the coun­try.


COM­MON IN­TER­ESTS: Poland’s rul­ing Law and Jus­tice Party co-founder Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski, cen­ter, with (from left to right) leader of Chabad Poland Rabbi Shalom Stem­bler, Ar­tur Hof­man, Jonny Daniels and Rabbi Eliezer Gu­rary of Chabad Krakow.


THE PRES­I­DENT AND HIS CHO­SEN RABBI: Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin speaks with Rus­sia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar in 2007.

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