‘Identity is our main battlefield’

‘Identity is our main battlefield’

Why Putin slung insults at Zelensky, and what he really means

Alexander Smukler
Alexander Smukler

We don’t really need Vladimir Putin to tell us who is a Jew and who is a disgrace to our people, even if the wisdom comes to him through his Jewish friends.

That’s according to Alexander Smukler, the Russian-born American Jew who lives in Montclair now and has been analyzing the Russian war on Ukraine since Putin first invaded his neighbor on February 24, 2022.

Putin delivered that insight into Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian Jew who is the president of Ukraine, last Friday, at the Russian annual economic forum that commonly was known as the Russian Davos.

First, Mr. Smukler set the scene.

“Last year, it was very weird,” he said. “Nobody came. I used to go to it almost every year when I had companies in Russia.” Mr. Smukler is an entrepreneur whose businesses in Russia and Ukraine flourished until the invasion.

“Russians consider it to be the equal of the world economic forum that usually takes place in Davos, Switzerland,” he said. “It’s always at the beginning of June, the best time in St. Petersburg. It’s the start of the white nights,” when the sun doesn’t quite set, so the city never gets dark. “It’s beautiful,” Mr. Smukler added.

Last year, he watched it online; “I did not see a single face that I knew,” he said. Moreover, “everybody there looked depressed.

“This year, I watched several Russian TV channels, and I saw that it was completely different. The Russians said that they had representatives from 130 countries, and that there were 12,000 people participating all together, in different sessions.

“I don’t remember ever seeing 12,000 participants there in other years, and I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s what the Russians said.

“The Russians say that it represents the business world. I didn’t see anybody from any major Western corporations. Most of the people there were from the Arab world; the only foreign leader was the president of Algeria, and there were lots and lots of Chinese. That has never happened before. Obviously, Putin invited people from countries that are favorable to Russia.”

Dimitri Simes (New America)

Mr. Smukler was struck by the talk from the governor of the Central Bank of Russia, Elvira Nabiullina. “Last year, she filed an application to resign, but Putin did not accept it,” he said. “She was depressed; she thought that after the Western sanctions were implemented, the Russian economy would not survive.

“But this year, she said in her speech that ‘we are perfectly fine. We are doing well. The sanctions have not harmed our economy.’ She said that inflation will not be dramatic; last year it was 9 percent and this year it’s likely to be 7.5 percent. She said that Western sanctions are not working, and that Russia is increasing its export of mineral resources, including gas and oil.

“She did not mention that Russia has a budget deficit — for the first time in 30 years — and it’s 3.4 trillion rubles this year, and we’re only halfway into the year.

“Basically, the speeches were all much more optimistic than they were last year,” Mr. Smukler said.

But Putin’s speech was the most important part of the forum, Mr. Smukler said.

The talk was “about possible peace negotiations, about moving nuclear missiles to Belarus, and of course he again threatened the West with using tactical nuclear weapons if it continues to supply weaponry to Ukraine.”

The talk was moderated by Dimitri Simes, “an American who was pretty well known about 20 years ago, and who I have known for many years,” Mr. Smukler said. He’s the 75-year-old, Moscow-born, American-naturalized former president of the Center for National Interest who worked closely with Richard Nixon soon after Nixon resigned the presidency, “and with whom he traveled frequently to former Soviet states,” Mr. Smukler said. “He is the son of very reputable Russian dissidents, human rights lawyers in the Soviet Union.” His parents were Jewish, although many of his online biographies omit that fact.

“He obviously is Jewish; he is legendary in the Russian-speaking Jewish community in the United States, well-known for his success in Washington.

“It is very shocking that he was the moderator at the forum. He was invited by Putin’s administration; it was very important for them.”

And why would Simes have wanted to appear on a stage with Putin, 16 months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? “Recently, Simes is very well-known for his support of Putin’s invasion,” Mr. Smukler said. “I don’t know why, but I do know that he is very like Tucker.” Tucker Carlson, that is, the far-right commentator recently fired by Fox for unclear reasons that seem to include his going even further than that proudly far-right network could abide.

