Russian and Ukrainian Jews in the war. Interview with Pinchas Goldschmidt, former Chief Rabbi of Moscow

As of this summer, Pinchas Goldschmidt is no longer the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, a position he held for almost thirty years. Born in Zurich, he arrived in Russia in 1988, during the Gorbachev era, to work on restoring Jewish life at the time of perestroika. He decided to leave his adopted country after the invasion of Ukraine, when he was pressured to support the war. K. met him while in Paris for a meeting of the Institute for Religious Freedom and Security in Europe (IFFSE)[1], of which he is a founding member, as President of the Conference of European Rabbis.

 

Pinchas Goldschmidt – website of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER)

 

You were born in Zurich and studied to become a rabbi in Israel, why did you move to Russia?

I arrived in Moscow in 1988, at the age of 25. Russia was under Gorbachev, during perestroika, glasnost… At the time, it was a question of contributing to the reconstruction of Jewish life after seventy years of Soviet repression, with the help of organisations like the World Jewish Congress. This was a time when there was not a single rabbi for every 3 million Soviet Jews…. You have to remember the context in which Jews lived under the Soviet empire: they could neither profess their faith nor leave the country. I was made aware of this issue by my father, who was a businessman and worked with the Soviet Union in Mongolia. Emissaries who had been in contact with the refuseniks, the dissident Soviet Jews, often came to our house. My father, when he was in the USSR on business, made contact with them and I remember very well that he spoke of these women and men who had fought against the communist regime and the KGB as heroes. These Soviet Jews had maintained, or tried to maintain their Jewish identity, even though they knew very little about Judaism, almost nothing. They did everything to preserve a Jewish cultural life under the eyes of the KGB. As a child, their story touched me enormously.

At the end of the communist period, there were 3 million Jews? 

Those were the figures.

According to the Soviet principle of nationality, right?

Jews were not identified. It wasn’t necessarily marked on their passports. It was one of my first missions as founder of the Moscow Beth Din to see how we could re-establish the Jewishness of people who were not considered Jewish on their papers or administrative documents. Again, we have to put this into context: parents, grandparents may have decided to hide their Jewish identity in order not to be rejected in universities or to get certain jobs. So we had to be able to give a certificate of Judaism to all these people so that they could make their Aliyah, or go to Germany or America.

How did you become Chief Rabbi of Moscow?

Do you speak Yiddish?

 “Bemokom she’eyn ish, iz a hering oykh a fish. This means: “In a place where there are no fish, a herring is considered a fish”. The original plan – worked out between the World Jewish Congress and Gorbachev’s Soviet Minister of Religious Affairs – to send a rabbi from the West to Russia initially fell through. The minister who agreed to this was a liberal, but he was kicked out and a less open-minded communist replaced him. At the same time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s yeshiva opened and it was there that I came officially, under the auspices of the USSR Academy of Sciences, which had established a centre for Jewish civilisation. At the beginning, I taught; then I was very busy with the work of the Beth Din, i.e. with civil status acts: marriages, divorces, people’s certifications of Judaism… And it was a year later that the great synagogue of Moscow asked me to become its rabbi.

 The Russian Jews looked at me, who had come to Moscow, as if I were crazy. During the first course I gave, some refuseniks said to me: ‘You come here, while we are trying to flee’.

When you arrived in Russia, most Jews wanted to leave…

Until the coup, until the real end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the vast majority of Jews really wanted to leave. They didn’t see what could happen in a positive way and they were afraid of a return to communism. The Russian Jews looked at me, who had come to Moscow, as if I were crazy. During the first course I gave, some refuseniks said to me: “You come here, while we are trying to flee”. I had many students among the leaders of the refuseniks. One of them, Ze’ev Elkin, is today a minister in the Israeli government… When I arrived in Moscow, no one could imagine that the Soviet Union would disappear. We just thought that a window of opportunity was opening, like after Stalin in the Khrushchev era. We even thought that perhaps this window would soon close again. What did we want to do in this context? We wanted to use this moment of respite as much as we could to recreate contact between the Jewish world in the West and Russian Jews. And then there was the coup and Yeltsin: the country officially became democratic.

How did you see the situation of Russian Jews change at that time?

The change was real. The possibility of a future in Russia was once again open to Jews. So many of them said to themselves: “Ok, let’s give it a chance”. So together with other young rabbis who came from the West, we started to create community structures, schools, kindergartens, synagogues…

But the departures did not stop…

No, of course not. Many continued to leave. In fact, all the refuseniks left. The community found itself without a leader. It was us, the rabbis who had just arrived from the West, who filled the vacancies.

During the 1990s, what about antisemitism? Was it less present than before? 

