by Lili Bayer and Larry Cohler-Esses
In the former Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, established mainstream Jewish groups are increasingly worried that Chabad, the international Hasidic movement, is allying itself with authoritarian governments.
In countries from Hungary to Russia, they say, Chabad is at times playing down anti-Semitism in a bid to compete with local Jewish groups and win access to financial resources and political influence.
Chabad, in turn, says that mainstream groups are too embroiled in secular and political issues, including polarizing disputes about democracy and civil liberties, at the expense of guarding core communal Jewish interests of physical security and Jewish religious freedom. In some cases, Chabad officials say, these establishment groups are also corrupt.
The increasing tensions between Chabad and more established Jewish groups are playing out in different ways in different countries. Each case is unique:
In Russia, Vladimir Putin has for years favored Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar over the long-established chief rabbi of Russia, Adolf Shayevich. Shayevich aligned with a Jewish umbrella group that sought to keep its distance from the government in the post-Communist era. Lazar has been more supportive.
In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling hard-right Law and Justice party, met in August with two Chabad representatives and the leader of a third Jewish group in a get-together that state media portrayed as a discussion with the community. Leaders of major groups who wrote Kaczyński about their fears of rising anti-Semitism in Poland were not invited.
In Hungary, prominent Jews and non-Jews have criticized president Viktor Orbán for using anti-Semitic tropes in his extended national campaign against the American financier George Soros. A senior Hungarian Chabad rabbi, however, has defended Orbán.
Chabad, for its part, strongly defends its conception of and approach to Jewish interests. “When you start, as a representative of the community, mixing Jewish issues with political issues, even if they’re social, and saying you represent the whole Jewish community, it doesn’t work very well and is frankly dangerous,” one Chabad official in the United States said. “You’re mixing politics with what’s in the interest of the Jewish community.” Speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly, he explained: “Anti-Semitism is an issue for the Jewish community. Other rights are issues all [citizens] must grapple with, not the Jewish community uniquely.”
Founded in 1775 in what is today Belarus, Chabad-Lubavitch saw its ranks decimated after the Holocaust. But over the past decades, the movement, with its headquarters relocated to Brooklyn after World War II, has become a global force. Thousands of its emissaries, known as schlichim, are reaching out to Jews of all persuasions, on American college campuses and in outposts around the world.
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