Olena Zelenska

“Simes is a very conservative Republican political analyst,” Mr. Smukler said. “His position is that our supplying weaponry to Ukraine is escalating the conflict, and that will lead to the Third World War. He says we shouldn’t do it, and he always has blamed the Biden administration for the conflict itself.”

At the talk at the Russian economic forum, first Putin gave a speech, and then Simes asked questions and Putin answered them.

“One of the questions was, ‘Mr.
President, what do you think about Zelensky and how do you explain that Zelensky, who is a Jewish person by blood, became president of Ukraine, and right now basically he is endorsing the glorification of Nazis.’” (To be clear, there is one truth and one lie in this statement. Yes, Zelensky is Jewish by birth, and no, he is not glorifying Nazis.)

The question did not catch Putin by surprise. In fact, “there is no doubt that Putin knew that this question would be asked, and he was ready for it,” Mr. Smukler said.

“Putin said that he asked his assistant to prepare a two- or three-minute video documentary using footage in their military archives about Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych, and the other Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, and what they did to Ukrainian Jews during the war.”

TASS, the Russian news agency, reported that Putin said: “My Jewish friends say that Zelensky is not a Jew, but a shame to the Jewish people. This is not a joke and not an attempt at irony, because today neo-Nazis, Hitler’s disciples, have been put on a pedestal as heroes of Ukraine.”

To address the question of whether Zelensky is Jewish — yes, he is. In 2020, the Times of Israel quoted him as saying that he was raised in “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family.”

A Times of Israel story from earlier this week continued his story.

His “great-grandfather and three of his grandfather’s brothers died as a result of the Nazi invasion of Ukrainian territory. His grandfather and his grandfather’s brothers took up arms against the Nazis in the Red Army; his grandfather was the only one to survive. He did not specify whether they died in combat or in the extended massacre of more than 1 million Ukrainian Jews that the Nazis carried out, often with local collaboration.

“His grandmother, he has said, survived because she left Kryvyi Rih for Kazakhstan; almost all of the Jews who remained were murdered.”

Boris Rotenberg (A. Savin)

So yes, he’s Jewish by birth, although he’s completely secular.

Mr. Smukler dissected the rest of Putin’s comment.

“Putin is very smart,” he said; instead of claiming the image of Zelensky as a traitor to his people, he attributed that idea to his many Jewish friends.

“This sentence touches on an extremely important issue for the Jewish world, and particularly for Russian Jews,” he said. “It opens a Pandora’s box and initiated enormously active discussion.

“Usually, I speak on behalf of myself, but today I want to speak on behalf of the Russian-speaking community here and in Israel,” he continued. “After the speech, I called many friends and spoke to many prominent Jewish thinkers about it.

“A few years ago, Natan Sharansky came to Metro-
West” — that’s the Jewish Federation of Greater Metro-
West — “and he gave a speech about Jewish identity in the modern world, and the importance of the identity of the Jews who live in galut” — in the Diaspora.(Natan Sharansky — born Anatoly Scharansky — is the Russian refusenik who became an Israeli politician and remained a Jewish hero.)

“He said that identity is our main battlefield,” Mr. Smukler continued. “I totally agree.”

One part of Putin’s comment on Zelensky is true, he said. “Nobody talks about this — the whole Jewish world tries to be silent about it — but Putin is surrounded by Jewish friends who fully support him. We’re talking about his closest inner circle.

“Putin has at least a few people who he acknowledges as his closest friends, from his childhood.

“According to Forbes, the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg and their children and relatives are probably the richest Russian family today. They are both under U.S. and E.U. sanctions. Putin always claims them as his closest friends. They knew him since he was a young fellow, in high school and university.” While Putin was in law school and then became the vice mayor of St. Petersburg, the Rotenberg brothers, who were athletes, owned a martial arts school. They became close friends at that school.

