September 20, 2018

Trump Walks Back Russian Meddling Remarks

REUTERS/Leah Millis

President Trump sparked controversy on July 16 by proclaiming in a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 United States election. Trump walked back those comments on July 17.

When asked during the July 16 press conference if he believed Putin or the intelligence community on Russia meddling, Trump responded, “My people came to me; [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

A day later, Trump told reporters, “I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies, always have.”

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump said. “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

The president added that he meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it WOULDN’T be Russia” in the July 16 press conference.

Trump also told reporters that he and Putin discussed North Korea and denuclearization.

Trump Downplays Russia Election Meddling in Press Conference With Putin

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Trump held a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, after the two met face-to-face. During the press conference, Trump expressed warmth toward Putin and downplayed Russia’s meddling of the 2016 election.

Trump said that relations between the United States and Russia were at an all-time low because “we’ve all been foolish,” stating that both the United States and Russia were at fault. He proceeded to attack Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and, collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, calling the probe a “disaster.”

Trump went on to suggest that Russia did not interfere in the election at all.

“My people came to me; [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Trump added that Putin made him “an incredible offer” to work with the investigators on the Mueller probe into the 12 Russian nationals that were indicted by the Department of Justice on July 13 over U.S. election hacking.

Coats issued a statement responding to Trump’s assertion that Russia didn’t interfere into the 2016 election.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats said.

Trump has been criticized by members of both political parties over his Russian meddling comments.

“Coming close on the heels of President Trump’s bombastic and erratic conduct towards our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain, today’s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American Presidency,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said in a statement. “That the president was attended in Helsinki by a team of competent and patriotic advisors makes his blunders and capitulations all the more painful and inexplicable.”

On a Rocky ‘Road to Unfreedom’

Holocaust Remembrance Day dares us to consider the most agonizing question of all — what have we learned from history, and how can we prevent history from repeating itself?

One answer comes from Timothy Snyder, the Yale University history professor who reframed the conventional wisdom about the Holocaust in “Bloodlands” and contributed significantly to Holocaust studies in “Black Earth.” Now Snyder turns his attention to the profoundly dangerous world in which we find ourselves today, an era that began when the promise of emerging democracy in Eastern Europe was betrayed by a resurgent Russia under its steely strong man, Vladimir Putin.

“The twentieth century was well and truly over, its lessons unlearned,” Snyder announces in the opening pages of “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America” (Tim Duggan Books). “A new form of politics was emerging in Russia, Europe, and America, a new unfreedom to suit a new time.”

Snyder first sounded the alarm about the advent of “unfreedom” in “On Tyranny,” a chapbook that collected his postings to Facebook in the days and months after the 2016 presidential election. “The Road to Unfreedom” is a book that drills down deeply into the distant past and argues that an understanding of the hard facts of Russian, Ukrainian, European and American history are “necessary to define the essential political problems of the present.”

The bitter irony at the core of Snyder’s book is that the current regime in Russia has borrowed from the very enemy that the Red Army defeated in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russian usage. Among these borrowings, Snyder explains, was “the adaptation of fascist ideas of the 1920s and 1930s for the use of oligarchs of the 2000s and 2010s.” And it is precisely these ideas that have been put in service of Putin’s project to rebuild a greater Russia on the rubble of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the best example is Putin’s ongoing campaign against Ukraine, a country that Snyder knows well. “Rather than speaking of the Ukrainian state, whose sovereignty, territorial integrity, and borders Russia officially recognized, Putin preferred to imagine the Ukrainians as a folk scattered across the broad expanse of what he imagined as Russian territory,” Snyder explains. “If Ukrainians were simply one more Russian group (like ‘Tatars, Jews, and Belarusians’), then Ukrainian statehood was irrelevant.” Thus did Russia disregard the sovereignty of Ukraine — and its formal treaty obligations — by occupying and annexing Crimea in 2014.

When Ukrainians took to the public square in Kiev, known as the Maidan, to defend their democracy, they were smeared and slandered by Russian operatives. Snyder insists on confronting the fake news with sly humor: “One can record that these people were not fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or a Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences,” he writes.

Snyder points out that the grand scheme to weaken the Western democracies and strengthen the Russian dominance of Eurasia began first in the European Union (EU) but quickly turned to the American presidential election of 2016. “The Russian policy to destroy the EU took several corresponding forms: the recruitment of European leaders and parties to represent the Russian interest in European disintegration; the digital and televisual penetration of public discourse to sow distrust of the EU; the recruitment of extreme nationalists and fascists for public promotion of Eurasia; and the endorsement of separatism of all kinds.”

Snyder makes the case for dealings between Donald Trump and Russia that are queasy at best and probably much worse than that. “Russian gangsters began to launder money by buying and selling apartment units in Trump Tower in the 1990s,” Snyder writes. “A Russian oligarch bought a house from Trump for $55 million more than Trump had paid for it.” And Snyder insists that Trump’s Russian friends were the more calculating and successful deal-makers: “Although Americans might dream otherwise, no one who mattered in Moscow believed that Trump was a powerful tycoon. Russian money had saved him from the fate that would normally await someone with his outstanding record of failure.” The real motive of Putin and his gang, Snyder explains, was to use Trump as “the payload of a cyberweapon, meant to create chaos and weakness, as he has done.”

As he did in “On Tyranny,” Timothy Snyder argues that we are facing a challenge of potentially catastrophic proportions, but he refuses to despair.

Snyder urges us to heed what history teaches. “What has already happened in Russia is what might happen in America and Europe: the stabilization of massive inequality, the displacement of policy by propaganda, the shift from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity,” he explains. Indeed, Snyder allows us to see that it is already happening: “The advisor of the first pro-Russian American presidential candidate had been the advisor of the last pro-Russian Ukrainian president,” he writes. “Russian tactics that failed in Ukraine succeeded in the United States.” Trump, after all, has dared to entertain the idea that, like Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China, he might serve as president for life.

As he did in “On Tyranny,” Snyder argues that we are facing a challenge of potentially catastrophic proportions, but he refuses to despair. “To break the spell of inevitability, we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others.” That’s exactly why he draws an unbroken line between the darkest events and personalities of the past and the ones that confront us in the here and now.

Timothy Snyder will discuss “The Road to Unfreedom” with Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch in a program sponsored by Writers Bloc at Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, at 7:30 p.m. April 30. For tickets and information, visit writersblocpresents.com


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Oscars: Doping Documentary ‘Icarus’ Exposes Russian Conspiracy

Inspired by the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, filmmaker and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel decided to see if he, too, could take performance-enhancing drugs and get away with it.

But what started out as a first-person experiment shifted radically when Fogel sought the help of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. In 2016, Rodchenkov blew the whistle on Vladimir Putin’s state-sponsored doping program, turning him into a fugitive in exile—and giving Fogel’s film “Icarus” cloak and dagger urgency and global significance. It’s nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

“I wanted to show how the anti-doping system in global sport was a fraud and ended up exposing a scandal on a level that I never could have imagined when I started the project,” Fogel told the Journal.

He began corresponding with Rodchenkov via email in February 2014, during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and met him that summer at a symposium in Oregon. Rodchenkov agreed to help him, and he began taking the performance-enhancing steroids and hormones—and conspiring with Rodchenkov to substitute frozen “clean” urine samples for drug-contaminated ones.

“I wanted to show how the anti-doping system in global sport was a fraud and ended up exposing a scandal on a level that I never could have imagined.”

At that point, “I knew that he was involved in what appeared to be some wrongdoing at his laboratory but I didn’t know the extent to which he was involved or how deep and vast the conspiracy was,” Fogel said. He later helped Rodchenkov escape to the United States, and felt bound to protect him “because I had no doubt of the validity of what he was showing me and the breadth of the scandal and that it led to the Kremlin’s door.”

When the news broke, “It appeared that the International Olympic Committee was going to continue to sweep this scandal under the rug,” Fogel said. But under pressure from Rodchenkov, his lawyers, and the media, the IOC launched an investigation that corroborated prior investigations and led to the exclusion of Russia from PyeongChang. (some Russians still competed under the Olympic flag as Olympic Athletes from Russia.)

Named for the doomed flyer from Greek mythology, “Icarus” references the fall and comeuppance of “Lance Armstrong and so many others who have all the success in the world but have to push it too far and get greedy,” Fogel said.

He noted that the film, now streaming on Netflix, has had ongoing impact. “The IOC will continue to investigate and decide whether there will be further sanctions and punishments down the line,” Fogel said, adding that FIFA (world soccer) is launching its own investigation into Russian players.

The Los Angeles resident, 45, was born and raised in Denver, Colo., where he grew up “Conservadox. We kept a kosher home. I went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, all of that,” he said. “I think of myself more as a cultural Jew than a religious Jew now, but I don’t have a family yet. Maybe that will change.”

Fogel started out as a playwright, actor, and standup comedian, and made a splash with the semi-autobiographical “Jewtopia” a romantic comedy that opened Off-Broadway in 2004 after a successful Los Angeles run. He wrote, produced, and starred in it, wrote a book based on it, and directed the film version from his screenplay. He hopes to make both features and documentaries going forward, and has both in early stages of development.

But right now, he’s reveling in the spotlight the Oscar nomination has brought to the film and Rodchenkov, who left his family behind in Moscow “and risked his life to tell the truth. If Russia was willing to go to this extent to win and cheat the world of Olympic medals, there’s little doubt it would meddle in democracies, hack elections and change the course of other political affairs,” Fogel said. “I hope the attention to the film will continue shine a spotlight not only on this conspiracy and corruption but the bigger questions and issues, and be a wakeup call to take action to protect democracies around the world.”

The Other Russia Mystery

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Syria is a front in need of attention. It is a front where Israel might risk war.

Two weeks ago, Israel reportedly — it did not officially comment — attacked south of Damascus. A week and a half ago, Israel (reportedly) attacked again. In both cases, there was an aura of vagueness surrounding the targets. An “Iranian base,” it was said. A “Syrian military facility.” Why were these specific targets attacked? What is it that bothers Israel about them — assuming it really was Israel that attacked?

Then, on Dec. 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly landed in Syria and declared victory over ISIS and announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. “Friends, the Motherland is waiting for you,” Putin told his troops. “You are coming back home with victory!”

Why now and not two weeks ago or two weeks from now? Only Putin knows. In recent weeks, Russia backed the Syrian narrative, according to which the regime is close to winning the war, while the U.S. argued that these declarations of an impending victory are premature. So maybe Putin was just making the point by putting his money — or military forces —  where his mouth is.

Russia seems to be pleased enough with such victory. Putin is rightly satisfied.

In many ways, this debate is about semantics. Define “victory”; define “Syrian victory.”

The Donald Trump administration believes that a vast majority of the forces fighting in support of the Syrian government — the regime still under the control of the ever-doomed-to-departure President Bashar Assad — is made up of foreign forces. A victory? Maybe. But this will not be a victory of Syrian forces under Assad. It will be a victory of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, of Iraqi militias and, most of all, of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Russia seems to be pleased enough with such victory. When its leader decided to jump into the Syria swamp, his goal was to fill a vacuum created by American inaction, save his ally Assad and keep Russian interests in the country unharmed. Looking at these three objectives, Putin is rightly satisfied. He was able to demonstrate to Middle Eastern and other world regimes that Russia is an ally no less — or maybe more — reliable than the United States. He was able to guard Russia’s interests in the country (among them, military bases). He was able to save Assad, for now. In the summer of 2011, President Barack Obama first called for the Syrian president to step down. The Russians said no. The Russians had their way.

