‘The golden age is over’

‘The golden age is over’

Alexander Smukler looks at Russia’s moves against Israel, toward Iran, and at its Jewish community

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, talk to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 22, 2021. (Yevgeny Biyatov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, talk to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 22, 2021. (Yevgeny Biyatov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s not as if Alexander Smukler’s take on Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the repercussions that the invasion has spewed, have been cheery.

Mr. Smukler, who grew up in Moscow, left there in 1990, about half his life ago, and now lives in Montclair, has many sources, both in Russia and in Ukraine, and he’s been sharing some of their impressions, as well as his own, with us. He’s told us the story of Vladimir Putin, the Angry Dwarf, and the effects that Putin’s unhinged effort to return his country, remade as an empire, to the position it once had, with him at its head, a worthy successor to Peter and Catherine as a Great, have had on Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the world.

This week, as Mr. Smukler talks about Putin’s desire to dangle Israel as bait for his new ally, Iran, and of the effects that will have on the Russian Jewish community, he’s even grimmer than usual.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February. In April, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that the invasion was an attempt to denazify Ukraine by ridding it of its Nazi leaders. “A journalist asked how it was possible that the Ukrainian government was Nazi, given that its president and many other of its members are Jewish. Lavrov said that it doesn’t a mean a thing that Zelensky is Jewish, because Hitler also was Jewish, and that the biggest antisemites are Jews.”

Lavrov’s obvious lies were met with rage from around the world, particularly from Israel, which demanded an apology that eventually, half-heartedly, it got from Putin.

Next, in June, Pinchas Goldschmidt, the former chief rabbi of Moscow and head rabbi of the city’s Choral Synagogue, a widely respected and influential figure in Russia and in Europe, was forced out of the country, just weeks after his contract with the shul had been renewed. “He had been under pressure to endorse the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the Russian government, to support it in its fight against — Be sure to put this in quotes! — the ‘neo-Nazis’ in Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said.

“Goldschmidt refused to follow that request, and so he had to run away.”

And now, the third blow.

“The Russians are kicking the Jewish Agency out of Moscow,” Mr. Smukler said. “Two weeks ago, the press already mentioned that the Russians were filing documents that will lead the Sochnut” — the Jewish Agency for Israel — to leave.” There was quiet diplomacy, but that seems to have failed; Mr. Smukler thinks that by press time, the court hearing set for July 28 will find “that the Sochnut has to be out for a number of violations of Russian law, including that they will recognize the Jewish Agency as a so-called foreign agent, rendering it unable to accept any grants or funding from outside Russia.

“So the agency will be pushed out, and its operation will be closed.

This is the main entrance to Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

“Last Friday, just before Shabbat, on his blog, Natan Sharansky wrote that based on his understanding and his intuition, Russian Jews cannot postpone immigration to Israel. If they have plans to make aliyah, they have to hurry up.” Mr. Sharansky knows what he’s talking about. He’s the former refusnik, born Anatoly Shcharansky in Ukraine, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, was released in 1986 in a dramatic zig-zag walk across a bridge between East and West Germany, moved to Israel, and later headed — wait for it! — the Jewish Agency for Israel. His intuitions about Russian-Jewish relationships are to be heeded.

“The Jewish Agency is not playing a critical role now in immigration to Israel,” Mr. Smukler said. “Right now, it has probably about 10 shlichim from Israel, and maybe about 120 total staff in Russia. It’s mainly preparing Jews for aliyah, with educational projects about Israel and managing and organizing a widely spread network of Hebrew classes and summer camps.” Its work, in other words, is symbolically important, but its reach inside Russia is fairly small.

But the symbolic message is enormous. “The Jewish Agency is a symbol of Zionism,” Mr. Smukler said. “The Soviet government invited it in at the end of Gorbachev’s term. At the time, it was a symbol of change, after 40 years of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel policy. It sent a very strong message that the Soviet Union was changing, and that Gorbachev was different.

“When Gorbachev allowed the Jewish Agency to open its offices in 1990, it was an incredible event. It had special meaning. I remember it well.

