Putin, the “protector of minority rights” shows off in Crimea

SEBASTOPOL, Crimea (JTA) – Before last week, Holocaust commemorations in this port city were usually low-key gatherings of a few dozen people reciting the Kaddish prayer for victims of the near-annihilation of Crimean Jews in 1942 .

But on Thursday, a memorial service at the Holocaust monument in Sevastopol drew hundreds of visitors, including a delegation of prominent Chabad rabbis from across Europe and an international media body of journalists from Germany, India. , from China and elsewhere arrived on a charter flight from Moscow. .

Visitors traveled from the airport on Nazi Victims’ Remembrance Day in 2014 – a date commemorated here since 1992 – with police escorts who closed traffic to let those around them pass. At the redesigned monument, a security detachment of 15 soldiers provided protection.

As radical as it is, the upgrade did not surprise locals.

“Expect that now that we are in Russia, the focus will be more on the war on fascism,” said Genady Tebankin, a local Jew who attended the ceremony. “It’s the Kremlin line.”

The event was the first state-sponsored Jewish event in Crimea since Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March, a move that Russian President Vladimir Putin justified in part as a move to protect Jews of Crimea of ​​the rise of anti-Semitism.

The commemoration was a perfect opportunity for Putin to restore his image as a protector of minority rights. Crimea has seen a number of high-profile anti-Semitic incidents in recent months, including the installation of two pig’s heads in a synagogue in Sevastopol in November, just days before the outbreak of the revolution that finally ousted the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych out of power.

At the end of February, unknown people spray painted “Death to the Jews” at the entrance to Ner Tamid, a reformed synagogue in the Crimean capital, Simferopol.

“Death to the Jews” is scrawled on the Ner Tamid synagogue in Simferopol, Crimea, at the end of February (Courtesy)

The propaganda element of the Holocaust commemoration was clear to critics of the Kremlin, but it was hardly hidden even by the event’s organizers.

“You cannot hide the fact that it is very important to Putin and the Kremlin that everything runs smoothly in Crimea,” said Boruch Gorin, a senior assistant to Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, who led the commemoration . “There is a lot more media interest in this ceremony this year. And of course, it’s also in the interest of propaganda, to show that all is well there and that there is no anti-Semitism but peace and quiet.

Misha Kapustin, Ner Tamid’s rabbi and ardent opponent of Russian annexation, recently kept his promise to leave Crimea if it becomes part of Russia. But his position does not appear to be the dominant opinion among the 10,000 Crimean Jews. Many community leaders hailed the annexation, crediting it with combating anti-Semitism and breathing new life into efforts to revive Jewish life in the region.

“The situation has changed for the better,” Sevastopol-based Crimean Orthodox Chief Rabbi Binyomin Wolf told JTA. “The Jews feel comfortable here. They are not ashamed to identify as Jews, and it is in part because of instructions coming from above, from top bureaucrats to the lower ranks, that Jews need to be respected and helped.

Wolf, Gorin, and Lazar are all affiliated with the Russian branch of Chabad, the Hasidic sect that often seems to be Putin’s go-to address for anything Jewish. Before the ceremony in Sevastopol, Lazar and the other visiting rabbis met with Putin for over an hour in Moscow.

Binyomin Jacobs, a Chabad rabbi who is also a chief rabbi of the Netherlands, called the meeting “warm and open.” Putin pledged his support for the development of Jewish life and the preservation of now threatened religious freedoms in Europe, including circumcision and the kosher massacre.

Putin pledged his support for the development of Jewish life and the preservation of now threatened religious freedoms in Europe, including circumcision and the kosher massacre

The Russian leader has also spoken out against Holocaust denial, according to Jacobs, calling it a “revival of neo-Nazism.” Putin used the term “neo-Nazi” to describe Ukrainian nationalists, although he did not do so at the meeting, Jacobs said.

Putin also told the rabbis a joke about circumcision, Jacobs said. The conclusion was that in the future, foreskins could be used to genetically engineer perfect tax inspectors.

On a more serious note, Putin thanked the rabbis for their efforts to oppose fascism.

Such gestures are not new to Putin. During the Sochi Olympics, he ordered that special arrangements be made for Lazar to attend the opening on Shabbat. In June, Putin reportedly intervened to set another date for Jews unable to pass the national matriculation exam, which fell on the Shavuot holiday. He also recently visited the new $ 50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, which the Russian state has helped fund.

But while Putin has expressed support for the Jewish community, Russia faces international criticism for its treatment of another Crimean minority, the 300,000 Muslim Tatars who make up about 12% of the peninsula’s population.

After annexation, Russia banned two of the community’s leaders, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, from entering the region, which some said was a settling of scores for their perceived allegiance to Ukraine. The Council of Europe said the situation of the Tatars in Russia “raises the greatest concern”, while intellectuals across Europe signed a petition calling for action against Russia over its treatment of the community.

The commemoration of the Holocaust in Sevastopol was initiated by Putin and largely funded by the Russian government

The commemoration of the Holocaust in Sevastopol was initiated by Putin and largely funded by the Russian government, according to Wolf, who said Putin’s office was directly involved in making sure the event “doesn’t just take place. well, but as perfectly as possible ”.

Everything the community needs, said Wolf, “we get it from the new government. The level of care is phenomenal.

Yet the alliance with Putin exposed Lazar to criticism from Ukrainian Jewish leaders.

“It is impossible for him or anyone else in his position to express opinions which do not correspond to the official line and propaganda of the Kremlin,” said Vyacheslav Likhachev, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Jewish group earlier this year. Vaad.

Gorin dismisses this criticism, arguing that Lazar’s relationship with the Kremlin is apolitical and ultimately designed to benefit not Putin, but the Russian Jewish community. He also noted that the Kremlin has been involved and supported in Holocaust commemorations for the past 15 years, long before the conflict with Ukraine.

“We are doing our job. If it is used for diplomatic or propaganda purposes – it depends on who you ask – then we are not necessarily against it, ”Gorin said. “When anti-Semitic acts happen here, we are very loud. But when the government shows that it wants to do everything to ensure that the Jews live in peace, we are ready to cooperate with that.

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