The Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, told the conference that Vladimir Putin has done more for the country’s Jewish community – including fighting anti-Semitism – than any other Russian leader.
Lazar said: “Putin was the first president to publicly speak out against anti-Semitism and did the most for the Jews. There is no institutional anti-Semitism in Russia. The attitude toward the Jews in Russia is excellent.”
The rabbi compared Putin favourably with previous leaders. “In contrast to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who were not interested in hearing about the situation of the Jews in Russia, Putin was the first to say that anti-Semitism has no place here,” he said.
“He was the first to speak publicly against anti-Semitism, and did the most for the Jews in Russia. This is not self-evident, nor is it obvious that there can be a conference in Russia today like the study of FSU with more than 2,000 Jews.”
Regarding recent anti-Semitic statements by Russian parliamentarians, Lazar said, “It’s just a drop in the ocean. These statements are of course inappropriate, but they are not the end of the world either.
“Our goal is to have a finger on the pulse and raise the issues on the political level in order to protect the Jewish community. We must cooperate with the government as long as it protects us.”
On a more amusing note, Lazar referred to the Russian authorities’ policy of banning the popular Pokemon Go mobile phone game in religious institutions, saying: “If anyone finds Pokemon in our synagogues, we will be glad.”
Lazar also warned that French Jews should leave that country if the nationalist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who is leading in current polls, should win the election.
“The situation in Europe is very worrying. If Marine Le Pen is elected president of France, the Jews must leave,” he said.
The rabbi also voiced general concern about the rise of nationalism across Europe, describing the situation on the continent as “very worrying”.
He said he believed this was not only because of immigrants, but also because the general population was “heading toward radicalisation”, the best example of this being seen in the rise of extreme-right parties.
Asked about recent media reports linking President Trump and Chabad, Lazar said: “I do not like that people are intentionally looking for ties between Trump and Chabad or between Trump and the Jews in general. I can say it’s excellent that Ivanka Trump is Jewish and that Trump’s grandchildren are Jewish too, but I have nothing to add beyond that.”
He noted that before the US presidential election, Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner visited the grave in Queens, NY, of the late Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, a site popular among Orthodox Jews seeking a blessing and inspiration.
Lazar also defended Putin for his role in supporting Syrian President Bashir Assad. “It is not certain that there are better options for Syria than Assad. The Arab Spring did not produce positive results. It seems the Arab countries are not yet ready to accept the rule of democracy.”