Yes. Let’s not forget that one of the three people killed during the coup was a Jew: Ilya Kritchevski. When he was buried, the Kaddish was said on the side of the White House in central Moscow. This was the first time in decades that Judaism could live in the open in Russia. At that time, many Jews who had previously been victims of repression in the Soviet Union became important figures, both in the business world and in the government. There is a Jewish deputy prime minister, but I also think of Boris Nemtsov, Yakov Urinson and Alexander Lifchitz…

S.B.: A relationship between Jews and power is being re-established after being broken.

Yes, and Jewish bankers are becoming very powerful oligarchs.

This could have been a vector of antisemitism…

Yes, there was still antisemitism under Yeltsin, but the general atmosphere changed and improved. In 1996, the United Jewish Community of Russia was created. Rabbis, who were local community activists, as well as oligarchs and Jewish personalities who were in government, united under the umbrella of the Russian Jewish Congress. Vladimir Gusinsky was its head. When Yeltsin resigned in 2000 and appointed Putin as head of government, Russia took a completely different direction. The regime decided to get rid of Gusinsky, who was also the owner of NTV, the fourth TV channel. He was arrested several times. But as he was also the head of the Jewish community, the day he was put in prison, the authorities created an alternative Jewish community with an alternative chief rabbi who was supposed to become Putin’s privileged interlocutor.

And how did Putin choose this alternative chief rabbi?

He chose the head of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

How do we explain that the Chabad movement has been so successful in Russia and that it is a privileged interlocutor for the authorities?

The reason is extremely simple. There were no elected local leaders. All the leadership came from outside. This is something you see in all the countries where the Chabad movement works: they become close to the power and then they find local sources to finance their activities. Traditional rabbis are employees, they are invited by a community to organise religious life, whereas the Chabad system works like a franchise, like McDonald’s. They start a community from scratch. That’s why, in Eastern Europe, the Chabad movement has been incredibly successful over the last thirty years…

It’s also because they are less involved in politics and they submit more easily to the word of the state…

Yes, in general the Chabad movement has fewer problems working with a non-democratic regime.

What has changed with Putin’s arrival in power?

On the one hand, Russia has become more authoritarian every day during the 22 years of his regime. But on the other hand, Jewish life was tolerated. 

Protected or tolerated?

Both. President Putin has always taken a stand against anti-Semitism and he had excellent relations with the Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu. I wouldn’t say that Putin is or was antisemitic… Jews felt comfortable and safe. At the same time, the situation became more and more difficult: less human rights, less democracy… The general situation deteriorated overall. But the Kremlin supported Jewish life, especially the Chabad movement. 

Ukraine has had a tragic history with the Jews, but it is a country that voted 70% for a Jewish president. Do you remember the last time the US or France had a Jewish president? 

At the beginning of the war, six months ago, when you heard about “denazification” and when you saw the words of Russian propaganda being developed, what did you understand?

Russia then says: “We are not anti-Semites, it’s the opposite, we are against anti-Semites, against Nazis”. I think that this speech is science fiction. It has nothing to do with reality. Of course, Ukraine had a tragic history with the Jews during the Second World War, during the Shoah… But it is a country that voted 70% for a Jewish president. Do you remember the last time the United States or France had a Jewish president? Moreover, beyond the political fact that Zelenski represents, we must note the renewal of Jewish life in Ukraine. Many rabbis have managed to recreate communities everywhere. Such a reality would be impossible under a Nazi regime. The Kremlin’s discourse is obviously a fiction, but the problem is that I could see that many Russians believed this propaganda.

S.B.: Would you say that the Jews, at that time, understood better what was going on?

Yes, much better. Unlike the majority population which is more dependent on official communication networks, Jews had more links with their families in Ukraine or Israel and had easier access to the right information.

There have been many articles about the departure of Jews from Ukraine – 15,000 or 20,000 people – and almost as many from Russia. What can you say about this?

Since the beginning of the war, the number of Jews who left Russia for Israel is twice as large as the number of Jews who left Ukraine. There are official figures that speak of 23,000, but I think we are closer to the truth if we speak of 50,000 people, perhaps more. And we must mention the 35,000 people of Jewish origin who are waiting in Russia today for the Israeli embassy’s authorisation. Also, many Jews who already had their Israeli passport have decided to leave.

How do you interpret this exodus? Do you think it is a definitive departure?

There is a great fear that is rising, for many reasons: there is anti-Semitism that is on the rise; there is the fear that a curtain is closing again; there is the economic situation that is getting worse and the worry of a total mobilisation. Finally, there is the repression that is getting tougher. Everyone with eyes to see knows that the future is going to become more and more difficult. Russian Jews don’t want to live like in the Soviet Union again…

You talk about an increase in anti-Semitism? Now, you said earlier that Putin was not anti-Semitic, but around him, what about the power? We heard for example Lavrov’s speech…

The regime today has facilitated a total revenge of the descendants of the KGB, the FSB. They are taking total control of the country. But the KGB, as an organisation, is ontologically anti-Semitic.

