Alexei Navalny and the Jewish Dilemma

Last Saturday, tens of thousands of people came out across Russia in support of Alexei Navalny, the detained opponent of Vladimir Putin. Demonstrations took place from Vladivostok in the East to St. Petersburg in the West — and significantly outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv. Over 3,000 demonstrators have been arrested.

In the past, Navalny has been charged with fraud, partially blinded by unknown assailants, repeatedly arrested, banned from running for president until 2033 and famously poisoned with Novichok — the assassination team of FSB agents, responsible to Colonel Stanislav Makshakov and General Vladimir Bogdanov, was brilliantly identified by the remarkable investigative journalism website, Bellingcat. Alexei Navalny is undoubtedly a brave man whose will cannot be broken.

Given the flow of Jewish history, many Russian Jews are undoubtedly sympathetic to Navalny’s stand and want a free and fair society, based on the rule of law and the elimination of corruption. Others, often in leadership roles, prefer silence.

Putin, they argue, is ‘good for the Jews’, not antisemitic and a mainstay of stability in Russia. He has even personally given funds to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow. Why then rock the boat?

In Moscow, the Chabad Chief Rabbi, Berel Lazar, has astutely cultivated Putin and his inner circle — and re-established Jewish institutions and synagogues throughout post-Communist Russia. He is also aware of stoking the fires of traditional antisemitism in Russia. Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition figure, whose mother was Jewish, was murdered in broad daylight in 2015. Indeed Chief Rabbi Lazar nervously joked in February 2012 when there were large scale demonstrations against Putin in Russia that since they took place on a Saturday, they couldn’t possibly have been ‘Jewish events’.

In addition, the official face of Israel remains conspicuously silent — apart from bland generalisations of abhorring any violation of human rights. Netanyahu needs a good relationship with Putin to avoid any clashes with the Russians over Syrian skies. Russian forces have not intervened when Israeli aircraft have repeatedly attacked Iranian bases in Syria and Hezbollah arms convoys en route to Lebanon.

There is also an unwritten agreement of the benefits of illiberalism. Putin has reached out to the far Right in Europe while Chief Rabbi Lazar told the Moscow Times: ‘What we see in Europe and the US is a consequence of liberalism — there are no values, no morals.’

Yet some Russian Jews do not warm to such sentiments. In September 2013, Navalny stood in the election for mayor of Moscow and gained over a quarter of the vote. His campaign strategy, utilising social networks, was pioneered by two Moscow Jews, Maksim Kats and Leonid Volkov. Kats had returned from years in Israel and earned part of his salary as a teacher of Hebrew.

This question of standing aside mirrored a similar argument almost 50 years ago amongst the refuseniks who wanted to leave for Israel. Some maintained close personal contacts with human rights advocates such as the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Andrei Sakharov. Indeed as Sakharov only spoke Russian, Natan Sharansky acted as his translator for an English-speaking western audience. Some said that such contacts would be used by the Kremlin to paint the refuseniks as anti-Soviet and intent on overthrowing the regime rather than reuniting with family in Israel. An alignment with those who argued for human rights, it was argued, would place the entire emigration movement in jeopardy.

Sakharov often attended protests at trials of Soviet Jews and always supported the right of emigration to Israel. When Sakharov himself was in danger of arrest in September 1973, 35 leading Jewish activists in Moscow signed a letter of solidarity with Sakharov. It began:

“Thank you for your great heart, for your understanding of reality, for your honesty. Can one be grateful for honesty? Yes, for in the world we live in, honesty requires in many courage which is not granted to all.”

In this case and in others, a traditional Jewish understanding of universalism proved more significant than Jewish national interests. The letter of the 35 was not welcomed by some who believed that it would endanger the refuseniks. It was eventually published in London by others who felt that it was a Jewish duty not only to sign this letter but to publish it as well.

Leading refuseniks such as Natan Sharansky, Vladimir Slepak and Vitaly Rubin continued to protest when human rights advocates such as Yuri Orlov were arrested and tried. When asked about this approach shortly after he had been released from nine years in a strict regime labour camp and emigrated to Israel, Sharansky commented:

“I always believed that moral tactics were the best tactics. Some who pacify the KGB may gain in an individual capacity, but we as a (refusenik) movement will definitely lose.”

It can be argued, of course, that although Putin has retained his KGB credentials in many areas, he has abandoned the anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist veneer of the past. Even so, the dilemma remains — as symbolised by the fate of Alexei Navalny today.

This pattern of behaviour has been repeated in different countries down the centuries. In one sense, this dilemma relates to how we understand our Jewishness and the Jewish teachings that fortify it.

At the entrance to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, Sakharov Gardens comes instantly into view and reminds all who drive by of what Andrei Sakharov stood for and what he did for Soviet Jews. It implicitly asks all Jewish passers-by whether they too are content to be bystanders in dark times.

Jewish Chronicle 29 January 2021

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