MOSCOW - Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi of Russia, was born in Milan and went to college in the United States. A U.S. citizen, Lazar is a controversial figure, but not because of his unusual pedigree.
He arrived in Russia in 1990, and quickly attracted several Jewish oligarchs to his congregation. Their money lent his congregation, and Lazar himself, influence both within the Jewish community and, some argue, in Russian politics. Lazar was elected Chief Rabbi by the Federation of Jewish Communities, an organization he created – one of several Jewish organizations in Russia. His election in 2000 was immediately recognized by the then-newly elected President Vladimir Putin. The rival Jewish organizations and their Chief Rabbi had supported Putin’s opponent.
In addition to the political intrigue, there is religious conflict. Lazar is Hasidic and has said publicly that Reform Judaism “cannot be seriously called a religion.” His detractors argue that a Rabbi with so much disdain for Reform Judaism cannot claim to represent all Russian Jews.
Lazar sat down with Kommersant to answer questions about the Jewish community in Russia, his personal relationship with the Kremlin and wealthy Jewish oligarchs and the divisions within the Jewish Community in Russia.
Kommersant: As a U.S. Citizen, how did you end up leading a religious organization in Russia? According to the new laws regarding the funding of non-profit organizations (which say that any non-profit that accepts foreign support must register as a “foreign agent”) wouldn’t you be considered a foreign agent?
Lazar: Probably. But I say this: When I came to Russia more than 20 years ago, within a couple of days I knew that I had come to stay. I immediately requested Russian citizenship, and received it. If a person comes to a country and can’t get citizenship or have equal rights, then that is discrimination. Many people went to Israel from the Soviet Union, and some of those people later became vice-premiers. I am not planning to become Russia’s president. Of course, the President should be someone who was born here.
There are some people who say that the Federation of Jewish Communities was created with the involvement of the government in order to counter the traditional Jewish organizations that were not happy with the government. Do you agree with that?
I hear that very often. But the truth is that the reason was purely religious – to develop Jewish life. The format that Jewish society had previously did not allow for a full Jewish life.
There are people who say that the Federation of Jewish Communities took on a political role after the Russian Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations supported Vladimir Gusinksy in 2000. Is that so?
I hear that often. I can only say what I saw and how I understand the situation. Mr. Gusinksi decided to go into politics even though he had major responsibilities within the Jewish community. When we discussed this, he said, “ I want to go into politics, but I have disagreements with the government. At the same time, I want to remain president of the Russian Jewish Congress. Do you support me?” I was against this, because no matter where a Jew lives, he should be loyal to the government as long as the government is not persecuting Jews or religion. That is how it is all over the world. A Jewish organization must, according to Jewish law, respect the country’s laws and be loyal to the government. There was a vote, and I was in the minority. The government had a predictable reaction. Unfortunately, Gusinky played the Jewish card in pursuing his goals, and the Russian Jewish Congress suffered.
Your opponents often call you the “pro-Kremlin rabbi.” How would you comment on that?
I never wanted to be Chief Rabbi and never thought that I would become Chief Rabbi. After the Russian Jewish Congress made its choice, it was clear whom the government would want to deal with. It is very important to stress that Vladimir Gusinsky never represented the religious community. And the government started working with the person who really represented the interests of the Jewish community.
Are there times when the Russian government asks you for help in resolving international problems with Israel or the U.S.?
Thank God, there are not many problems between Russian and Israel. But there have been times when different people have asked for my advice. Sometimes I have taken the initiative without asking for permission from the government. For instance, the Jackson-Venik amendment, which was connected with Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. There was a time when I was very actively working on that.
There are some very rich members of the Federation of Jewish Communities, including Roman Abramovich (the owner of the Chelsea Football Club). It would seem that the organization does not have any money problems?
The only person without financial worries is one that just sits in the temple. But we are building more and more synagogues. There is not end to what we want to build. So no matter how much we are helped, it will never be enough.
Several years ago, the president of the Holocaust Foundation Alla Gerber suggested similar affirmative action measures for Jews in Russia as there are for African-Americans in the U.S. as a way to reduce anti-Semitism. How do you feel about that?
I don’t understand, why today, when there is no state-sponsored anti-Semitism, someone would say that these measures are needed. You should have been talking about that in the 1980s, 1970s, when maybe Jews in the Soviet Union did live like African-Americans in the U.S. Although it’s a different situation. At any rate, today there are no Jews in Russia who could say that they are discriminated against. In addition, there are no problems in universities or schools for Jews who want to worship on Saturdays. Even if there are exams scheduled on a Saturday, you are allowed to take them on another day. Jews can take the day off for Jewish holidays. I don’t know of a single instance of someone being fired for being Jewish. I hear that a lot of employers are actually looking to hire Jews. So saying that you need to give Jews special privileges, that is not right. Jews should be treated exactly the same as all the other citizens in our country.