Israel was disturbed by many of these developments. Having Russia, rather than the U.S., as the main power broker in the region does not seem appealing. Having Assad becoming an Iranian proxy does not seem appealing. Having Assad win the war as an Iranian proxy does not seem appealing.

Israel warily watches as payback looms. Iran won the war for Assad, and is now expecting a reward: military presence in Syria, not too far from the Israeli border.

Israel declared such development a red line. Speaking in a video message to the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clear: “We will not allow a regime hellbent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to acquire nuclear weapons. We will not allow that regime to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”

So, after the attacks (allegedly by Israel) in Syria, one has to assume that the goal is in line with this message. Sabotage all the Iranians’ attempts to entrench themselves in Syria. Destroy their facilities and disrupt their plans, sending them a message of warning.

This message is aimed at Iran and its allies, but no less at Russia and the U.S. The superpowers can let the situation deteriorate by letting Israel and Iran conduct a war in Syria’s territory. They also can choose to prevent it by taking a side. The potential problem for Israel is obvious: What happens in case Russia takes Iran’s side — that is, insist that Israel cease from attacking in Syria — while the U.S. remains on the sidelines?

Israel can do what’s necessary to stop Iran from entrenching in Syria. But opposing the Russians is a lot riskier. Thus, the reduction of Russian presence on Syrian soil puts Israel in a position more convenient for free action.

On the other hand, the Russians are leaving and an even larger vacuum must be filled. Iran seems ready to try to fill it. Israel seems ready to not allow it. So, a proxy war becomes even more likely today than it did a few weeks ago.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

Trump Organization VP Michael Cohen reportedly asked Putin aide to help advance Moscow deal

Michael Cohen, executive vice president of the Trump Organization and special counsel to Donald Trump, arriving at Trump Tower in New York City, on Jan. 12. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Michael Cohen, a top executive at the Trump Organization, emailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman to ask him to help advance a stalled project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Cohen contacted Putin’s top press aide, Dmitry Peskov, in January 2016, The Washington Post reported Monday, citing “documents submitted to Congress.”

“I am hereby requesting your assistance,” Cohen wrote to Peskov regarding a Trump Tower development deal that he said was “stalled.”

Cohen continued: “I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals. I thank you in advance for your assistance and look forward to hearing from you soon.”

The news come as federal investigators, under the leadership of Robert Mueller, are looking into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Cohen, the longtime attorney for President Donald Trump and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said in a statement to congressional investigators that he had contacted Peskov at the suggestion of Russian-American businessman Felix Sater, who was helping facilitate the Moscow deal, according to The Washington Post.

Sater reportedly told Cohen that they could help Trump win the presidential election with the help of Putin.

“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,”  Sater wrote in an email to Cohen, The New York Times reported Monday. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

Cohen, who sometimes served as a Trump surrogate during the 2016 campaign, said he did not recall hearing back from Peskov and that he gave up on the project two weeks after sending the email.

“It was a building proposal that did not succeed and nothing more,” he said, according to The Washington Post.

Daily Kickoff: Ahead of Kushner’s visit, Bibi goes to Moscow; “The Russians set the facts on the ground in Syria” | Abbas’ 45 day ultimatum for talks

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Aug. 9. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

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JI INTERVIEW — Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA) discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and President Trump’s response to the Charlottesville protests in an interview with JI’s Aaron Magid: Fresh off a trip to Israel, Smucker slammed Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah for justifying payments to families of terrorists in a meeting with the Republican Congressional delegation. “It was absolutely amazing when asked about the payments to families of terrorists, that were either imprisoned or killed, [Hamdallah] tried to justify it. We were very disappointed in his approach and explanations with that particular issue,” Smucker said. He expressed strong backing for the Taylor Force Act. “It’s very clear that those payments are being made. For the PA to incentivize terrorism, essentially, is completely unacceptable.”

Smucker on Charlottesville: “What we saw in Charlottesville was particularly horrifying after just coming from Israel and visiting the Holocaust museum (Yad Vashem). We should be absolutely unequivocal in our denunciation of these groups: they are simply not acceptable. It is unbelievable that there are still groups in our country today that believe they are better than others based on the color of their skin or religion. The President will speak for himself. I obviously cannot tell you what he was thinking when he said [there were fine people on both sides], but I think it’s important for the American people to hear from its leaders that we will not stand for this type of activity.” Read the full interview here [JewishInsider

DRIVING THE CONVO — President Trump used his primetime address to the nation last night to clean up his “both sides” comments in response to the Charlottesville protests: “Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate. The young men and women we sent to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.” [CSPAN]

HEARD YESTERDAY — House Speaker Paul Ryan during a CNN Town Hall: “I do believe that [Trump] messed up in his comments on Tuesday, when it sounded like a moral equivocation, or at the very least moral ambiguity, when we need extreme moral clarity… And I’m pleased with the things he just said tonight to add clarity to the confusion that I think he gave us on Tuesday.”

CNN host Jake Tapper: “I think the issue.. is the reluctance to criticize President Trump for specifically saying things like ‘very fine people were marching in that rally’ that had swastikas and anti-Semitic signs and there were not any ‘very fine people’ in that rally… It wasn’t morally ambiguous. It was morally wrong.”

Ryan: “I have a hard time believing, if you’re standing in a crowd to protest something and you see, you know, all these anti-Semitic slogans… that you’re good with that and you’re a good person… You’re not a good person if you’re there… And that’s why I think it was not only morally ambiguous, it was equivocating. And that was wrong.  That’s why I think it was very, very important that he has since then cleared that up.” [CNN

“Ryan says Trump messed up but opposes censure” by Scott Bauer: “Ryan was asked at a town hall organized by CNN in his Wisconsin congressional district whether he would back the resolution that comes following Trump’s comments about the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally. The question came from Rabbi Dena Feingold, the sister of former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who grew up in the same city as Ryan. Ryan said censuring Trump would be “counterproductive.” “If we descend this issue into some partisan hack-fest, bickering between one another … what good does that do to unify this country?” Ryan said, adding that it would be the “worst thing we could do.”” [AP

TRUMP EFFECT: “Donations to Anti-Defamation League surge in US” by AFP: “ADL spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara said donations like the one from James Murdoch — head of Fox News, who last week announced a million-dollar donation — as well as those from corporations like Apple, Uber and MGM Resorts yielded a rise of “1,000%” last week, compared to the weekly average donations since the beginning of the year… On Monday, the big bank J.P. Morgan also joined the ranks of the donors, Alcantara said. The bank announced a million dollar-gift to be shared by the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center.” [Yahoo

Rep. Jerry Nadler on race and anti-Semitism in the age of Trump — Off Message with Edward-Isaac Dovere: “As for the Jewish aides to the administration who defend Trump, including his daughter and son-in-law Jared Kushner… Nadler says they need to get real. “I don’t care what Jared Kushner said about the fact that Donald Trump loves, loves him and Ivanka and other people,” Nadler said. “He was willing to traffic in anti-Semitism. He was willing to use anti-Semitic imagery. And then, when caught up in it, refused to repudiate it, and denied that it was what it clearly was.”” [Politico]

“President Trump Maintains Support in New York City’s Religious Communities” by Stephen Nessen: “Members of New York City’s Evangelical and Hasidic communities turned out to vote for Donald Trump for president, and they continue to support him, despite his tepid and mixed responses to white supremacists who rally in his name… In Borough Park, Brooklyn, which gave Trump 68 percent of the vote, many in the ultra-orthodox community also said the president had done enough to condemn hate groups. “He said KKK is not good, whatever, he did what he has to do,” Chaim Shmedra, 24, said. “He could criticize more, but he’s doing a great job.””[WNYC] • Orthodox Resistance to Trump Grows — In Secret Social Media Groups [Forward]

INSIDE THE ADMIN: “Is It Time for Trump Aides to Resign?” by Eliot A. Cohen: “Gary Cohn is a Jewish philanthropist: He paid a price, not in emotional discomfort but in his integrity, in staying silent while the president made excuses for anti-Semites shouting slogans that hark back to Hitler’s brown shirts. One’s country can ask those who volunteer to serve it in uniform to put their lives on the line… But the hazards of battle do not require surrendering your soul: just the reverse, risking it all can mean reaffirming your highest values. The country does not, however, have the right to ask you to sacrifice your moral core, what makes you who you are.” [TheAtlantic] • Gary Cohn, Trump Agoniste, Contemplates the End [VanityFair]

“Trump Official Once Praised a Defender of Holocaust Deniers; Now she’s in charge of family planning policy” by David Corn: “Earlier this year, President Donald Trump appointed Teresa Manning, a leading anti-abortion activist, to be a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services… But there was one item in her résumé that did not receive attention: She had once praised a defender of Holocaust deniers… In the preface to Back to the Drawing Board, Manning… called contributors to the book “statesmen, scholars, doctors, lawyers, judges, activists, and mothers.” And at [a 2003] conference, she remarked that they included “people that I have respected and admired my entire professional life.” Presumably, her accolades applied to [Joe] Sobran, whose controversial association with Holocaust deniers and whose “contextually anti-Semitic” writings were publicly known within conservative circles at the time.” [MotherJones]

“Why the White House Needs Another Bannon” by Tevi Troy: “Trump likes to think of himself as the whole show—his own strategist, his own communications guru, his own political whisperer… But this is one area in which Trump really does need the help: He doesn’t have the patience, the background, or the interest to be able to articulate a consistent conservative-friendly vision and to get other conservatives on board. Bannon’s absence means the White House lacks someone who can attempt to create a coherent narrative for the administration’s efforts… Not filling the role would be a self-inflicted wound, while filling the role with the wrong person would be a missed opportunity.” [PoliticoMag

DRIVING THE WEEK: “Kushner in Middle East for peace talks” by Annie Karni: “While everyone was busy gazing into the solar eclipse on Monday, White House adviser Jared Kushner had quietly snuck away to the Middle East… Accompanying Kushner on Tuesday in the Gulf states were deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt… A White House aide and an outside adviser familiar with the trip planning said Kushner departed on Sunday and is set to arrive in Israel Wednesday night for meetings on Thursday. The traveling American delegation was meeting with leaders from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the days before. It was not clear why the White House would announce the trip but then keep the details of Kushner’s departure under wraps.” [Politico]

“PA to give Trump team ultimatum on peace plan” by Shlomi Eldar: “A senior Palestinian source… said a decision had been reached after lengthy negotiations at top PA levels… to present Kushner and Greenblatt with a clear ultimatum: Unless progress is made within 45 days on launching talks with the Israelis, the Palestinians will consider themselves no longer committed to the US channel and will turn to an alternative plan on which they have been working for the past two years… The Palestinians understand that the current occupant of the Oval Office tends to act impulsively, and such a move could prompt him to take out his anger on Abbas — but “we have no choice,” said the source.” [Al-Monitor

KAFE KNESSET — Dasvidaniya, Bibi — by Tal Shalev and JPost’s Lahav Harkov: Netanyahu is preparing for a day trip to Sochi, Russia. There, he will be meeting President Putin tomorrow for the sixth time in the past two years, and the second meeting in 2017. Iran, of course, will top the agenda for the meeting. President Putin will hear about Jerusalem’s concerns arising out of the diplomatic attempts to end the fighting in Syria. These diplomatic efforts are creating, according to Israeli officials, an Iranian territorial contiguity between Tehran and the Mediterranean.

