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We need to talk about Russian oligarchs and Jewish philanthropy

What do Roman Abramovich Moshe Kantor, Lev Leviev, Victor Vekselberg, Mikail Fridman, German Khan and Berel Lazar have in common?
Roman Abramovich by Marina Lystseva (GFDL 1.2)

For the first time since the Second World War, the Jews of Ukraine once again are hearing the sounds of guns and artillery. Some have decided to seek out the safety of other countries, as Jews have done so many times before. Some have joined the Ukrainian army and the ad-hoc territorial defense units to defend their country, or are doing what they can to support their communities as civilians. Others, some of whom are old enough to remember the last time war visited them, are simply not mobile enough to do anything besides waiting in their homes and praying that the next shell does not find them.

Some synagogues have had to close their doors as their rabbis left brokenhearted, as in Odessa. Others have become bomb shelters or aid distribution centers. Members of the refugee Jewish committee of Donetsk have been forced to flee once again. All major Jewish organizations and leaders in Ukraine have taken an unambiguous stand on the side of their country and against Russian imperialist aggression.

But there is a special ugliness to this war. Behind those guns, in the ranks of the enemy, in the halls of power deciding their fates, in the inner circle of Vladimir Putin, stand members of their own tribe. The presence of Jews in power is always tricky to talk about, but it is indisputable that the likes of the Rotenberg brothers or Roman Abramovich are instrumental to the Putinist system.

This is not remarkable on its own, of course, and their guilt rests solely on their own heads. Their Jewishness doesn’t stand out when placed on the multiethnic tapestry of criminals who work for the Kremlin – the “Orthodox Oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, Tuvan Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, or Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. What is more concerning is how deeply embedded they are in Jewish life outside of Russia, where their money has bought them influence.

Philanthropy itself always has moral questions. The best causes still need funding, and it is difficult to make sure that the strings attached do not undermine the mission. I’m sure anyone reading this can think of a number of donors who they immediately regard with suspicion even if they support the same cause. However, the current situation in Ukraine pushes well beyond what can be covered up with polite handshakes and purposeful ignorance. Russian oligarchs of all types, flush with cash and a with a lot of guilt to launder, have nudged their way into everything from the art world to sport, but the following stand out for their prominent positions in Jewish philanthropy and communal life:

Roman Abramovich played a pivotal role in the rise of Vladimir Putin. He was the first politician to put Putin forward as the successor to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and has been close to the ruler ever since. Few are in closer proximity to power than Abramovich, who has grown fabulously wealthy as a result. He is also a deeply entrenched part of Jewish communal life, especially in Europe and Israel. His often ill-gotten gains have filled the coffers of the Jewish National Fund, Tel Aviv University, the Jewish Agency, and Chabad, among many others. As the owner of the Chelsea football club, his football-related causes have led him to the Peres Center for Peace and the Anti-Defamation League.

In the ultimate show of how funding becomes an addictive drug, Yad Vashem itself, practically an ethical lodestar, called for Abramovich to be spared from sanctions in the leadup to the war. We will see how much carnage it takes to change their minds. They have since taken the incredibly easy step of condemning the war, but only turned the money down after the British government froze Abramovich’s assets.

The European Jewish Congress is an important umbrella group on the continent with a host of affiliations and projects. It was, until recently, headed by Russian fertilizer magnate Moshe Kantor, who has frequently used his presence in the art world and his seat at the head of the European Jewish Community to help make the thuggish Putin look more sophisticated and worldly. Kantor has gained an effective monopoly on power within the EJC, underwritten by his lucrative and secure position in Moscow. Having its head under economic sanctions has proven to be too much for the EJC, however, and Kantor has now resigned from his position. But, that still leaves the question of his proxies remaining in the organization and untangling how its influence may have poisoned their mission.

Lev Leviev is first and foremost a diamond trader, and Israel has even arrested his son on charges of being involved in the more black market side of that industry. Though he was born in Soviet Tashkent and spent most of his life in Israel, he was recruited by Abramovich early on to help boost Putin’s bid for power. His involvement in Jewish life is largely mediated through his position as head of the Bukharan Jewish community and a partner in Moshe Kantor’s endeavors. He has given a great deal to Chabad and is the head of the Chabad-affiliated Or Avner and Hannah Foundation.

Victor Vekselberg, among the wealthiest businessmen in Russia for his oil and gas holdings, has been named by the FBI for running an espionage ring out of his Skolkovo Foundation research hub. He was also a point man in wrestling away some infrastructure assets from BP oil company. Less dramatically, his efforts to bring Faberge eggs back to their homeland were a major feather in his cap among the more prestige-minded figures in the Kremlin. His Jewish philanthropy is more domestic, where he is a leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, but he is another who is connected to Abramovich.

Mikail Fridman and German Khan are the owners of the Alfa Group, with diverse holdings from Alfa-Bank to bottled water. They are also heads of the famed Genesis Philanthropy Group which sponsors dozens of Jewish initiatives including the Genesis Prize. They have also played a major role in developing the site of Babyn Yar in Kyiv. Early in the war, the Russian military bombed Babyn Yar. Five people were killed. Fridman says that criticizing the war is too politically risky, and so has been removed from the board of his Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.

Chabad emissary Berel Lazar serves as Putin’s Court Rabbi and has frequently run interference for Putin’s abuses of power by giving him the veneer of being “good for the Jews.” Other than being an important figure within the Chabad movement and his leadership within the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union, he also sits on the board of organizations such as the Elijah Interfaith Institute. Lazar doesn’t have as much money to lend to Putin’s imperialist mission, but he does lend his credibility.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a Russian billionaire or person of influence who isn’t connected to Putin. That is simply how the system works. Any dissenting voices in the country have been either driven out, killed, or co-opted over the past 20 years of the Tsar’s rule. Except for Rabbi Lazar, everyone on this list was either part of the collection of oligarchs who pledged their loyalty to Putin in exchange for not meeting the fate of the imprisoned then exiled Mikhail Khodorkovsky or the assassinated Boris Berezovsky, or, most directly in the case of Abramovich and Vekselberg, were a part of Boris Yeltsin’s “Family” (along with Berezovsky, times change) who maneuvered Putin into power in the first place to protect themselves from justice. If someone is in a position of influence, they are there with the Kremlin’s blessing and have to pay for it in one way or another. The line between oligarchs and the State is illusory.

To say it plainly, these people are killing Jews. They have validated Putin’s rise to power, they have personally benefited from their connections, and they are in a position to attempt to put an end to his war of aggression. Taking their money means taking dirty money. Inviting them to sit at your table means inviting murderers who are soaking the black soil of Ukraine red with Jewish blood, the same as too many before them. Their “good works” only exist to purchase prestige and the protection that comes with it. Jewish philanthropies, Chabad houses, and cultural initiatives help them to do this, become partners in the bloodletting, and must stop.

About the Author
Anthony Bartaway is a Jewish-American journalist based out of Kyiv, Ukraine since soon after the Revolution of Dignity, a place he was drawn to following his MA program at Tel Aviv Univerity. While also writing about a range of topics in the country, from war to reforms, he has a special interest in the region’s Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life.
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