Arkady Rotenberg (Kremlin.ru)

“They are Jewish, and they are very philanthropic and supportive of the Jewish community. They gave lots of money to the community, and particularly to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

“The second friends also are brothers, the Kovalchuks; Yury, a financier, is known as Putin’s personal banker, and Mikhail, a physicist, is scientific secretary of the Russian Council for Science and High Technologies. Their mother is Jewish; their father is a Ukrainian from Odesa.

“And Putin’s right-hand, his first deputy chief of staff, is Sergei Kirienko. That’s a very Ukrainian name. But his real last name is Israitel.”

That’s not all. Dmitry Medvedev, the onetime president of Russia, who was the filling in the Putin presidential sandwich — Putin, Medvedev, Putin — and who continues as one of Putin’s slavish supporters, has a Jewish grandparent Mr. Smukler pointed out.

“So many of the people around Putin are either 100 percent Jewish or part Jewish that he is right to say that he has a lot of Jewish friends,” Mr. Smukler said.

“A bigger issue that Jews have to admit is that a majority of the Jewish community in Russia supports Putin’s war.

“The war split the Jewish community,” he continued. “The Jews who remain in Russia, and particularly their leadership, do not say one word condemning the invasion.” There was one major exception, he added. That was Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who left Moscow after 30 years as the city’s chief rabbi because he could not condone the war.

When Putin attacked Zelensky, Mr. Smukler said, he immediately was reminded of a famous story about Leon Trotsky, “a founder of the Soviet state, when he was the head of the Red Army and Lenin was no longer capable of running the state, in the early 1920s.

“A group of rabbis came to Trotsky and asked him to protect the Jews in Ukraine from the pogroms that were organized by the Red Army. They appealed to Trotsky as a Jew. They knew that his real name was Leib Bronstein.

“Trotsky’s famous answer was: ‘I am not a Jew. I am a communist. So you came to appeal to the wrong person.’” (Stalin later had Trotsky tracked down and assassinated in Mexico.)

Volodymyr Zelensky

“That’s why some Russian Jews said that Zelensky is not a Jew; he is
a disgrace.

“That’s what opens the Pandora’s box. What in the modern world makes you Jewish? He was born into a Jewish family, but completely 100 percent secular, like all of us were. He was completely assimilated. What makes him Jewish?”

Mr. Smukler, like Vladimir Putin, grew up in the Soviet Union; his nickname for the strongman, the Angry Dwarf, grows out of Putin’s gifts for manipulation and self-protection, which are based on the anger, scarcity, and harshness of his immediately postwar childhood.

For Jews, there was another set of hardships. “All our Jewish traditions were taken away from us, but we are still carrying the genetic memory of being Jewish,” he said. “People my age” — he’s in his early 60s — “grew up with ‘Jew’ written in our passports. It was in the list of Soviet students. They’d read Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Kazakh, whatever else, Jewish. And immediately all the kids look at you, they say: ‘Are you Jewish?’ and you are like a white elephant. We all grew up with the feeling that we were second-class citizens.”

It would have been different for Zelensky. Had he been older, it would have been worse — the antisemitism was even harsher in Ukraine than in Russia proper before the Cold War ended, Mr. Smukler said. But Zelensky was born in 1978; the Soviet Union fell in 1991, when he was bar mitzvah age. “He is the product of the  independent democratic Ukraine.

“I am personally so proud of him,” he added. “But the question is — who is Jewish? What makes him Jewish? What makes us in the galut Jewish?”

He has a few answers. “One is the genetic memory and the stories that pass down to us from the previous generations. And the second is the miracle of Israel.

“Tikkun olam makes us Jewish. We have to believe that we exist in this world because God chose us. We are carrying the responsibility for improving this world and fighting against evil, even sacrificing our lives — in the Inquisition, in the Holocaust, in pogroms — but we still exist, despite all the blood and the tragedies. But we will believe that we can change the world and make it better.

“For me, the most important thing, as a Jew who came to the United States, trying to raise my kids to be Jewish – they each had a brit milah, had a bar mitzvah, we go to shul, we celebrate Shabbat, although not every week — is that what makes me Jewish?

