As the Russian military invades Ukraine, many people are deeply worried over what this means for the tens of thousands of Jews who may come under his rule. Though Putin is undoubtedly the aggressor in this conflict, attacking ruthlessly to absorb Ukraine, once the dust settles, there is reason to believe his government will not be oppressively anti-Semitic.
It should first be noted that anti-Semitism has long been an issue in Ukraine. A third of the Jews of Europe previously lived in Ukraine between 1791 and 1917, within the Pale of Settlement. The large concentration of Jews in this region historically made them an easy target for anti-Jewish actions and pogroms. This culminated in the Holocaust. Many historians argue that the destruction of the Jewish population of Ukraine, reduced from 870,000 to 17,000, could not have been accomplished without the aid of the local population, because the Germans lacked the manpower to reach all of the communities that were annihilated, especially in the remote villages. Anti-Semitism is still a powerful social phenomenon but is considered a “household” issue and not systemic.
In November, Russia played the anti-semitic card when Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, published an article aimed at Ukraine and its Jewish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In the article, Medvedev accused Zelensky of repudiating his Jewish identity to serve rabid nationalists. The Russian diplomat compared the Ukrainian president to the Sonderkommando, Jews who were forced by the Nazis to work in the death camps, disposing of the bodies of their brethren.
Nazi references have been thrown in both directions. In a televised address Thursday, Zelensky compared Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to to Hitler’s invasions that sparked World War II.
As a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, Putin is undoubtedly ruthless. But he is not known to be personally anti-Semitic. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. 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.”
Putin’s Jewish connection was not an anomaly limited to his childhood memories. 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.
Arkadi and Boris Rotenberg were his judo sparring partners under Coach Rakhlin, and remain his close friends to this day. The Rotenbergs 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.
On the Jewish New Year, Putin sent a holiday greeting to Rabbi Lazar, wishing the Russian Jewish community a “sweet and happy New Year.”
“For centuries, Jewish values inspired lofty ideals,” Putin wrote. He said that these values enhanced “relations among different peoples…through charity and education, all in the interest of the public good.” In a direct manner, he pledged “fierce opposition to any manifestation of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”
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.
Perhaps due to his connection with Jews on a personal level, Putin can be said to view Russian Jews as first and foremost good Russian citizens. This has already had international repercussions. When Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September 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.”
Perhaps even more surprising is a clue that Putin may favor building the Third Temple. During his third official trip to Jerusalem in 2012, Putin paid a late-night visit to the Kotel (Western Wall). When he arrived at the holy site, the Russian leader stood in silence for several minutes, offering up a personal prayer, after which he read Psalms from a Russian-Hebrew prayer book.
An Israeli bystander called out in Russian, “Welcome, President Putin.” Putin approached the man, who explained the importance of the Temple Mount and the Jewish Temple. Chadrei Charedim, an Orthodox Hebrew news site, reported that Putin responded, “That’s exactly the reason I came here – to pray for the Temple to be built again.”
After this remarkable exchange, the Sanhedrin sent a letter to Putin calling on him to fulfill his prayer. At the time, President Putin did not respond to the Sanhedrin’s request.
The invasion of Ukraine puts Israel in a difficult position. As a close ally of the US, Israel would like to follow its lead if President Biden chooses to sanction or actively confront Russia. At the same time, Russia has a strong military presence in Syria with a naval and airbase. Until now, Russia has given its tacit agreement, turning a blind eye to Israeli airstrikes targeting Iranian military assets in Syria despite having advanced S-300 and S-400 anti-air systems in place. In response to Israel’s expressions of support for Ukraine, Russia denounced Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.