In a Q&A session on live television, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented Israel as a role model for national unity. The Russian leader has, in fact, a long history, personal and political, of close affinity for the Jews.
Putin: “Although they are diverse, the Jewish people, nevertheless, cherishes its unity.”
On Tuesday, Russian television broadcast live the annual special Direct Line interview with Vladimir Putin. During the broadcast, Putin answered questions via the internet. Igor Oboimov from Moscow asked, “Why is Ukraine not listed among these unfriendly countries?”
Russia has been involved in a conflict with Ukraine since 2014. In his answer, the Russian president held Israel up as a model of unity.
“This is because I do not regard Ukraine as a country unfriendly towards Russia,” Putin answered. “I have noted many times, and I can repeat once again that, in my opinion, Ukrainians and Russians are a single people.”
“See for yourself: The Jews come to Israel from Africa, Europe, and other countries. Black people arrive from Africa, right? Those arriving from Europe speak Yiddish, rather than Hebrew. Although they are diverse, the Jewish people, nevertheless, cherishes its unity.”
Putin: A friend of Israel
Putin has a political affinity for Israel. When Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015 to discuss the developing situation in Syria, the meeting produced positive results, with Putin expressing his strong connection with Israel.
“We never forget that in the State of Israel reside many former Soviet citizens, and that has a special implication on the relationship between our two states,” Putin stated. “Every Russian action in the area has always been very responsible. We are aware of the artillery against Israel and we condemn it. “
In 2011, at the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress in Moscow, Putin said, “Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country. Israel is one of the few foreign countries that can be called Russian-speaking. It’s apparent that more than half of the population speaks Russian.”
In 2014, Putin was one of the few political leaders who supported Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, saying at a meeting with representatives of the Rabbinical Center of Europe to fight anti-Semitism and xenophobia, “I support Israel’s battle that is intended to keep its citizens protected.”
In 2020, the Friends of Zion Heritage Center bestowed the “Friends of Zion Award” on Putin.
The Jews in Putin’s life
Putin has a personal history with Jews that may make him more positively predisposed towards Jews.At the International Assembly of Chabad Representatives in 2007, Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Berel Lazar, often referred to as “Putin’s Rabbi”, told a remarkable story about the Russian leader, which he heard from Putin himself.
“When he was a young child, he grew up in a very poor family. His parents were always out at work. He was fortunate that the next door neighbor was a Hasidic Jewish family, and they always made sure to invite him over,” Lazar explained. “They were extremely kind to him, and he realized that not only were they kind to a child that wasn’t theirs, not only were they kind to a child that wasn’t Jewish, but they were kind to a child in a time and place when it was dangerous to do that.”
“Thirty years later, because of the gratitude he felt for that family, and for the respect he felt for the Jewish people as a whole, as deputy mayor of the city of Leningrad, he granted official permission to open the first Jewish school in the city.”
The family in Lazar’s story was that of Anatoly Rakhlin, Putin’s high-school wrestling coach, a man he considered to be a father-figure and at whose funeral he cried. Putin described the family in his autobiography, First Person.
“(They were) observant Jews who did not work on Saturdays, and the man would study the Bible and Talmud all day long,” he wrote. “Once I even asked him what he was muttering. He explained to me what this book was and I was immediately interested.”
In 2005, when Putin made an official visit to Israel, he visited his high-school teacher, Mina Yuditskaya Berliner, who lived in Tel Aviv. He even bought her an apartment in the city when he heard she was living in poor conditions, crediting her with playing an essential role in his career because she gave him the language skills that later helped him climb the ranks of the KGB. Berliner left Putin the apartment in her will, and it was returned to him after she died in 2018.
Arkadi and Boris Rotenberg were his judo sparring partners under Coach Rakhlin, and remain his close friends to this day. The Rotenberg’s are billionaire contractors, and the relationship is mutually beneficial, with the Rotenberg brothers getting government contracts worth many billions of dollars.
In fact, Putin has surrounded himself with rich and successful Jews, such as Moshe Kantor (net worth $2.3 billion), Lev Leviev (net worth $1.5 billion), Roman Abramovich (net worth $9.1 billion) and Victor Vekselberg (net worth $13.6 billion). They are all close friends and confidantes of the Russian president, and they are all quite openly Jewish.
Putin puts his money where his mouth is and donated a month of his salary as president to the Jewish Museum in Moscow. His name is proudly listed on the museum wall as a donor.