The meeting with Putin comes against the backdrop of a clear disappointment in Jerusalem with the Trump administration and its level of attention to Israeli interests. “The Americans are sympathetic, but they are not willing to back words with deeds. We are not in the administration’s priorities. They are preoccupied with other issues, and there is a feeling that they have very limited attention span,” a senior Israeli Minister told Kafe Knesset. The Minister explained that the American vacuum over Syria – which was created in the Obama administration but has also been transformed into a Trump government policy – “has given increased importance to the strategic dialogue with the Kremlin, especially after Russia increased its military involvement in Syria. This has required close military coordination with the Russians to prevent friction. The Russians fill the American void and they are the ones who determine the facts on the ground. We want to make sure that the facts on the ground do not hurt us.” Read today’s entire Kafe Knesset — featuring Bibi’s privacy and the latest with the Kotel — here[JewishInsider]

“U.S. pushing to quash U.N. ‘blacklist’ of firms doing business in Israeli settlements” by Anne Gearan: “The Trump administration is urging the United Nations not to publish what it calls a “blacklist” of international firms that do business in Israeli settlements… “The United States has been adamantly opposed to this resolution from the start” and has fought against it before several U.N. bodies, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said… “We have made clear our opposition regarding the creation of a database of businesses operating in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, and we have not participated and will not participate in its creation or contribute to its content,” she said. In a statement Monday, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, called the [U.N. Human Rights Council] moves toward publication of the list “an expression of modern anti-Semitism.”” [WashPost

IRAN DEAL: “Iran Says Can Produce Highly Enriched Uranium in Days if U.S. Quits Deal” by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin: “Iran can resume production of highly enriched uranium within five days if the nuclear deal it struck with world powers in 2015 is revoked, Iran’s atomic chief was quoted by state media as saying on Tuesday… “The president’s warning was not baseless,” Head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi said…  “If we decide, we can reach 20 percent (uranium) enrichment within five days in Fordow (underground nuclear plant),” he added.” [Reuters]

2018 WATCH: Police Investigate Alleged Twitter Hack of Senate Candidate: “The Michigan State Police is investigating after Republican U.S. Senate candidate Lena Epstein said someone hacked her campaign’s Twitter account last week and “liked” posts from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Epstein, who is Jewish, has said any suggestion that she supports “this type of hateful ideology is extremely disturbing.”” [USNews

2020 WATCH: “How potential 2020 Democrats are honing their foreign policy chops” by Jeremy Herb: “[Cory] Booker’s seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is another path for senators harboring presidential ambitions — it’s the committee Obama served on ahead of his 2008 run. In the early months of the Trump administration, the panel gave Booker a seat at the table for some of the most contentious confirmation hearings, including those of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson… and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman… When Friedman testified, Booker elicited an apology for the nominee’s comments suggesting Obama was anti-Semitic and that Kaine was an Israel basher.” [CNN

“Nikki Haley says she had ‘personal’ talk with Trump about Charlottesville” by Diamond Naga: “Well, I had a personal conversation with the president about Charlottesville, and I will leave it at that,” Haley said on CNN… But when asked afterward, she would not confirm or deny whether Trump understood he made a mistake with his racially charged comments. “The president clarified so that no one can question that he’s opposed to bigotry and hate in this country.” [Politico]

** Good Tuesday Morning! Enjoying the Daily Kickoff? Please share us with your friends & tell them to sign up at [JI]. Have a tip, scoop, or op-ed? We’d love to hear from you. Anything from hard news and punditry to the lighter stuff, including event coverage, job transitions, or even special birthdays, is much appreciated. Email Editor@JewishInsider.com **

BUSINESS BRIEF: Jim Crown’s Aspen Skiing, KSL Capital venture adds Utah’s Deer Valley to growing resort portfolio [DenverPost] • Ghermezian’s Meadowlands ‘American Dream’ Project To Be Complete By 2019[CBS; NorthJersey] • Gary Barnett’s luxury condo tower rises on ‘gritty’ South Street [NYPost] • ASRR to buy out partner in Surfside condo project[TRD] • Israel’s TowerJazz to set up China chip plant with Tacoma Semi[Reuters] • Paul Singer’s Black Knight Unhorses Warren Buffett [DealBreaker]

“Billionaire Moguls Join Musk, Bezos in Race to Outer Space” by Tom Metcalf: “While technology tycoons dominate, the list also includes casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who’s backing SpaceIL — a lunar mission.”[Bloomberg]

STARTUP NATION: “After Imperva And Mobileye, Here’s What’s Next For Israeli Startups” by Peter Cohan: “What’s most interesting to me is that at least one company — run by Israel’s most prolific info sec company founder, Shlomo Kramer, is that Israel is beginning to develop enough talent in marketing and sales that his latest company is able to operate out of Israel instead of being run from Silicon Valley. Tel Aviv is the center of Israel’s startup scene even though its top talent is educated 52 miles away at Haifa’s Technion. As Edouard Cukierman, Managing Partner and Founder of Catalyst Funds, said in an August 10 interview, “When I was at the Technion, the joke was ‘What is the nicest place in Haifa? The highway to Tel Aviv.’ Entrepreneurs want to be in Tel Aviv — it’s a place of fun; whereas Haifa is a serious place for studying.””[Forbes]

MEDIA WATCH: “Digital media veteran Ross Levinsohn takes over the LA Times as it fires top editors” by Peter Kafka: “Ross Levinsohn has worked at all kinds of media companies, but he’s never managed a newspaper before. Now he’ll run a big one: He’s the new publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times. Levinsohn made his digital reputation by helping News Corp acquire Myspace way back in 2005, a move that kicked off a wave of digital M&A. And he tried to buy Hulu multiple times, while working for multiple organizations. In 2013, he went to work for Guggenheim Partners, which owned several media trade publications, and planned on writing big checks to bulk that group up.” [ReCode]

TOP TALKER: “Louise Linton’s Couture Draws Ire on Instagram, and She Lashes Back” by Maggie Haberman and Mikayla Bouchard: “The wife of the Treasury secretary on Monday night took a page from President Trump’s social media playbook for punching down. Louise Linton, the labels-loving wife of Steven Mnuchin, replied condescendingly to an Instagram poster about her lifestyle and belittled the woman, Jenni Miller, a mother of three from Portland, Ore., for having less money than she does. The brouhaha began when Ms. Linton posted a photograph of herself disembarking a military jet emblazoned with official government markings. She had joined her husband on a quick trip to Kentucky with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.” [NYTimes; NYPost]

TALK OF THE TOWN: Jewish congregation reflects on letter by George Washington: “An annual letter reading at the nation’s oldest synagogue in Newport took on new relevance in the aftermath of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The letter was written nearly 230 years ago by George Washington and addressed to Newport’s Jewish community. It promised that the country would give “bigotry no sanction, no persecution no assistance.” … Former Harvard University Dean Martha Minow asked members of the congregation to stand up for their beliefs.” [AP

“Asian American doctor: White nationalist patients refused my care over race” by Kristine Phillips: “John Henning Schumann, a Jewish doctor, said he’s had encounters with patients that sometimes result in awkward conversations. “I’ve been asked point-blank by patients if I’m Jewish,” Schumann wrote last week in a column published by NPR…  Sometimes, after saying that he is Jewish, patients surprise him with their response: “Good. I always like Jewish doctors, because they’re the smart ones.” Schumann said that “positive prejudice” is better than the alternative, and he often takes the compliment.” [WashPost

BIRTHDAYS: Philanthropist and hedge fund manager, specializing in acquiring distressed debt, Paul Elliott Singer turns 73… Chairwoman of Israel’s Strauss Group, a large dairy and food company, Ofra Strauss turns 57… Emmy Award winning television news journalist, formerly the weekend anchor of CBS Evening News, Morton Dean (born Morton Dubitsky) turns 82… Former Chief of Staff to the Vice President Dick Cheney, Scooter Libbyturns 67… Portland, Oregon’s Marque Lampert Scherer turns 67… Chairman of Israel Military Industries (now know as IMI Systems), he was a member of the Knesset for the Yisrael Beiteinu party (2006-2015) and served in multiple cabinet posts, Yitzhak Aharonovich turns 67… Encino, California’s Robin Elcott turns 61… Former MLB outfielder, then investment banker, fundraiser for both Obama presidential campaigns, more recently he was the US Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa (2015-2017), Ambassador Mark Gilbert turns 61… Former investment banker who left his job to run a Los Angeles-based homeless service provider, he is now a professor at USC and a trustee of Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, Adlai W. Wertman turns 58…  Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Paul E. Singer Foundation, Deborah Hochberg… Deputy mayor of Lawrence, NY, political consultant and investor, Michael Fragin turns 44… Project coordinator for “The Conversation: Jewish In America,” an annual invitation-only gathering sponsored by The Jewish Week, Rachel Saifer Goldman… Associate Director in the Atlanta regional office of Christians United for Israel, Shari Dollinger Magnus turns 40… Joyce Fox… Margie Berkowitz

Gratuity not included. We love receiving news tips but we also gladly accept tax deductible tips. 100% of your donation will go directly towards improving Jewish Insider. Thanks! [PayPal]

The Russia probe: Let’s wait and see

Special Counsel Robert Mueller (R) departs after briefing members of the U.S. Senate on his investigation into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign on Capitol Hill. June 21, 2017. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS.

There hasn’t been this much talk about Russia in the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union. From May 17 to June 20, ABC, CBS and NBC spent 353 minutes of airtime talking about federal probes into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, according to the Media Research Center. CNN has spent an inordinate amount of time on coverage of the Russia investigation. The mainstream media seemingly break a piece a day based on leaks regarding the investigation. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from July found that 64 percent of Democrats believed that the Russians had attempted to influence the election, and that the Trump campaign had worked with the Russians to do so.

Meanwhile, President Trump travels the land calling the investigation a fraud, fulminating at special counsel Robert Mueller, and nagging his own attorney general for a perceived failure to protect him; Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity spend time nightly talking about the supposed “coup” against Trump in the press; and just 9 percent of Republicans polled say they believe the Trump campaign worked with the Russians to disrupt the election.

So, what’s driving the divide between left and right on the Russia investigation? After all, the evidence is mixed. There’s certainly evidence of an attempt to collude to impact the election from Donald Trump Jr. Last month, Trump Jr. released an email chain with publicist Rob Goldstone in which Goldstone proposed to set up a meeting with a “Russian government attorney” who would “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia” as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. responded, “If it’s what you say, I love it.” He then dragged in campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

But an attempt to collude is not in and of itself evidence of collusion. No actual information apparently changed hands. And there’s no evidence of any follow-up. There’s also no evidence of coordination in weaponization of material acquired by Wikileaks, which has ties to Russia, from the Democratic National Committee. In fact, watching the campaign, it appeared that Wikileaks would simply dump large amounts of material and then members of the internet community would sift through it for damaging information — there didn’t seem to be any quick-response unit in the Trump campaign beating everyone else to the punch.

