(December 23, 2021 / JNS) He’s very discreet. He does not give interviews. He does not pose for photos. He rarely expresses emotions. His children are Lithuanian citizens of the European Union. This is a prerogative of Roman Abramovich, a Lithuanian, Portuguese, and Israeli Jew, as well as a Russian.
Abramovich’s family story is a story of pogroms: Assassinated in Poland and kidnapped in Lithuania, in the middle of the 20th century, perished in Siberia (where his grandfather, Nachman Leibovich, is buried); they suffered discrimination in Minsk, Poznan and Hamburg, and before that in the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere; just as occurred two millennia ago in Judah.
Successive marching orders to neighboring countries, when those have agreed to take in Jews, as well as commercial relations and marriages between Jews of different ancestry, enforced the constant crossing of Jewish families from Iberia to Central and Eastern Europe.
The Jerusalem Post called him a “mega philanthropist” and “an ardent and long-standing supporter of Jewish culture throughout the world.” Roman Abramovich has been recognized by the Forum for Jewish Culture and Religion for his contribution of over $500 million to Jewish causes in Russia, the United States, Great Britain, Lithuania, Israel, Portugal and elsewhere, over the past 20 years.
In the Jewish world, one of the greatest beneficiaries of his generosity has long been the international Chabad movement, based in New York, which supports 4,500 rabbis throughout the world. Chabad took its first steps in Poznan, Poland, on Portugali Street. It was officially founded by Zalman Schneur, a descendant of Rabbi Baruch Portugali, of Sephardic origin. His name is known, but the Hebrew one is not: Nachman ben Aharon. The name is reminiscent of the great 13th-century Sephardic sage, Moses ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides.
Abramovich is an honorary member of several Portuguese Jewish organizations such as Chabad Portugal (Cascais, which now has the largest Chabad Centre in Europe) and B’nai B’rith International Portugal, along with other philanthropist families from the United States, Russia, China and Israel.
In addition to donations of millions of dollars to the Jewish Agency for Israel and to Jewish communities globally, Abramovich engaged in symbolic projects such as planting a forest with some 25,000 trees in memory of the Lithuanian Jews who died in the Holocaust and the restoration of the cemetery of the old Portuguese Jewish community in Altona, now a neighborhood in the city of Hamburg.
After decades of helping the people of Israel and the State of Israel, in 2018 he obtained Israeli citizenship. Reports in the West claimed he did so with the aim to continue and enter London without a visa. For three years he was not seen in the city. When he did so, in 2021, to visit his family, it was reported that he became Israeli so he could enter the United Kingdom.
My father, the Lisbon rabbi for 50 years, always told me that in different times and contexts, the Jew was not identified with good attitudes and purity of intentions, but rather with money, business and sly behavior. The letter that a Polish relative of Abramovich wrote in 1940 to the Jewish community in Porto, then mostly Polish, imploring them to inform the family that he had arrived safely in London, led me to conclude that, yes, he had fled the Nazis, but was hardly free from another kind of anti-Semitism based on the same myths and insults.
Described for years in the West as a luxuries-loving Russian billionaire, from the moment Abramovich became a citizen of Israel and launched the “Say no to anti-Semitism!” campaign, his Jewishness came into focus, as well as the stereotypes that have always dogged the rich Jew.
According to the latest Anti-Defamation League report published in June this year, he is the #1 target of online anti-Semitism in the football world. Endless content spills over the web such as: “Roman Abramovich is a Jew, stop supporting Chelsea,” and “Jews really rule the world. I was surprised to learn that Roman Abramovich is one, too.”
Chelsea FC works with people and authorities around the world to help fight anti-Semitism and hatred in general. As part of this effort, players, the management, and fans frequently meet with Holocaust survivors in a campaign with partners such as the World Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International, the Holocaust Educational Foundation and the Conference of the Presidents of American Jewish Organizations.
Despite funding projects like the one that annually brings together 1,000 Jewish and Arab children in Israel through football all over the world, to break down barriers between young people from different cultures, Roman Abramovich knows for sure that many will never attribute positive intentions or pure feelings toward him. The history of the Jews proves it.
Miriam Assor is a journalist and author of the book Os Judeus Ilustres de Portugal (“Famous Jews of Portugal”).
This column originally appeared in Israel Hayom.
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