In what way?

The men of the KGB or FSB are the ones who are replacing the oligarchs of Jewish origin. They are the ones who are taking power in Russia economically, but also in the government, everywhere. And they are very suspicious of the West. As under Stalin, they are taking up the discourse against Jewish cosmopolitanism. Since 2014, we have had this avalanche of rhetoric against the West, against America. In this context, Jews are always suspected. That’s why the FSB is trying to get rid of all international organisations… At the moment, I am often asked why the Russians decided to close the Jewish Agency. The question is actually asked in reverse: why, until now, they had not closed it?

And why?

Because of the special relationship with Israel.

It is too early to predict anything. But we can say with certainty today that both communities – the Jewish community in Russia and the Jewish community in Ukraine – will be more fragile, smaller and poorer.

How do you see the future of Ukrainian Judaism, but also of Russian Judaism?

Everything depends on the outcome of the war. Who will win it? Six months ago, everyone said that the Russians would be victorious, that it was only a matter of time. Today, many voices speak of a possible victory for Ukraine. In any case, there will be great changes in both countries. Ukraine is already largely destroyed. Many of the Jews who left the country will not return, even in case of a Ukrainian victory. Many Russian Jews who also left the country will not return either. When the reconstruction of Ukraine is on the agenda, the question will be the parameters of the relationship with Russia. Will there be peace with Russia? Will it be a total Ukrainian victory or will part of Ukraine remain Russian? It is too early to predict anything. But we can say with certainty today that both communities – the Jewish community in Russia and the Jewish community in Ukraine – will be more fragile, smaller and poorer.

You are pessimistic.

I am realistic.

A question not to the former Chief Rabbi of Moscow, but to the President of the Congress of European Rabbis: what is your vision of the future of European Judaism ?

The problem is not “European Judaism” as such, the problem is Europe. For Israel, until not long ago, Europe did not exist. There was America, and that was all. Only American Judaism existed. I will tell you an anecdote: shortly after the creation of the United Jewish Community of Russia, at an event where Vladimir Gusinsky and the head of the Jewish Agency at the time were present, the latter turned to us and said: “Listen, Europe does not exist, there are two Jewish communities, the one in America and Israel, that’s all. Now you, in Russia, have to decide where you want to be. That’s how he talked! For Bibi, going to a Bar Mitzvah of a member of the Likud central committee was much more important than going to a European foreign minister. But the situation has changed and continues to change. Largely because many members of the European diaspora, especially in the East, have become poor and cannot survive without Israel’s help. There is a whole Israeli movement that understands that if you don’t want to lose it, you have to help these communities. This renewed interest is a very positive thing. The interest is also coming back because today there is a perceived threat from international organisations like the criminal court in The Hague. Israel understands that it is not only with the Americans that relations are important, but also with Europe.

But putting aside the way Israel sees Europe, from the point of view of the internal forces of European Jews, how do you see their future?

We have big problems. Problems with shehita [ritual slaughter]… We have problems, but we have partners, in governments, in the European Commission. Partners who understand us. There is a change.

Meanwhile, in 2020, the European Court of Justice confirmed the legality of the 2017 decree of the Flemish Region of Belgium banning ritual slaughter without stunning…

You are talking about the European Court, I am talking about the European Commission. The decision of the Jewish community in Belgium to challenge the Belgian decree at the European Court of Justice was a bad and hopeless decision. This problem will not be solved at the legal level, but at the political level. Only when it is made clear that there will be no Jews left in Europe if the practice of the Jewish religion is banned, can there be a change. On 20 October, there will be a big conference in Brussels, decided by the European Commission, with the Council of Europe and the OCSE, on shehita. It is on this side that we can expect a positive change on this issue. I perceive changes at the political level: today, in each country in Europe, there is a person in charge of the fight against anti-Semitism for example…

You answer me by saying: “we have partners, we discuss with the authorities, with the States”, but what about European society?

It is true that there is a problem: Europeans have forgotten their history, the First and Second World Wars, the Shoah. Europe was breaking up, with Brexit for example. But thanks to this Russian war in Ukraine, it has succeeded in reminding all Europeans of the consequences of imperialism, nationalism and lack of democracy. It is a lesson that is extremely costly. There will be many Europeans who will be cold this winter…


Interview by Stéphane Bou and Lisa Vapné

Notes

1 IFFSE’s goals include “fostering moderate religious practices and safeguarding religious freedoms” and “mobilizing religious leaders to take an active role in improving the security of their communities and countering the abuse of religion.”

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