Furthermore, even collusion among members of the Trump campaign and the Russian government wouldn’t necessarily implicate Trump himself. Members of the Trump campaign could have been involved in bad action without telling Trump — and in fact, that’s highly likely given Trump’s penchant for uncontrollable outbursts on the national stage. If you were going to rig a complex conspiracy with the help of the Russians, would you tell the guy with the biggest mouth in the history of politics?

It’s also true that the Russian government apparently forged connections with Fusion GPS, a Democrat-linked opposition research group that came up with the infamous Trump dossier later exposed by BuzzFeed. According to Bill Browder, a financier targeted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, the Russian-connected lawyer who met with Trump Jr., Natalia Veselnitskaya, “hired Glenn Simpson of the firm Fusion GPS.” As Lee Smith wrote at Tablet, “Add Fusion GPS’s contracts with Russian and Russian-linked entities together with the company’s role in compiling and distributing a defamatory dossier sourced to the Kremlin, and the idea that the Trump Dossier was a Kremlin information operation becomes quite plausible.”

This scenario wouldn’t be particularly surprising.  While the CIA, NSA, FBI and the Director of National Intelligence universally agree that the Russian government attempted to meddle in the election, they differ regarding Russia’s intent: Some members of the intelligence community think Russia wanted Trump to win or simply wanted to cast doubt on election transparency.

So, here’s the story boiled down: Russia wanted to meddle in the election; it’s unclear if it wanted Trump to win, or simply to screw with Americans more generally.

So, here’s the story boiled down: Russia wanted to meddle in the election; it’s unclear if it wanted Trump to win, or simply to screw with Americans more generally; there’s evidence of willingness to collude but no hard evidence of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.

But those reasonable conclusions are now being ignored by both sides. Democrats have been shrieking for months that the election was stolen. In return, Trump has seized on that wild overstatement, fixated on it, and produced his own overstatement: “The Russia story is a total fabrication. It’s just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics. It just makes them feel better when they have nothing else to talk about.” That overstatement reinforces Democratic determination to write off the Trump win as an act of thievery – he knows he cheated and now he’s lying about it!  Which, of course, prompts Republican voters to respond by stating that Democrats are exaggerating their claims, and that the current investigation is a politically motivated witch hunt.

This leads to a radical impasse: No matter what the evidence, many Democrats will now suggest that Trump must be impeached; no matter what the evidence, many Republicans will now suggest that he must not be, and that the investigation should actively be killed. No matter what happens from here, it won’t be good.

The only solution: Let’s wait for the facts to come out. Let’s make a call once we know them. Until then, let’s let President Trump do his job. 

BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

Israel sends condolences, support to Russia following deadly subway bombing

A train carriage damaged from an explosion at Tekhnologicheskiy institut metro station in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 3. Photo by Mikhail Ognev/Fontanka.ru

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent condolences to Russian President Vladimir Putin after at least 10 people were killed in a bombing attack on a St. Petersburg subway.

“On behalf of the Government of Israel, I send condolences to President Putin and to the families of those who were murdered following today’s bombing on the St. Petersburg subway,” Netanyahu wrote Monday in a statement hours after the afternoon blast, which also injured dozens more. “The citizens of Israel stand alongside the Russian people at this difficult time.”

The homemade bomb filled with shrapnel detonated in a moving subway car after Putin had arrived in his hometown for a visit. A more powerful bomb was discovered later at a nearby train station and defused.

The attack shut down the entire subway system in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Trump-Russia black box rattles the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin adjusts his earphones during a news conference in Hungary, February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

On the day President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met in Washington, I wrote an article for Maariv Daily that began with the following words: “here is a question that no Israeli Prime Minister needed to ponder until the meeting between Netanyahu and Trump: what’s proper and what’s improper for an Israeli PM to say to an American President concerning Russia.” In other words: can Israel trust the American administration, the president, to keep Israel’s secrets from the Russians? Should Netanyahu assume that what he shares with Trump will not find its way to Vladimir Putin?

This is a serious question, a serious worry, that becomes more serious with every revelation, such as the one concerning Attorney General Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador. Of course, we do not know why Sessions decided to meet with the Russian ambassador. It might have been an innocent meeting of no significance. But Israel has reason for caution. A Russian military force is stationed on its border, and not far from that Russian airplanes are bombing Syrian rebel forces.

During the Obama era, Israel learned to live, reluctantly, with an American administration that seemed quite indifferent to the idea of a Russia that’s more involved in Middle East affairs. Israel had to recognize, as I wrote in October of last year, that Russia is the Middle East’s new sheriff. “Necessity breeds friendship. In Israel’s case, the Kremlin became a necessity for two very much related reasons: Russia’s growing presence in Middle East affairs and the simultaneous American withdrawal from the region. To put it bluntly, Israel trusts Russia’s intention to become a key player in the region more than it trusts the United States’ intention to stop that from happening.”

That was then – when Obama was still in power. Since then, the questions about the Russians have become even more troubling. If Obama seemed indifferent to Russian meddling, the Trump administration might tend to encourage Russian meddling. If Obama’s intentions were maddeningly passive, Trump’s intentions are suspiciously mysterious.

In the two-day conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute that I attended earlier this week, discussion of Russian intentions in the region was front and center. The background paper prepared for the conference clarified: “American-Russian understandings could limit Israel’s maneuvering room. At the same time, an American-Russian or American-Chinese conflict could create risks and dilemmas for Israel.” The discussions during the conference were more detailed: The Russians are a key player in the future of Syria and, as a result, could have influence on the future of the Israeli-Syrian border. They are a key player in deciding how much pressure can be used to confront Iran’s expansionist policies in the region.

And Trump’s relations with the Russians, or lack thereof, are still a mystery. Maybe all the suspicions and allegations hurled at him are no more than politically-motivated slanders. Maybe Trump has dark ties with the Russians. Who knows?

I assume that the Prime Minister of Israel doesn’t know. He may have more information about this issue than what we get in the papers, or he may not. He is probably more qualified to analyze the risks and the benefits that the unorthodox Russian-US ties might offer. Like him, the leaders of other countries in the region – the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Turks – have to make an assessment based on partial information concerning this key ingredient in Middle East affairs. If the US and Russia cooperate in the region, that’s one thing. If the US and Russia are on a collision course in the region, that’s quite another. Thus, the regional disquiet that was a constant feature in the later years of the Obama era continues.

US-Russia ties are a key issue, and Russia-Iran ties are a key issue. At the JPPI conference, most experts with whom I spoke, or those I heard speaking, were skeptical about the prospects of a Russia-Iran breach. They assume that the Russians, while not enthusiastic about Iran, feel more comfortable with them than with other forces in the region. Among other things, because Iran was always smart enough not to give an impression that they intend to meddle in the affairs of Russia, or involve themselves in activities that threaten to annoy Russia.

This leaves the region with an unanswered question concerning the most urgent policy issue the region: Will the Trump administration truly work to contain Iran – and thus, at least to a certain extent, to disrupt Russian plans? Or maybe Trump’s ties with Russia will lead to a moderation of US policy towards Iran? The black box of the Trump-Russia relations worries many Americans, but it worries US allies in the Middle East even more. At a certain point, they will have to make decisions based on their understanding of the Trump administration. At a certain point, the back box will open. We might not know what Trump or his men had in mind as they were speaking to Russian ambassadors prior to the election, but we will surely see how the actual policies of the Trump administration come into shape. The policies will tell us everything we need to know.

 

 

Rabbi’s expulsion rattles Russian Jews fearful of Kremlin crackdown

Rabbis Ari Edelkopf, with black beard, and Berel Lazar, right, listen to a speech at a reception of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 9. Photo courtesy of Federation of Jewish Communities

Three years ago, Rabbi Ari Edelkopf and his wife, Chana, worked around the clock for weeks to show off their community and city to the many foreigners in town for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Chabad emissaries from the United States came to the city on Russia’s Black Sea coast in 2002. By the time the Olympics opened, they could offer three synagogues, five information centers and 24/7 kosher catering to thousands of people in the city, which has only 3,000 Jews.

The Edelkopfs were celebrated in the local media for these considerable efforts, which the Kremlin marketed as proof that Russia welcomes minorities — including by inviting a Russian chief rabbi to speak at the opening.

This month, the couple is in the news again but for a different reason: They and their seven children have been ordered to leave Russia after authorities flagged Ari Edelkopf as a threat to national security — a precedent in post-communist Russia that community leaders call false and worrisome, but are unable to prevent.

Occurring amid a broader crackdown on foreign and human rights groups under President Vladimir Putin, the de facto deportation order against the Edelkopfs is to many Russian Jews a sign that despite the Kremlin’s generally favorable attitude to their community, they are not immune to the effects of living in an increasingly authoritarian state. And it is doubly alarming in a country where many Jews have bitter memories of how the communists repressed religious and community life.

The Edelkopfs’ deportation order drew an unusually harsh reaction from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a Chabad-affiliated group that has maintained friendly and mutually beneficial ties with Putin.

The order, which included no explanation or concrete accusation, “raises serious concerns for the future of the Jewish communities in the country,” Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a federation spokesman, told the L’chaim Jewish weekly last week. Gorin is a senior aide to Beral Lazar, the chief rabbi who spoke at the Sochi opening ceremony.

Gorin also called the order “an attempt to establish control” on religious communities in Russia, including the Jewish one, which he said is serviced by some 70 Chabad rabbis, half of whom are foreign.

Many Sochi Jews consider Edelkopf, a Los Angeles native, a popular and beloved spiritual leader with an impeccable record and a close relationship with Lazar. They reacted with dismay and outrage to the deportation order.

“This is absurd,” Rosa Khalilov wrote in one of the hundreds of Facebook messages posted to Edelkopf’s profile, in which he offered updates from his failed legal fight to stay in Russia. “Deportation without proof and thus without proper defense for the accused. I am utterly disappointed.”

Typical of such discussions, comments by Russian speakers abroad tended to be more outspoken than the ones authored domestically.

“Somewhere along the way our country changed without our noticing,” wrote Petr Shersher, a 69-year-old Jewish man from Khabarovsk who lives in the United States. “We’re suddenly not among friends and compatriots but in another brutal and indifferent atmosphere.”

Since the fall of communism in 1991, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia — essentially Chabad’s Russia branch, and by far the country’s largest Jewish group — only on a very rare occasion had publicly questioned the viability of Jewish life in the country or the authorities’ tolerance of religious freedoms.

The strong reactions to the Edelkopf edict seem to be less connected to the actual expulsion – at least seven rabbis have been sent packing over the past decade over visa and residence issues — than to the assertion that Edelkopf endangers Russia, a claim the rabbi denies.

“This serious allegation is a negative precedent that we had never seen directed at a rabbi before in Russia, and it is a very, very big problem for us,” Gorin told JTA. “What are they saying? Is he a spy? We can remember very well the times when Jews were last accused of endangering state security,” he added in reference to anti-Semitic persecution under communism.