“And now it is the opposite. Putin kicking the Jewish Agency out of Russia is a symbol of turning back to the darkest times of Soviet antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israel policies.”

Is the symbolism of the Jewish Agency’s leaving Russia the same as McDonalds and Starbucks leaving the country, making tangible its break with the West? No, Mr. Smukler said. It’s the same sharp separation, but McDonalds and Starbucks, like other America businesses, chose to leave. The Jewish Agency was expelled. That’s very different.

“I have heard from my sources that several Russian Jewish organizations — I don’t have proof of this, but I think, from what I’ve heard, including the JDC” — that’s the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — “and other major organizations also will be recognized as foreign agents.” They’ll have to cut back on their work; most likely they’ll leave.

“That will have a huge effect on Jewish communal life in Russia.”

He finds the situation deeply sad.

“Jewish communal life was flourishing during the last 20 years, at least, in Russia,” he said. “New synagogues were built, and so was a huge, modern Jewish museum in Moscow. Many Jewish schools were opened in cities in Russia. It really was a golden time for the Jewish community, which was extremely wealthy and supported by a number of very generous people.”

Alexander Smukler of Montclair

Those people “are called oligarchs, but I know them as Jewish philanthropists. They have been very generous, supporting a beautiful and active communal life.

“Now many of them are under sanctions, and their assets are frozen. Most of the Jewish businesspeople are leaving Russia or already have left. That makes me think that in the nearest future, we will see the sunset of the renaissance of Jewish life in Russia.

“I’m afraid that the golden age is over.”

Once he’s described what’s going on in Russia, Mr. Smukler offered his analysis of these events.

First, there’s the sideshow.

“It’s well known that Putin maintained a very close relationship with Bibi” — former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — “and after that, with Bennett. (That’s Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s successor.) “Bennett was trying to be the middleman in negotiations between Ukraine and Russia at the beginning of the war. When Bennett was prime minister, Israel didn’t join the Western sanctions, and Israeli banks and companies continued working in Russia when most Western countries withdrew. When Bennett was prime minister, he talked with Putin on the phone several times, discussing negotiations with Ukraine.

“But Lapid was minister of foreign affairs then, and he loudly condemned Russia, and especially Putin, calling him a war criminal.” Yair Lapid is now the country’s caretaker prime minister. “He strongly condemned the invasion of Ukraine. So I think that the situation with the Jewish Agency is strongly connected with Lapid becoming prime minister.” In fact, he added, the actions against the Sochnut began right after Lapid took the top job from Bennett.

“We know that Lapid will be in power only for a few months” — Israel is just months away from its next election — but right now Russian-Israeli relations are going down rapidly.

Syria, a Russian client state and Israel’s neighbor, is a potentially deadly complication. “We know that Russia was silent when Israel took strong actions against Hezbollah in Syria, and I am afraid that it will be a huge problem for the Israelis if Russia will not tolerate those attacks,” Mr. Smukler said.

But the reason all this really is a diversion for Putin is Iran.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt delivers a speech in Paris in 2018. (Conference of European Rabbis)

Mr. Smukler has noticed that “the tension between Russia and Israel happened exactly as Putin went to Iran and had the highest-level meetings. They were talking about a mutual support agreement, and the Russian official press announced that Putin signed a $40 billion contract for joint oil and gas exploration, and for building a platform for liquid propane.

“But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Let’s analyze the situation. I don’t think it was an accident that tension with Israel suddenly tightened right before Russia’s leader went to Iran. I am afraid that it was a sign to Iran, a message that the Russians sent. They’re saying that they will move away from the friendly relationship with Israel and strengthen their cooperation with Iran in military, field, and economic operations.

“That’s because Russian foreign policy is changing its direction. It’s moving out of the Western countries, and Israel is part of the West. Russia is ready to trade its relationship with Israel for a relationship with Iran.

