When Russia invaded Ukraine, the countries’ rabbis also went to war

12 July 2019, 15:19 | Monitoring | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Sam Sokol

The Times of Israel, July 6, 2019

In early 2014, citing what he claimed were threats against Jews, Russian speakers and other minorities, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, sparking an ongoing conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people and decimated Jewish life in the east of the former Soviet socialist republic. Prompted by a popular uprising known as the Euromaidan in which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took over the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, deposing pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, the war wreaked havoc on a country still recovering from generations of Russian imperial control.

In the war zone, local Jewish communities — which had been gradually rebuilt in the decades following the end of Communism — began to fall apart as many of their members joined more than 32,000 of their countrymen fleeing the war for Israeli shores. During the early stages of the conflict, Jewish leaders in both Russia and Ukraine joined the fray, attacking their coreligionists in a war of words that paralleled the larger conflict between their respective governments.

“We have lived together with the Ukrainians for a thousand years and Ukraine is our homeland,” the rabbi thundered. “Today we will read from the scroll of Esther, as we have for thousands of years on Purim. And today that reading is of particular importance. Today, a new Haman, our common enemy with the Ukrainians, is very near…”

It was 2014 and the Russians had just invaded the Crimean Peninsula, severing it from the Ukrainian mainland and triggering a conflict that would claim 13,000 lives over the course of the next five years as fighting between government units and Russian-backed separatist militias turned [parts of] the east of the country into a wasteland.

In Dnipro, an eastern city that was rapidly becoming the headquarters of Kyiv’s counter-insurgency, local Chabad emissary Shmuel Kaminezki had become one of Ukraine’s staunchest rabbinic defenders.

While Kaminezki’s congregants applauded his sermon, not all of his rabbinic colleagues were as enthusiastic about such a Manichean message. Comparing Vladimir Putin to a genocidal Biblical villain and painting the conflict in existential terms did not sit well with Russian Chief Rabbi and fellow Chabad Hasid Berel Lazar.

The Italian-born cleric was quick to respond. Several days later, on March 18, the same day that Crimea was officially welcomed into the Russian Federation, Lazar published an open letter decrying Ukrainian rabbinical protests.

“We, the rabbis in Russia and Ukraine, see our duty to urge all parties, and first of all our coreligionists, to peace and search for mutual understanding at this difficult time,” he wrote. “We understand that there are political problems, but believe people, especially spiritual leaders and community leaders, should not interfere in the sphere of activity of politicians. We must not forget that any rash word can lead to dangerous consequences for many people.”

Co-signed by 54 other Chabad rabbis, both in Russia and Ukraine, the letter somewhat undercut the simple narrative that there was a clear demarcation between Ukrainian and Russian religious leaders, with each taking his own country’s side but could not obscure the basic tensions that the Ukraine Crisis had generated between the two Jewish communities.

Immediately after unmarked Russian troops, known colloquially as “little green men,” began establishing control over Crimea, Ukraine’s Brooklyn-born Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a member of the Karlin-Slolin Hasid sect, held a press conference in New York in which he bluntly accused the Kremlin of borrowing tactics from the Third Reich.

“Things may be done by Russians dressing up as Ukrainian nationalists… the same way the Nazis did when they wanted to go into Austria and created provocations,” Bleich said, intimating that attacks on Jews during the recent revolution in which Ukrainians had deposed their corrupt, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych had been orchestrated by Moscow. “The Russians are blowing [Ukrainian antisemitism] way, way out of proportion. There were many differences of opinion throughout the revolution, but today all that is gone. We’re faced by an outside threat called Russia. It’s brought everyone together.”

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Last comments

  • bopa | 8 June 2020, 11:43

    То перераховані факти ви називаєте "фантазиями и ночными кошмарами"? Чому викладену інформацію ви "Очередная статья нижайшего интеллектуального уровня"? У вас

  • Slava43 | 4 June 2020, 13:46

    Це жодна агітація. На Буковині казали :»Мойше герехт, Сури герехт».

  • Slava43 | 4 June 2020, 13:39

    За часів союза, УПЦ підлягала моіковському патріярхату, примусово. Від незалежності УПЦ старалась отримати незалежність від Москви. Тепер, коли Україна має ТОМОС та незалежність то Лавру потрібно

  • Стефан | 2 June 2020, 15:54

    Последние события показали глубокий кризис РПЦ МП, где только отдельные редкие священнослужители твёрдо исповедуют Православную Веру, как схиигумен отец Сергий Романов, которого сейчас травят

  • Рокитне | 2 June 2020, 12:34

    Це добре було б.