Behind the expulsion of Edelkopf and the other rabbis, Gorin added, is an attempt by the state to limit the number of foreign clerics living in Russia – an effort that has led to expulsions not only of rabbis but also of imams and Protestant priests.

“It’s not targeting the Jews,” he said.

Alexander Boroda, the president of Gorin’s federation, told Interfax that he was “dismayed” by the expulsion and suggested it was the work of an overzealous official eager “to check off the box” after being ordered to curb immigration.

Boroda also told Interfax that the deportation was not anti-Semitic. He recalled how Putin’s government has facilitated a Jewish revival in Russia — including by returning dozens of buildings; educating to tolerance; adding Jewish holidays to the national calendar, and offering subsidies to Jewish groups. Lazar, who was born in Italy, often contrasts the scarcity of anti-Semitic violence in Russia with its prevalence in France and Great Britain.

The government has also tolerated criticism by the Chabad-led community. Under Lazar and Boroda, the Federation has largely ignored xenophobia against non-Jews but consistently condemned any expression of anti-Semitism — including from within Putin’s party and government.

The federation even spoke out against Russia’s vote in favor of a UNESCO resolution last year that ignores Judaism’s attachment to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Still, the Edelkopf deportation is part of a string of recent incidents in which Jews have suffered the effects of growing authoritarianism in Russia – a country where opposition figures are routinely prosecuted and convicted. Since 2012 the country has slipped in international rankings of free speech and human rights; Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Internet” index slipped recently from “partly free” to “not free.”

Under legislation from 2012, a Jewish charitable group from Ryazan near Moscow was flagged in 2015 by the justice ministry as a “foreign agent” over its funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and its reproduction in a newsletter of political op-eds that appeared in the L’chaim Jewish weekly.

Ari Edelkopf and wife Chana in 2009 in Sochi, Russia. Photo courtesy of Federation of Jewish Communities

Last year, a court in Sverdlovsk convicted a teacher, Semen Tykman, of inciting hatred among pupils at his Chabad school against Germans and propagating the idea of Jewish superiority. Authorities raided his school and another one in 2015, confiscating textbooks, which some Russian Jews suggested was to create a semblance of equivalence with Russia’s crackdown on radical Islam.

Before that affair, a Russian court in 2013 convicted Ilya Farber, a Jewish village teacher, of corruption in a trial that some Jewish groups dismissed as flawed, in part because the prosecution displayed some anti-Semitic undertones in arguing it.

While the incidents differ in their local contexts in the multiethnic behemoth that is Russia, seen together they demonstrate that the Jewish minority not only thrived under Putin but is feeling the “collateral damage as the government drastically tightens its grip on all areas of life,” according to Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli lawmaker from Ukraine and a staunch critic of Putin.

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, recently named the anti-democratic measures of Putin’s government — along with the halving of the Russian ruble against the dollar amid sanctions and dropping oil prices — as a major catalyst for an increase in immigration to Israel by Russian Jews.

Last year, Russia was Israel’s largest provider of immigrants with some 7,000 newcomers to the Jewish state, or olim – a 10-year high that saw Russia’s Jewish population of roughly 250,000 people lose  2 1/2 percent of its members to Israel.

But to Lazar, Russia’s Chabad-affiliated chief rabbi, the numbers tell a different story, he told JTA last week at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference in London.

“I don’t know if Jews are leaving because of these steps,” he said, referring to limitations on freedom of speech and other liberties in Russia. “But I think it’s a testament to the revival of the community, which has instilled Jewish identity to provide many olim, whereas 15 years ago this phenomenon just didn’t exist.”

Thank you, Obama

Thank you, President Barack Obama, for serving the country for the past eight years.

Thank you, Obama, for not moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You were wise enough to follow the lead of your Democratic and Republican predecessors and realize the chaos such a move could cause would not be worth the cost. There is no doubt the embassy should be in Jerusalem. There is no question that Jerusalem is the eternal and contemporary capital of Israel. But thank you for knowing that not every right must be claimed at any cost.

Thank you for protecting Israel when and where it mattered most: with off-budget millions for Iron Dome, for standing up for Israel’s right to defend itself in the Gaza war, for a record-setting $38 billion in aid. 

Thank you for declaring as eloquently as any president ever has, and in as many international forums as possible, the value and justice of a Jewish state. Thank you for trying to protect that state from pursuing policies that will endanger its own existence.

Thank you for the Iran deal. Before the deal, Iran was weeks from attaining nuclear bomb capability. Now the world has a decade before the mullahs have the capability of developing a bomb. You tackled a problem that only had gotten worse under previous American and Israeli leaders. Despite fierce opposition, you found a solution that even those Israelis who hated it have grown to see as beneficial. 

Thank you for killing Osama bin Laden. And for taking out al-Qaida’s senior leadership. And for stopping and reversing gains by ISIS. You know who’s really happy to see you go? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

Thank you for standing up to Vladimir Putin. You saw the expansionist, anti-democratic nature of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and quickly confronted him. Perhaps that opposition slowed what may have been an inevitable march through the Baltics. There is nothing wrong with having positive relations with Russia, but “positive” cannot mean giving the Putin regime a pass. 

Thank you for recognizing our Cuba embargo was a failed policy and that the time for change had come. 

Thank you for steering the country through the recession. Thank you for cutting unemployment in half. And for doing so in the face of Republican obstructionism on the kind of infrastructure bill that your successor now likely will get through. 

Thank you for doubling clean energy production. For recognizing that our dependence on fossil fuels can’t help but degrade our environment and hold us back from being competitive in the green energy future, and embolden corrupt and backward regimes from Venezuela to the Middle East to Russia. 

Thank you for saving the American auto industry. You revived General Motors with $50 billion in loans, saving 1.2 million jobs and creating $35 billion in tax revenue so far. Have you checked out GM’s Chevy Bolt? All electric, 240 miles per charge, drives like a rocket and made in Detroit. They should call it the “Obamacar.”

Thank you for the Paris Agreement to address climate change. Thank you for throwing America’s lot in with the rest of the planet.

Thank you for the Affordable Care Act. It has brought the security of health care to millions. It has saved lives. It has kept the rate of cost increases in premiums lower in the past eight years than they were in the previous eight years. It needs to be fixed — what doesn’t? — but only with better ideas, not worse ones.

Thank you for Merrick Garland. It was a great idea while it lasted.

Thank you for trying to get immigration reform through Congress, and for pursuing the policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which let 5 million people already living and working here come out of the shadows. 

Thanks for Michelle. Not just her brains and biceps, but her choice of causes. Your wife saw all the good the food movement had accomplished from the grass roots up and planted it squarely in the front yard of the White House, where it would grow even more from the top down.

Thank you for trying. You grappled with one great chaos after another, and sometimes you fell short. In Syria, you needed a smarter course of action. In Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, you underestimated the need, early on, to deal with Israeli fears and Palestinian obstructionism. As for ending the Sudan embargo, the jury is out. Stateside, your administration should have put some of the bad guys of the recession behind bars and found fixes that better addressed the wealth gap. 

Time will reveal more blemishes — and heal some of the scars. But in the meantime:

Thank you. Thank you for not embarrassing us, your family or yourself. Though your opponents and their friends at “Fox and Friends” tried to pin scandals to you, none could stick. In my lifetime, there has never been an administration so free from personal and professional moral stain. 

Thank you for the seriousness, dignity, grace, humor and cool you brought to the Oval Office. Thank you for being my president.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

WikiLeaks removes anti-Semitic tweets

WikiLeaks removed tweets that described some of its Jewish critics as “establishment climbers.”

The account, believed to be run by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, was responding to tweets linking its massive release of Democratic Party leaks with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to back Republican Party nominee Donald Trump, and there is evidence that the recent hacking into the Democratic National Committee was carried out by Russians.

“Tribalist symbol for establishment climbers?” said a Wikileaks tweet on Saturday. “Most of our critics have 3 (((brackets around their names))) & have black-rimmed glasses. Bizarre.”

The triple parentheses, originally used by anti-Semitic social media users to designate Jews, has been appropriated by Jewish social media users.

In another tweet, Wikileaks wondered whether the symbol “has been re-re-purposed to now be a tribalist designator for establishment climbers.”

Wikileaks came under fire on social media for the tweets and the account removed them while continuing to defend them.

A subsequent tweet by the account suggested that whoever is running it sought to single out “neo-liberals” who were appropriating an anti-racist symbol. “Neo-liberals” is used as a pejorative on the far left for liberals who embrace foreign interventionism.

Russia jets make ‘simulated attack’ passes near U.S. destroyer

Two Russian warplanes with no visible weaponry flew simulated attack passes near a U.S. guided missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea on Tuesday, a U.S. official said, describing it as one of the most aggressive interactions in recent memory.

The repeated flights by the Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes, which also flew near the ship a day earlier, were so close they created wake in the water, with 11 passes, the official said.

A Russian KA-27 Helix helicopter also made seven passes around the USS Donald Cook, taking pictures. The nearest Russian territory was about 70 nautical miles away in its enclave of Kaliningrad, which sits between Lithuania and Poland.

“They tried to raise them (the Russian aircraft) on the radio but they did not answer,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding the U.S. ship was in international waters.

The incident came as NATO plans its biggest build-up in eastern Europe since the Cold War to counter what the alliance, and in particular the Baltic states and Poland, consider to be a more aggressive Russia.

The three Baltic states, which joined both NATO and the European Union in 2004, have asked NATO for a permanent presence of battalion-sized deployments of allied troops in each of their territories. A NATO battalion typically consists of 300 to 800 troops.

Moscow denies any intention to attack the Baltic states.

The USS Donald Cook had just wrapped up a port visit in the Polish city of Gdynia on April 11 and then proceeded out to sea with a Polish helicopter on board.

The first incident took place on April 11, when two SU-24 jets flew about 20 passes near the Donald Cook, coming within 1,000 yards (meters) of the ship, at about 100 feet (30 meters) in altitude.

That was followed by even closer passes by the SU-24s the following day and the passes by the Russian helicopter.

The U.S. defense official said the commanding officer of the Donald Cook believed that Tuesday's incident was “unsafe and unprofessional,” but cautioned that a formal U.S. military review of the matter was underway.

Netanyahu to meet Putin in Moscow on April 21

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 21 to discuss security issues in the Middle East, an Israeli political source said on Tuesday.

Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to help avoid their aircraft accidentally clashing over Syrian territory. This has allowed Israel to continue to carry out covert strikes to foil suspected Hezbollah or Iranian operations against it on Syrian turf without fear of accidentally clashing with Moscow.

Israeli officials have privately said that Russian forces sent in last year to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turn the tide in a five-year-old civil war also served to restrain his anti-Israel allies – Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

Despite its declared withdrawal of most military forces two weeks ago, Russian forces continue to operate in Syria and jets and helicopters have carried out dozens of strikes daily over Palmyra, helping the Syrian army recapture the historic city from Islamic State militants.

Putin told visiting Israeli President Reuven Rivlin earlier in March that he had agreed to meet Netanyahu to discuss the security situation in the Middle East.

An Israeli official who declined to be named said that during Rivlin's meeting with Putin, he “asked that Russia work to restore UNDOF as part of any long-term arrangement in Syria”, referring to a United Nations peacekeeping force.

