Among Sephardic Jews of my grandmother’s generation, there was a popular, if unproven, belief that Gen. Francisco Franco—the military dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975—was of Jewish parentage, and that this explained why he granted refuge to several thousand Jews fleeing the Nazis. I’ve heard tales of a similar belief about Russia’s present republican tsar, Vladimir Putin, along with a similar explanation that his largely benevolent attitude towards the more than 1 million Jews under his rule stems from his supposedly Jewish ancestry.
In an interview this week with The Jerusalem Post, Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar didn’t go as far as to claim Putin for the Jewish people, but he did laud him as the first leader in Russia’s long history “to say that Jews had the same rights as anyone else.” The rabbi also related the story of an elderly Jewish woman who told him that Putin’s attendance at a synagogue dedication left her feeling that she could now hold her head up after a lifetime of looking down.
Lazar’s comments were situated in a broader defense of Putin from the charge of anti-Semitism, the product of a recent NBC interview in which the Russian leader suggested that ethnic minorities with Russian citizenship—he named “Jews,” “Tatars” and “Ukrainians,” specifically—were responsible for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But while Jewish leaders in the United States and Europe condemned Putin’s apparent invocation of shadowy Jewish power, Lazar countered that Putin was implacably opposed to anti-Semitism, having presided over an unprecedented rebirth of Jewish identity and community in Russia in the past two decades.
Those who maintain that Lazar speaks the truth and those who argue that he is compelled to say such things are, paradoxically, both correct. Perhaps the most important task of a Jewish leader in a country like Russia—with its authoritarian and violently anti-Semitic traditions—is to ensure that the existence of a secure, vibrant Jewish community remains an important national interest, as Putin evidently believes it to be.
Yet Putin’s cultivation of warm relations with Russia’s Jews, along with his regime’s respectful relations with the State of Israel, serve as a reminder that the transnational ties that bind the Jewish people aren’t immune from the pressures of geopolitics. A century ago, that reality manifested on the battlefield, with more than 500,000 Jewish soldiers serving in the ranks of rival national armies during World War I. These days, the stakes are less (or we at least believe they are), but the fact remains that the Vladimir Putin lionized by Rabbi Lazar is the same Vladimir Putin who is regarded by most Jews outside of Russia as a transparently nasty threat to the democracies in which they live as free citizens.
Putin is certainly a historical oddity. He is a ruthless dictator with philo-Semitic leanings, who is nonetheless sophisticated enough to grasp the crucial political role that anti-Semitism has played—and may still play—in Russia’s national development. But there is a more immediate, overriding point: for the time being, none of this history really matters.
The big difference with the Cold War is that Russian Jews are no longer the hostages of their own national authorities, even if Putin’s regime increasingly recalls the Soviet Union in other ways. Nor is the struggle against “international Zionism” an obsessive propaganda theme of Putin’s Russia, as it was under the Communist Party.
There are few signs that Putin is pursuing policies abroad that would lead him to turn on the Jews of Russia, as happened more than once under his Soviet predecessors.
Yet the welcome absence of anti-Semitism as an organizing principle of Russia’s present regime does not mean that the country itself should be regarded as more trustworthy or reasonable on the international stage. The incoming national security advisor, John Bolton, explained the challenge well in a television interview discussing Russia’s use of a chemical weapons agent in the attempted assassination of a former KGB officer and his daughter in the United Kingdom. The violation of British sovereignty for the purposes of assassination, explained Bolton, was part of a larger pattern of aggression that also included Russia’s tactical embrace of certain international agreements, like the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as a cover for its broader ambitions. Any arrangement that rested on the faith that Putin’s regime—or other authoritarian regimes—would honor their commitments to an agreement was “doomed to failure,” argued Bolton.
The basic insight that dictators cannot be trusted has been out of fashion in the White House for more than a decade. Now that it has apparently returned, it remains to be seen whether its application in the case of Russia will become a point tension or harmony in the relationship between Bolton and U.S. President Donald Trump.
In the meantime, what is certain is that Russia will continue its efforts to confound Western public opinion, including, when it makes sense to do so, with accounts of the rekindling of Jewish life in a country unfairly excoriated by the West for its alleged intolerance. Such a story would doubtless be a magnificent example of how a kernel of truth can be spun into a web of falsehoods—a craft excelled at throughout the course of the Putin regime—but none of us should be fooled.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.
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