“If one of us, who is Ukrainian and Jewish, becomes president of Ukraine, he can be considered to be fighting for the freedom of the whole civilized world.”

Vladimir Putin

“I never met Zelensky. I don’t know if he feels the same way. But I’d love to be able to ask him — do you consider yourself Jewish? What does it mean to you?

“But until I can ask him this question, I know for sure that for me, as a Jew, Zelensky, as a Jew, makes me proud.

There is another issue that Putin picks at — and nerves twitch. It’s Ukraine’s history with the Nazis. “It’s nothing against Zelensky” — no, he is not a Nazi — “but “the glorifying of Nazi collaborators in Ukraine as Ukrainian nationalists is a serious subject, and it must be raised by the U.S. State Department and by world Jewish leaders. I do feel very uncomfortable when Zelensky puts flowers on monuments to Bandera or Shukhevych.”

But there is a real historical question, he said. We know that millions of Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. We’re told that the Ukrainians murdered them with gusto, carrying out the Nazis’ orders even in the absence of the Nazis.

But is that true? We know about the murders; we don’t know the identity of all the murderers. All we know now came from the Soviet Union, Mr. Smukler said. Why should we trust Soviet propaganda? Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not. He hopes that Yad Vashem, which lists Ukraine as fourth in the number of Righteous Among the Nations — rescuers of Jews — can use its vast archives to research the history.

Mr. Smukler returned to the subject of the Jews still in Russia. Until the war started, the community flourished, and the government helped it with large grants for communal institutions. The Jewish oligarchs were philanthropic.

Many of the community’s leaders still support Putin, he said. “And others, who disagree with Putin’s regime and don’t see a future for themselves under such a brutal dictatorship, are trying to leave. There is a tremendous wave of immigration to Israel right now.

“According to different sources, almost 62,000 Russian Jews have arrived in Israel since the war started. According to Israeli officials, thousands of people still are waiting at Israel’s embassies in Russia to make aliyah. Today, the wait for just an interview at the Israeli consulate in Moscow is at least 18 months, and that doesn’t mean you’ll get a visa.

“We also know that there are tens of thousands of Jews or people of Jewish descent or in mixed families who would love to immigrate to the United States, but the United States has completely closed its doors to Russian Jews.

“There are people who are eligible to come to the United States based on the Lautenberg Amendment” — the 1990 federal law named after Frank Lautenberg, a Jewish Democratic senator from New Jersey, that allowed members of religious minorities from the former Soviet Union to join relatives in the United States.

“It is still in effect, but nobody is processing the documents. The State Department is delaying because the American embassy in Moscow is almost shut down, so you can’t apply there.  Everyone who worked there has been sent home. And HIAS, which is supposed to help Jewish immigrants, is refusing to process their documents.

“I know hundreds and hundreds of people who are trying to come to the United States to reunite with their families — brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, children — but they are not able
to apply.”

At the same time, the proposed judicial reforms in Israel also might change the Law of Return, which has allowed citizenship to everyone with at least one Jewish grandparent — those people might not be Jewish halachically, but that’s a different matter.

To return to Russia, “the Jewish presence there will continue, but it is extremely important to understand why it considers Zelensky a disgrace to the Jewish people.

“Today, the Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine have polarized views. The Jews of Ukraine are in full support of Zelensky. They are very proud of him.

“It’s a very touchy situation for Israel now. The Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, has announced his request that the Israeli government condemn Putin’s speech. If it does not, the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, will cancel her visit to Israel.

“It’s difficult. The Jewish community in Russia thinks Zelensky a disgrace. In Ukraine, they think he is a hero.

“I am waiting for our Jewish leadership in the United States, and in the world, to raise their voices and comment on what Putin said,” Mr. Smukler said. “No one has — not the American Jewish Committee, not the World Jewish Congress, not the Anti-Defamation League, not the Conference of Presidents, not the European Jewish Congress. Nobody said anything about that speech.

“We have a national hero, the president of Ukraine, who is Jewish. He is the leading person in the world ruling a country that is bleeding and he is trying to defend not only his country but the entire civilized world.”

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