Personnel from UNDOF, which monitors the Israeli-Syrian frontier on the Golan Heights, have come under fire and even been kidnapped by militants fighting Assad's forces, prompting peacekeeping contingents from some participating nations to withdraw from the force.

In wake of Russia’s planned Syria withdrawal, Putin and Netanyahu to hold security meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet soon in Moscow to discuss regional security and trade.

At a joint news conference Wednesday with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin before their meeting in Moscow, Putin announced his plans for the Netanyahu meeting, the Times of Israel reported.

Israeli officials confirmed that a sit-down between the two leaders will happen soon, but did not offer specific dates.

Citing Russian media, the Times of Israel reported Putin saying the two countries “have a large number of questions to discuss linked with the development of bilateral trade and economic relations and questions of the region’s security.”

On Monday, Putin made the surprise announcement that he plans to pull most of his forces out of Syria, which has been entangled in a civil war for five years. The next day, en route to Russia for a two-day trip, Rivlin told the Israeli media that “there is a need for coordination” with Russia on the Syria situation to ensure that Russia’s withdrawal does not result in strengthening Hezbollah and its backer Iran, both sworn enemies of Israel.

“Everyone understands that Islamic State is a danger to the entire world, but the Shiite fundamentalist Islam of Iran is for us no less a threat,” Rivlin said before the trip, according to The Jerusalem Post.

An unidentified senior Israeli official told the Post on Tuesday, “This is not a zero-sum game. Russia has interests similar to ours. They also do not want to see a strong Iran that will spread terror on Russia’s southern border. The Russians also understand that it will not be good if Hezbollah remains and becomes established in Syria.”

In his joint news conference with Rivlin, Putin said, “The ties between our countries are based on friendship and mutual understanding,” noting that Israel has a significant population of Russian emigres and tourism between the two countries is on the rise.

Rivlin said the Jews would always remember Russia’s key role in World War II, noting that “many Holocaust survivors all over the world remember being liberated by the Red Army.”

Rivlin to tell Putin: Syria pullout must not strengthen Iran, Hezbollah

Any future peace agreement in Syria must not end up strengthening Iran and Hezbollah, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will tell Russian President Vladimir Putin when they meet in Moscow.

With Wednesday’s meeting, Rivlin will be the first international leader to meet with Putin since his surprise announcement on Monday that Russia will withdraw most of its troops from the civil war in Syria.

“We want Iran and Hezbollah not to emerge strengthened from this entire process,” Rivlin told reporters on a flight Tuesday to Moscow. “Everybody agrees that the Islamic State organization is a danger to the entire world, but Shiite Iranian fundamentalist Islam is for us just as dangerous.”

“Given the situation we’re in, we have to coordinate with Russia,” Rivlin said on the plane.

Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, told a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that Israel was caught off guard by the Kremlin announcement.

“We had no prior information about the Russian announcement of a reduction in its involvement, just as others didn’t,” Eisenkot said.

Haaretz reported that Russia will retain control of two military bases in Syria and gradually retract its troops from the region.

Putin announces Russian military withdrawal from Syria

In a surprise move, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a military withdrawal from Syria.

Saying its intervention, launched in 2015, has mostly achieved its goals, Putin said Monday the pullout of most of Russia’s forces will begin Tuesday, according to Reuters.

Russia will keep its Hmeimim airbase and its longtime Tartus naval base in Syria, however.

Putin said the decision to leave was made in coordination with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government Russia has backed in a civil war that has lasted more than five years. Assad said in a statement that Russia has promised to continue helping Syria in “combating terrorism.”

Putin’s announcements comes on the eve of new peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland.

Putin says Russians to start withdrawing from Syria, as peace talks resume

President Vladimir Putin announced out of the blue on Monday that “the main part” of Russian armed forces in Syria will start to withdraw, telling his diplomats to step up the push for peace as U.N.-mediated talks resumed on ending the five-year-old war.

Syria rejected any suggestion of a rift with Moscow, saying President Bashar al-Assad had agreed on the “reduction” of Russian forces in a telephone call with Putin. 

Western diplomats speculated Putin may be trying to press Assad into accepting a political settlement to the war, which has killed 250,000 people, although U.S. officials saw no sign yet of Russian forces preparing to pull out.

The anti-Assad opposition simply expressed bafflement, with a spokesman saying “nobody knows what is in Putin's mind”.

Russia's military intervention in Syria in September helped to turn the tide of war in Assad's favour after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, who were aided by foreign military supplies including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.

Putin made his surprise announcement, made with no advance warning to the United States, at a meeting with his defence and foreign ministers.

Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in Syria, Putin said. But he gave no deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said forces would remain at a seaport and airbase in Syria's Latakia province.

In Geneva, United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura told the warring parties there was no “Plan B” other than a resumption of conflict if the first of three rounds of talks which aim to agree a “clear roadmap” for Syria failed to make progress.

Putin said at the Kremlin meeting he was ordering the withdrawal from Tuesday of “the main part of our military contingent” from the country.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” he said. “I believe that the task put before the defence ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.”

With the participation of the Russian military, Syrian armed forces “have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism”, he added.

“COMPLETE COORDINATION”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had telephoned the Syrian president to inform him of the decision, but the two leaders had not discussed Assad's future – the biggest obstacle to reaching a peace agreement.

The move was announced on the day United Nations-brokered talks involving the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.

Moscow gave Washington no advance warning of Putin's announcement, two U.S. officials said. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they added that they had seen no indications so far of preparations by Russia's military for the withdrawal.

In Damascus, the Syrian presidency said in a statement that Assad had agreed to the reduction in the Russian air force presence, and denied suggestions that this reflected a difference between the two countries

“The whole subject happened in complete coordination between the Russian and Syrian sides, and is a step that was carefully and accurately studied for some time”, the statement said, adding that Moscow had promised to continue support for Syria in “confronting terrorism”. 

Syria regards all rebel groups fighting Assad as terrorists.

Rebels and opposition officials alike reacted sceptically.

“I don't understand the Russian announcement, it's a surprise, like the way they entered the war. God protect us,” Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal Division, a Free Syria Army group fighting in the northwest, said.

Opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat demanded a total Russian withdrawal. “Nobody knows what is in Putin's mind, but the point is he has no right to be in be our country in the first place. Just go,” he said.

A European diplomat was also sceptical. “It has the potential to put a lot of pressure on Assad and the timing fits that,” the diplomat said.

“However, I say potentially because we've seen before with Russia that what's promised isn't always what happens.”

MOMENT OF TRUTH

The Geneva talks are the first in more than two years and come amid a marked reduction in fighting after last month's “cessation of hostilities”, sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by Assad's government and many of his foes.

Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin confirmed some forces would stay in Syria. “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained,” he told reporters at the United Nations in New York.

However, he added: “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.” 

Speaking before Putin's announcement, de Mistura said Syria faced a moment of truth, as he opened talks to end a war which has displaced half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces and jihadis.

The limited truce, which excludes the powerful Islamic State and Nusra Front groups, is fragile. The warring sides have accused each other of multiple violations and they arrived in Geneva with what look like irreconcilable agendas.

The Syrian opposition says the talks must focus on setting up a transitional governing body with full executive power, and that Assad must leave power at the start of the transition. Damascus says Assad's opponents are deluded if they think they will take power at the negotiating table. 

In a sign of how wide the rift is, de Mistura is meeting the two sides separately, at least initially. The talks must focus on political transition, which is the “mother of all issues”, the U.N. envoy said.

After Syria coordination talks with Israel, Russia beckons to Turkey, U.S.

Russia ended high-level military talks with Israel on Wednesday with a call on other countries, including a suspicious United States and aggrieved Turkey, to coordinate operations in Syria.

The two countries discussed how they can avoid accidentally clashing while operating in Syria. Israel has been worried that Russia's deployment there, which includes advanced anti-aircraft units and warplanes, could lead to unwanted confrontation.

The talks followed a meeting in Moscow between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at which the two men agreed to set up teams as Russia stepped up military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia's most senior diplomat in Israel said on Wednesday that Israel had no reason to fear Russia's presence or actions in Syria.

“Russia will not take any action that will endanger Israel's national security,” Alexey Drobinin, minister-counsellor at the Russian Embassy, told Israel Radio in an interview in Hebrew.

The Russian delegation was led by First Deputy Chief of General Staff General Nikolai Bogdanovsky, who met his Israeli counterpart, Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Yair Golan.

The swift emergence of face-to-face contacts between Israeli and Russian generals was in stark contrast to the tenser ties between Moscow, Washington and Ankara.

U.S Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday that the United States would not cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria, although it was willing to hold discussions to secure the safety of its own pilots bombing Islamic State targets in Syria.

Turkey, also a neighbour of Syria, has complained of repeated violations of its airspace. Ankara summoned Russia's ambassador for the third time in four days over the reported violations, which NATO has said appeared to be deliberate and “extremely dangerous”.

Drobinin said Russia was starting similar military talks with Turkey and he hoped these would take place too with other countries, including the United States.

“We have a full understanding of Turkey's worries and we think that the right way to allay these fears is to allow professional soldiers to have in-depth discussions. Such a proposal has been made and I think that we are now at the start of such talks between the Russian and Turkish armies,” Drobinin said.

“It is important that there should be such talks between Russia and all the countries who are interested in exchanging intelligence and operational information … including the United States,” he added.

Israel has attacked Syrian armed forces and arch-foe Lebanese Hezbollah, a Damascus ally, during the four-year civil war in its hostile neighbour. It says it holds the Syrian government responsible for any spillover of violence.

“I think it is a good opportunity to meet and exchange information and to take steps that will allow (the countries) to operate on matters that interest them,” Drobinin said.

Russia took Israeli interests into account, not least because of the large Russian-speaking community of over a million who have emigrated to the Jewish state since the mid-1980s, he said.

“We understand that Israel has national security interests and we take these into account when we formulate our regional policies. There are over a million former Soviet citizens living in Israel and we need to take this into account,” he said.

Israel-Russia military coordination talks on Syria to open Tuesday

A senior Russian military delegation will visit Israel on Tuesday for two days of talks on how the countries can avoid accidentally clashing while operating in Syria, an Israeli military officer said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on Sept. 21 to set up teams as Moscow steps up military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been losing ground to an Islamist-led insurgency.

Israel is worried the Russian deployment, which includes advanced anti-aircraft units and warplanes, risks pitting Russian forces against its own over Syria.

Israel has attacked Syrian armed forces and arch-foe Lebanese Hezbollah, a Damascus ally, during the four-year civil war in its hostile neighbor. It has said it holds the Syrian government responsible for any spillover of violence.

On Sept. 27, Israel struck Syrian army targets on the Golan Heights in retaliation for cross-border rocket fire. In August, it waged its heaviest bombardment since the conflict began, killing Palestinian militants in response to cross-border fire.

The Russian delegation will be led by First Deputy Chief of General Staff General Nikolai Bogdanovsky, who will meet his Israeli counterpart, Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Yair Golan.

“The two will meet at military command headquarters in Tel Aviv as part of the two-day visit of the Russian army delegation to Israel. Among other matters, they will discuss regional coordination issues,” the Israeli officer said on Monday.

After Putin and Netanyahu met, an Israeli military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the countries would focus on aerial operations in Syria and “electromagnetic coordination”.

