Friday, May 04, 2007

A Familiar Issue

Wherever Jews have lived in significant numbers in the Diaspora, there have been questions about their relationship with those in power. Should they keep their distance and remain a people apart? Or should they seek to wield influence by being insiders, the goal being to safeguard or improve the lot of their co-religionists? This isn’t an easy issue, certainly not when the rulers are oppressive. Those are times when Jews have had to decide whether to be in opposition or to seek to ameliorate a bad situation or perhaps to stay on the sidelines and hope and pray for the best.

Too often in our history, these have been life and death questions, at least going back to the destruction of the Second Temple 2000 years ago and the dispersal of Jews throughout the Roman Empire. At time, the response to these questions made little difference in Christian Europe, as Jewish blood was shed irrespective of how we sought to relate to those who ruled.

We haven’t faced frightening choices in the American experience, but we haven’t fully escaped the issue. It echoes in the current debate over whether we should support President Bush’s Iraq policies, a stance favored by many Orthodox, or come out in opposition, as the Reform have done. Silence may be the preferable option.

Although we are few in number and persecution has been a frequent presence in the territory called Jewish, in many settings we have been close to the throne, perhaps because of the syndrome described more than a generation ago by C.P. Snow when he wrote that our tribe is blessed with an abundance of talent and brains. As we succeeded in commerce and intellectual spheres, inevitably some of our flock gravitated toward the higher echelons of power, at times because they were co-opted. It is also certain that ambition – on our part – has been a key factor in drawing Jews to places of political influence.

In regimes that did not operate along democratic lines, which is to say nearly every regime in the pre-modern period, our engagement with power has been risky business, if only because changes at the top resulted in attitude changes toward the Jewish population, as we learned in Egypt before the Exodus. We need not always have our bags packed, but there is a lesson to be learned from our history. Power or influence is inevitably dialectical. In Spain, the zenith of Jewish influence was quickly followed by expulsion and the Inquisition.

In the recent period, Russia is the most treacherous place for the Jewish engagement with government. The departure of more than one-million Jews was followed by the stabilization and then the strengthening of Jewish life, so that there are now more Jews returning than leaving. This remarkable turn-around is substantially the handiwork of Chabad (Lubavitch), by far the major force in Jewish life in the Former Soviet Union. Chabad is led effectively and with much spirituality by Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi who has forged an extraordinary relationship with President Vladmir Putin. Their relationship has yielded enormous benefits and while Rabbi Lazar constantly has to navigate in difficult waters, there is an obligation to be grateful to President Putin, irrespective of what we may think of certain of his policies.

Last week the Forward featured a story describing intra-Chabad disagreement “over how to deal with Moscow.” The crux of the dispute is Russia’s effort to secure repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, enacted by Congress a generation ago, which restricted U.S.-Russian trade as a response to Russia’s restrictions on its Jewish population. The law is now of little practical consequence, although it is a thorn in Russia’s and Mr. Putin’s side. The Russian leader believes that he has done more than his share to respond to Jewish needs. Rabbi Lazar can testify that this is the case.

The sticking point is a cherished Chabad library seized by the Communists and now located in the Russian State Library. The Lubavitcher Rebbe earnestly sought its return. Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, the leading figure in American Chabad, and other movement rabbis in this country believe that it would be a violation of the Rebbe’s wishes to consent to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik without the return of the library. They are lobbying Congress against repeal and there is a good prospect they may prevail given Congress’ tendency to yield to lobbying efforts. As a consequence, there is a measure of conflict between Rabbi Lazar and Krinsky, two good and eminent persons who have worked closely for many years.

The same Forward issue includes an editorial concerning Boris Yeltsin that touches on Jackson-Vanik. Chabad is identified as “a mystical movement,” a description that must be a mystery to the great many whose lives are touched by Chabad’s work. Worse yet, there is a nasty reference to the 1991 tragic accident when a Black child was killed by a car in which the Rebbe was riding and anti-Jewish rioting ensued. We read that “the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade ran down a child in Brooklyn,” language that suggests the accident was deliberate.

My view is that Rabbi Lazar is right in working for Jackson-Vanik’s repeal and not only because the law is no longer needed. He deserves to be supported because he is on the spot and we should not substitute our judgment for his. There is zero downside in supporting what Mr. Putin is asking for because it is a certainty that maintaining Jackson-Vanik on the books will not get the library to Crown Heights. There is a better prospect that repeal will bring about this goal or some compromise arrangement. This should be a no-brainer for the folks at 770.

I admire the devotion of those who toil on behalf of Jews in the Former Soviet Union. They deserve our encouragement and we must not make their lives more difficult, not even in pursuit of the return of a cherished library.