Selling out to Premier Putin

By Anshel Pfeffer, October 3, 2008

Why is a major Israeli fundraising body appointing one of the Kremlin's men as head of its Russian operation?

Last October, I interviewed a group of twenty-somethings participating in the first Limmud to take place in Russia, near Moscow. They were intelligent and articulate on the future of Jewish life in their country. Just one of my questions remained unanswered: did they not fear living in a society whose hard-won democratic freedoms were rapidly being eroded by the government? They all smiled awkwardly and declined to say anything on the subject.

Ask any representative of an international Jewish organisation working in Russia and the response will be the same, at least on record. We don't do politics.

The bottom line is simple: there is a major Jewish revival in Russia, but it is coming at a price: the stifling of free speech and anything that may be construed as criticism of Vladimir Putin.

Whilst many Russian Jews were at the forefront of the struggle for democracy in Communist times, now they seem content, with only a handful of exceptions, to concentrate on their careers, private lives and communal affairs.

None of us living in the comfortable and free West have any right to criticise them for this; we will not have to deal with the consequences of a potential backlash, but that does not mean that the rest of the Jewish world should join in and kowtow to the Kremlin.

This week it was announced that Boris Spiegel is to become the president of Keren Heyesod - United Israel Appeal in Russia.

Mr Spiegel is a pharmaceutical tycoon, a senator and committee chairman in the Duma and the president of the World Congress of Russian Jewry (WCRJ). Though officially independent, Israeli government sources maintain that the WCRJ works on behalf of the Kremlin to strengthen ties between Russia and the two million Russian-speaking Jews who live around the world, mainly in Israel, North America and Germany.

It is impossible to succeed in business in Russia today without being aligned with the regime. Those oligarchs who tried to support the pro-democracy coalition have been hounded into exile, or prison, through a mixture of criminal charges and financial restrictions. Senator Spiegel, though, is firmly in the pro-Putin camp. His subservience was clearly on show last month during the fighting in the Caucasus when he joined the Kremlin's propaganda campaign calling for the establishment of a tribunal that would investigate Georgia's "war crimes" and "genocide". Spiegel did not speak just as a private citizen but harnessed the WCRJ to the cause, saying that "we, as historic victims of genocide, cannot stand aloof".

Keren Hayesod-UIA, as one of the largest fundraising organisations in the Jewish world, is naturally anxious to keep the millions flowing despite the credit crunch affecting many of its traditional donors in the West. The new Russian Jewish billionaires are a largely untapped resource. Spiegel is not the richest of them, but he is one of the best politically connected.

Off the record, UIA officials are very clear on the reasons they offered him the honorary post. Having a president of their local branch so close to the throne confers on the organisation a certain immunity from the restrictions that trouble many international bodies trying to operate in Russia, and also encourages other oligarchs and mini-garchs to get involved and open their wallets.

Setting aside the apparent contradiction between the aims of the two organisations that Spiegel now presides over; has no one at Keren Heyesod given any thought to the fact that such a blatant connection to Putin's authoritarian administration taints them and can cause long-term damage that will outweigh however many millions they may raise thanks to Spiegel in Russia?

Throughout its history, the Zionist movement (and subsequently Israel) has usually aligned itself with the democracies of the world.

Aberrations from this line, such as the flirtations with Mussolini's Fascists in the 1930s and close ties with the Argentine Junta and Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, have always ended in tears.
Jewish and Israeli organisations should be able to operate tactfully in Russia, without selling out to Putin.

Anshel Pfeffer is the JC's special correspondent

Last updated: 11:48am, October 2 2008