“Right now, I am speaking on behalf of myself,” Mr. Smukler made clear. “This is my personal analysis, and I know that I could be wrong, but I think that in the current global situation, knowing that Iran is very close to possessing its own nuclear bomb, it is critical for Putin to create a conflict in the Middle East, especially with a nuclear conflict, which would really explode the world and create an enormous oil crisis.

“Let’s imagine that in a few months, Iran will have a nuclear bomb. Israel will not tolerate it, and immediately will start an attack or military action. That will lead to an enormous jump in oil prices, and will shake the economy of the whole world, especially the United States and Europe.

“China will be absolutely fine. Russia will supply it with oil. China will not feel it.

“But a brutal conflict in the Middle East would be a way to get Putin out of his own situation in Ukraine. It would be a gift from God for Putin if suddenly Israel attacks Iran and starts a conflict, and the United States of course would get involved.

“That involvement would be much more important for the U.S. than supporting Ukraine.

“So my personal feeling is that Russia is creating tensions with Israel, and turning away from its relationship with Israel, and starting a very dangerous game with Iran. I do not exclude the idea that Russia will help Iran speed up the production of their own nuclear bomb, because it is so important for Putin right now to create regional conflict in the Middle East.”

Natan Sharansky

Given all that, “Lapid’s actions were a gift to Putin, but Putin would do what he’s doing anyway. Lapid makes his life easier.”

For evidence, Mr. Smukler points to the ludicrousness of the cover story Putin gave for his meetings in Iran. There is no need for either Russia or Iran to look for more oil or gas. “Both countries are under embargo. They cannot sell what they have, so they have more than enough. Why would they explore making more liquid propane that they can’t sell?

“It’s really about military cooperation and speeding up Iran’s nuclear program. And that would most hurt the United States.

“During the last few days, several military experts have mentioned that Russia will receive several thousand military drones from Iran,” Mr. Smukler continued. “It’s very well known that Russians missed an extremely important opportunity in the last few years. They didn’t develop their drone production. Russia controls the skies in Ukraine with their fighter jets — but they don’t have drones.

“Iran produces hundreds and hundreds of drones every month.”

How did Iran develop its drone technology? It copied Israeli technology.

“Iran captured several Israeli drones and reproduced them,” Mr. Smukler said. So it’s a deadly progression; Iran will use Israeli technology to send drones that Russia will use to kill Ukrainians.

Good relations between Russia and Iran aren’t new or unusual, Mr. Smukler said; the two countries share an extremely long border and history. “During World War II, the Soviet Army occupied Tehran, and that’s why, in 1943, Stalin requested that his meeting with Roosevelt and Churchill be in Tehran.”

Putin’s long-term strategy has not changed, Mr. Smukler said; Russia’s army is moving toward Odessa. “The war will continue for months and months,” he said. The talks with Iran “show that Putin is not in a rush. For Putin, this is a chess game.” The destruction of Ukraine will continue, because Putin profoundly doesn’t care, as he works toward his goal.

He also doesn’t really care much about Israel one way or the other, except for one growing irritation. Mr. Smukler talked about the brain drain that is siphoning highly educated Russians, particularly those in IT, out of the country. Most of the world is closed to them, but “Israel is a gate that is open. We know that almost 200,000 Russian IT programmers moved out of Russia in the last six months. And a lot of them are in Israel, because even if you’re not Jewish, you don’t need a visa to go there for up to 180 days. That is annoying Putin a lot.”

Moreover, “16,598 people received Israeli citizenship during the last four months. They’re from Russia, not Ukraine. I’m sure that a huge percentage of them are highly educated. And almost the same number of people are waiting for the resolution of their citizenship applications.

“That is so annoying for Putin,” Mr. Smukler said. “And it would explain why the Russians’ first target going against Israel was the Sochnut. They think it’s connected with the brain drain.”

Mr. Smukler summed up, both personally and more generally. “As a businessman, my business in Russia is demolished,” he said. “As someone fighting for immigration, I am devastated.” (Mr. Smukler is past president of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry.) “I cannot imagine where this regime will leave the country. I’m afraid that Russia will become a new Iran or North Korea.”

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