The latter appeared to refer to the sides agreeing not to scramble each other's radio communications or radar-tracking systems, and devising ways of identifying each other's forces to avoid any unintended confrontation in the heat of battle.

Israel and Russia will also coordinate on sea operations off Syria's Mediterranean coast, where Moscow has a major naval base, the Israeli officer said.

In explaining Israel's objectives in coordination with the Russians, Netanyahu told CNN in an interview on Sunday: “I went to Moscow to make it clear that we should avoid a clash between Russian forces and Israeli forces.”

“In Syria, I've defined my goals. They're to protect the security of my people and my country. Russia has different goals. But they shouldn't clash,” he said.

When asked by Reuters about the talks, an official at the Russian embassy in Israel declined to comment.

Ukraine leader mocks Russia’s call for anti-terrorism coalition

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday derided Russia's call for the creation of an international antiterrorism coalition, saying the Russians inspire terrorism on their own doorstep and back bellicose puppet governments.

Russian President Putin on Monday called for the creation of a broad international coalition to fight Islamic State and other militant extremist groups.

Poroshenko used his speech at the annual gathering of world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly to blast Russia and suggest its call for global action against terrorist threats was hypocritical.

“Over the last few days we have heard conciliatory statements form the Russian side,” he told the 193-nation assembly. “Cool story, but really hard to believe. How can you urge an antiterrorist coalition if you inspire terrorism right in front of your door?

“How can you talk about peace and legitimacy if your policy is war via puppet governments?” he added. “The Gospel of John teaches us, 'In the beginning was the word.' But what kind of a gospel do you bring to the world if all your words are double-tongued like that?”

He referred to the fact that Russia is accelerating military support to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has been locked in a civil war with rebel forces seeking to oust Assad for 4-1/2 years.

“These days the Russian 'men in green' tread on Syrian land,” he said. “What or who is next?”

Poroshenko renewed accusations that Russia finances, trains and supplies pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, while sending heavy weapons and Russian troops, with insignias removed from their uniforms, to help battle Ukrainian forces loyal to the Kiev government.

Speaking later at Columbia University, Poroshenko called on countries that support Kiev to help his government secure modern weapons to defend itself.

Moscow denies the allegations and accuses the United States of having orchestrated the ouster of Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin president early last year.

“For over 20 months, Russia's aggression against my country has been continuing through financing of terrorists and mercenaries, and supplies of arms and military equipment to the illegal armed groups,” Poroshenko told the General Assembly.

All but one member of Russia's delegation left the assembly hall while Poroshenko spoke. The full delegation returned after he finished his speech.

The United States and European Union support the Kiev government and have imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko said that if Russia does not implement the Minsk peace deal reached last year, under which both sides were to hold fire and withdraw heavy weapons, international sanctions of Moscow should remain in place.

Poroshenko and Putin will meet with the leaders of France and Germany in Paris on Friday to discuss the fragile Minsk ceasefire agreement.

A representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said earlier that Ukraine and the separatists have now agreed, in talks in Minsk, Belarus, to extend a pullback of weapons in east Ukraine to include tanks and smaller weapons systems.

Netanyahu to quiz Putin on Russia’s reinforcement of Syria

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow on Monday to seek reassurance from President Vladimir Putin about Russia's military deployment in Syria and to lay out Israel's concerns about the risk of weapons reaching militants on its borders.

With fighter planes part of the rapid Russian build-up, Israel is worried about the threat of fire accidentally being traded with Russian forces, especially since it has carried out air raids against militants in southern Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters suspected of smuggling arms.

A former strategic adviser to Netanyahu said the Israeli leader would try to work out “ground rules” with Putin about avoiding such clashes.

The United States, which along with its allies has been flying missions against Islamist State insurgents in Syria, has also been holding so-called “deconfliction” talks with Russia.

“It could come down to Israel and Russia agreeing to limit themselves to defined areas of operation in Syria, or even that they fly at daytime and we fly at night,” said the ex-adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Among Israel's concerns is that Israeli warplanes could come up against Russian-operated anti-aircraft systems or even Russian-flown jets.

RUSSIAN HARDWARE

Netanyahu took along top Israeli generals for his talks with Putin, who is trying to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against an Islamist-led Syrian insurgency in its fifth year.

That top-of-the-line Russian military hardware may now be deployed in Assad's favor has stoked concern his ally, Hezbollah, could also benefit. That Russians might be at the controls of these systems gives Israeli planners further pause.

Sources close to Netanyahu said he would present Israeli intelligence accounts of past transfers of arms, some of them Russian-supplied, to Hezbollah, and seek reassurances Moscow would maintain control of its latest reinforcements.

“What's important is Putin's commitment not to get mixed up in arming Hezbollah, which should help Israel, if it goes in there, to keep a safe distance from the Russians. It is pretty clear that Putin is not looking for a fight with Israel,” Netanyahu's former adviser said.

Putin has pledged to continue military support for Assad, assistance that Russia says is in line with international law. Russia has been focusing forces on the Syrian coast, where it has a major naval base.

The Kremlin has said Putin and Netanyahu would discuss “the relevant issues of bilateral cooperation and international agenda” during their meeting in the president's residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, near Moscow.

A Russian chief rabbi stands by his strongman, aka Putin

Rabbi Berel Lazar’s mother was eager for grandchildren. So she gave her 25-year-old son an ultimatum: He could return to his beloved Jewish outreach work in Russia if — and only if — he got married.

His yeshiva classmates jokingly said he was already wed, “to the idea of going to Russia,” said Lazar, the son of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Milan, Italy.

A few months after his mother put her foot down in 1989, Lazar wed his American-born wife, Channa, and the couple settled in Moscow, where they raised 14 children.

An emissary for Chabad, Lazar, 51, would go on to become one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, a major and controversial force in the dramatic revival of Russian Jewry following decades of Communist oppression and mass immigration to Israel, the United States, Germany and elsewhere.

Lazar’s work, his Russia boosterism and his ties to the Kremlin — he is sometimes called “Putin’s rabbi” — has helped Chabad’s Russian branch eclipse all the Jewish groups vying to reshape the country’s community of 250,000 Jews. Now Lazar heads a vast network that comprises dozens of employees and plentiful volunteers working in hundreds of Jewish institutions: schools, synagogues, community centers and kosher shops.

“I am amazed at what became of a community that had been stripped of everything, even its books,” Lazar said, referring to Soviet Jewry before the fall of communism, when religious practice was suppressed.

Today, Lazar said, Russia has in Vladimir Putin its “most pro-Jewish leader,” whom he credits with “fighting anti-Semitism more vigorously than any Russian leader before him.”

But criticism of Lazar’s partnership with Putin persists as the Russian president makes use of his pro-Jewish credentials in justifying his policies. The strongman has repeatedly cited the alleged anti-Semitism of Ukrainian nationalists in justifying Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukraine-controlled Crimea. In January, Putin inveighed against Ukrainian nationalists — he called them “Banderites,” a reference to the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera — during a speech he delivered on International Holocaust Memorial Day, when he was Lazar’s guest at Moscow’s Jewish museum.

Lazar has also been criticized for his presence at Kremlin events, like the one last year celebrating Russia’s Crimea annexation. (“Like other clerics, my duties include officiating at state events,” Lazar said in an interview with JTA.)

To Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli lawmaker and author of a book about Russian-Jewish immigration to Israel, the relationship between Putin and Lazar is a “beneficiary symbiosis.” Lazar’s support for Putin, Bronfman said, “is a constant and the basis of his claim to the title of chief rabbi.”

Lazar was Chabad’s chief envoy to Russia before staking claim to the title of chief rabbi in 2000. That’s when he quit the Russian Jewish Congress, an umbrella group, after the organization’s founder, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Russia’s other chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, criticized Russia’s war in Chechnya and its alleged human rights abuses — including the alleged targeting, by anti-corruption authorities, of political dissidents.

“Challenging the government is not the Jewish way, and [Gusinsky] put the Jewish community in harm’s way,” said Lazar, noting that the chief rabbi should be apolitical, not a government critic. “I wanted to have nothing to do with this.”

Shayevich, who has been chief rabbi since 1993, heads the Keroor religious congress, a body responsible for religious services at affiliated synagogues. In March, Keroor and Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, or FJC — both are Orthodox bodies — signed a nonaggression pact in which the groups committed to not speak ill of one another in public. The agreement ended years of acrimonious exchanges in the media, but Keroor to this day does not recognize Lazar’s claim to his title of chief rabbi.

In recent years, however, Lazar’s federation eclipsed Keroor in prominence and reach. FJC operates in 160 cities, compared to Keroor’s 34. In addition, FJC has departments in other former Soviet countries, which means Lazar also has considerable clout in the Jewish communities of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, and elsewhere.

In 2012, Moscow opened a $50 million Jewish museum that is headed by Lazar’s top aide, Rabbi Boruch Gorin.

Putin’s support for the Jewish community, Lazar said, “flows from his respect for religion and warm sentiments” to Judaism, not out of political calculation. Russian Jews, Lazar added in reference to Putin’s time in office, “have a duty to use this golden hour and press ahead with community growth.”

Still, Putin was quick to leverage the new Jewish museum for his needs.

In 2013, the space became Putin’s answer to an international legal dispute involving the Schneerson Library — composed of texts by Joseph I. Schneerson, a late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which have been held by the Russian state since Communist authorities confiscated them in 1917. A U.S. federal judge in 2013 ruled in favor of Chabad lawyers in the United States who are seeking the return of the library to Brooklyn, where the Hasidic group is based.

Lazar reluctantly agreed to Putin’s request that the texts be housed in the museum as a form of compromise. The claimants in New York refuse to see it as such, but the move showed Putin’s influence over Lazar.

“He wanted to solve a problem,” Lazar said of Putin’s so-called compromise, “though it may have caused a problem for me.”

But Lazar and Putin’s relationship seems to go deeper than political expediency. In 2012, Lazar led the Russian leader on a tour of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. And last year Putin made Lazar a member of Russia’s prestigious Merit to the Fatherland order, the country’s highest civilian decoration and one that is rarely conferred on people who were not born in Russia. (Lazar became a Russian citizen in 2000.)

Lazar’s prominence has a powerful effect on his constituents. At a recent brit milah in Moscow, men from a Sephardic family from the Caucasus lined up to shake his hand at a shul that fell silent when Lazar stepped in. After the shake, they kissed their own palm as a show of their reverence for Lazar, whom some in attendance described as a great sage.

Many Russian-Jewish leaders are happy to bask in the warmth of such adoration. But to Lazar — who has armed guards, a chauffeur and several assistants — his congregants’ reverence is an unwanted byproduct of a title he neither coveted nor particularly enjoys, he said. If not for his current position, Lazar said, he would have preferred to be a teacher like his father in Milan.

Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi who recently completed writing a book on the movement’s global outreach efforts, said Lazar for months resisted pressure by other Chabad leaders to accept the title of chief rabbi. Lazar acquiesced only after a former Israeli chief rabbi revealed that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the revered Chabad leader who died in 1994, had said Lazar would be a good candidate for becoming Russia’s chief rabbi one day.

The title, as Lazar has come to see it, is nothing more than “a tool that allows me to achieve certain goals for my community.”

Israel ‘dismayed’ at S-300 missile deal with Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday expressed Israel's “dismay” to Russian President Vladimir Putin at Russia's decision to lift a self-imposed ban on supplying S-300 missiles to Iran.

A statement from Netanyahu's office said he “expressed Israel's dismay at the decision… (and) told President Putin that this step will only increase Iran's aggression in the region and will destabilize security in the Middle East.”

Putin lifted the ban on delivering the air defense system to Iran on Monday.

Russia opens way to missile deliveries to Iran, starts oil-for-goods swap

Russia paved the way on Monday for missile system deliveries to Iran and started an oil-for-goods swap, signalling that Moscow may have a head-start in the race to benefit from an eventual lifting of sanctions on Tehran.

The moves come after world powers, including Russia, reached an interim deal with Iran this month on curbing its nuclear program.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ending a self-imposed ban on delivering the S-300 anti-missile rocket system to Iran, removing a major irritant between the two countries after Moscow cancelled a corresponding contract in 2010 under pressure from the West.

A senior government official said separately that Russia has started supplying grain, equipment and construction materials to Iran in exchange for crude oil under a barter deal.

Sources told Reuters more than a year ago that a deal worth up to $20 billion was being discussed and would involve Russia buying up to 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day.

Officials from the two countries have issued contradictory statements since then on whether a deal has been signed, but Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday one was already being implemented.

“I wanted to draw your attention to the rolling out of the oil-for-goods deal, which is on a very significant scale,” Ryabkov told a briefing with members of the upper house of parliament on the talks with Iran.

“In exchange for Iranian crude oil supplies, we are delivering certain products. This is not banned or limited under the current sanctions regime.”

He declined to give further details. Russia's Agriculture Ministry declined comment and the Energy Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. There was no comment from Iran.


Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket system in Moscow on May 4, 2009. Photo by Alexander Natruskin/Reuters

Iran is the third-largest buyer of Russian wheat, and Moscow and Tehran have been discussing the oil-for-goods barter deal for more than a year.

Russia hopes to reap economic and trade benefits if a final deal is concluded to build on the framework agreement reached in the Swiss city of Lausanne between Iran and Russia, the United States, France, Britain, Germany and China.

They have until June 30 to work out a detailed technical agreement under which Iran would curb its nuclear programme and allow international control in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday raised concerns about the missile system sale with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

She said, however, that U.S. officials do not think Russia's actions will hurt unity between the major powers in the nuclear talks.

TWO TO TANGO

Lavrov said the agreement in Lausanne wiped out the need for Moscow's ban on the delivery of S-300 and that the system was defensive, hence would pose no threat to Iran's foe, Israel.

“As a result of suspending the contract, we did not receive major sums that we were due. We see no need to continue doing this given progress in talks on Iran's nuclear programme and the absolutely legitimate nature of the forthcoming deal,” he said.

The United States and Israel had lobbied Russia to block the missile sale before it did so in 2010, saying the S-300 system could be used to shield Iran's nuclear facilities from possible future air strikes.

Leonid Ivashov, a retired Russian general who now heads the Moscow-based Centre for Geo-Political Analysis think-tank, said the move was part of a race for future contracts in Iran.

“If we now delay and leave Iran waiting, then tomorrow, when sanctions are fully lifted, Washington and its allies will get Iran's large market,” RIA news agency quoted him as saying.

Ryabkov suggested Russia had high hopes that its steady support for Iran would pay off in energy cooperation once international sanctions against Tehran are lifted.

“It takes two to tango. We are ready to provide our services and I am sure they will be pretty advantageous compared to other countries,” he said. “We never gave up on Iran in a difficult situation … Both for oil and gas, I think the prospects for our cooperation should not be underestimated.”

He also reiterated Moscow's view that an arms embargo on Iran should be lifted once a final nuclear deal is sealed.

Sanctions have cut Iran's oil exports to about 1.1 million barrels per day from 2.5 million bpd in 2012. Analysts say Iran is unlikely to see a major boost in exports before next year.

One upper house lawmaker asked Ryabkov whether lifting sanctions on Tehran could undermine Russia's position on global energy markets, including as the main gas supplier to Europe.

“I am not confident as yet that the Iranian side would be ready to carry out supplies of natural gas from its fields quickly and in large quantities to Europe. This requires infrastructure that is difficult to build,” he said.

For Russia’s Jews, Nemtsov murder is reminder of their vulnerability

During the past two years, Dima Zicer has skipped several political rallies opposing the chauvinistic policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A Jewish scholar of education from St. Petersburg, Zicer, 55, has limited hope for change in a country that is ranked 148th in the Press Freedom Index and where several of Putin’s critics have either died under mysterious circumstances or been jailed for what they and many Western observers say are trumped-up corruption charges.

On Sunday, however, Zicer marched through St. Petersburg with 10,000 people, many of them Jewish, in protest of the murder in central Moscow of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister. Nemtsov, an opposition leader, was gunned down on Saturday just hours after he urged fellow citizens to attend a rally against Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine.

No arrests have been made in the killing, which took place on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion into Crimea. Russia has since annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

“This murder and the incitement that preceded it is so shocking that I could no longer remain an observer,” Zicer said.

Whether or not the Kremlin ordered the killing, as some have accused, Zicer holds the Russian president responsible because of the “the wild incitement he allowed on media in recent months against Nemtsov and other opposition figures.”

Kremlin spokesmen have denied any involvement in the slaying.

To many Russian Jews, the murder of Nemtsov — a physicist turned liberal politician, born to a Jewish mother but baptized in the Orthodox Church — is a troubling reminder of vulnerability as members of a relatively affluent minority with a history of being scapegoated, strong ties to the West and a deep attachment to cosmopolitan values and human rights.

The murder hit Russia’s sizable Jewish intelligentsia particularly hard because “nearly all the leaders of the liberal opposition are either fully Jewish or have Jewish background,” said Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and a writer for the Jewish monthly magazine L’chaim. “His murder is the low point in a process that started about two years ago which has left the Jewish intelligentsia and its milieu feeling more uneasy than ever before in post-communist Russia.”

To be sure, Nemtsov’s murder shocked countless Russians the world over, prompting vigils and marches in his memory. The main march in Moscow drew 60,000 people, but smaller events were held across the federation for Nemtsov, who at one time was second in command to Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, but ultimately was eclipsed by Putin before becoming one of his harshest critics.

In an interview conducted with Newsweek hours before his death, Nemtsov said that because of Putin’s policy, Russia’s economy is collapsing.

Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine was “wading into a costly, fratricidal war in Ukraine and into pointless confrontation with the West,” Nemtsov told the magazine.

“We all feel the effects of this insane policy,” Nemtsov said, adding that Putin’s use of media reminded him of the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

Putin responded to such criticisms by referring to opponents of Russia’s actions in Ukraine — and especially the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula — as a fifth column. And though Putin did not name Nemtsov, the president was widely thought to be referring to him, the liberal camp’s most senior politician. Russian media considered to have close Kremlin ties published Nemtsov’s name on lists of suspected traitors that started circulating shortly after those included on the lists expressed their opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

In a 2010 televised interview, Putin said that Nemtsov and other opposition figures stole billions from Russians and would “sell off the whole of Russia” if given the chance.

“Nemtsov was on every list of traitors published on the Internet and aired on state TV,” the Russian-Jewish journalist Leonid Bershidsky wrote on Bloomberg View after the murder.

Bershidsky added, “It did not help that he was Jewish. There was a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the smear campaign.”

However, some Russians doubt that Putin would go to the trouble of ordering the assassination of a high-profile figure who ultimately may be more trouble dead than alive. Nemtsov, after all, had failed to gain widespread popularity outside the urban elite and thus never constituted any real political threat to Putin.

Edelstein noted that “there may have been anti-Semitic incitement online and in far-right circles,” but “Nemtsov wasn’t perceived as a Jew and wasn’t attacked as such.”

The evidence in Nemtsov’s killing, Edelstein believes, “points to ultranationalists, perhaps militiamen who fought in Ukraine, perhaps only their sympathizers.”

Nemstov himself was open about being born to a Jewish mother and said he rarely felt any discrimination.

“People tend to judge whether you are a thief or honest, competent or not,” he said during an interview in 2001 when he was asked about his Jewishness.

Raised by a single mother, Dina Eydman, a physician, in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi and later in her native Nizhni Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow, Nemtsov received his doctorate in theoretical physics at 26.

“I never made it a secret that my mother is Jewish because I love my mother. I’m much indebted to my mother,” he was quoted as saying in a 1999 report about anti-Semitism in Russia. “She has also drawn me into politics, though now she is not happy about this.”

In a telegram he sent Nemtsov’s 87-year-old mother, Putin wrote, “Everything will be done so that the organizers and executors of this vile and cynical murder are punished.”

For Tanya Lvova, a Jewish mother from St. Petersburg and coordinator of the city’s Limmud conference on Jewish learning, said Nemtsov’s murder “does not make life more uncomfortable here because it is already as uncomfortable as can be.”

But Lvova said the killing does present her with a new concern.

“More than being afraid of living in a country where someone can be killed on the street for criticizing the government,” she said, “I am afraid of living in a country where this is considered a normal occurrence that doesn’t even create a very strong response.”

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov shot dead in Moscow

Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician and former deputy prime minister, has been shot dead in central Moscow, the Interior Ministry said early on Saturday.

Nemtsov, 55, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, had been due to take part on Sunday in the first big opposition protest in months in the Russian capital.

He was shot four times late on Friday night, not far from the Kremlin in the center of Moscow. Police cars blocked the street where he was shot. An ambulance was also nearby.

“Nemtsov B.E. died at 2340 hours as a result of four shots in the back,” an Interior Ministry spokeswoman said by telephone.

Kerry: Russia is lying when it denies its troops are in Ukraine

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday Russia was lying when it said there are no Russian troops or equipment in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are fighting government troops.

Fighting has abated in eastern Ukraine in recent days, raising hope that a ceasefire that was due to start on Feb. 15 can finally take effect after the rebels initially ignored it to storm the government-held town of Debaltseve last week.

Western countries have not given up on the ceasefire deal to end fighting that has killed more than 5,600 people, although they remain suspicious of the rebels and their presumed patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Asked during U.S. congressional testimony if Russia was lying when it says it has no troops or equipment in Ukraine, Kerry replied: “Yes.”

Kiev and its Western allies say the rebels are funded and armed by Moscow and backed by Russian military units. Moscow denies aiding sympathizers in Ukraine and says heavily armed Russian-speaking troops operating without insignia there are not its men.

The chief U.S. diplomat later elaborated on the need to push back against Russia's stance it is not involved in the conflict.

“Russia … tragically is sort of reigniting a new kind of East-West, zero-sum game that we think is dangerous and unnecessary,” Kerry told U.S. lawmakers when testifying about the State Department budget.

“The question asked earlier about … how they present things and the lies about their presence in Ukraine and the training, I mean, you know, it’s stunning but it has an impact in places where it isn’t countered,” he said. “Propaganda works.”

Politics, Putin cast shadow over Auschwitz liberation anniversary

When they announced the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Polish officials insisted that at this year’s event, “the eyes of the world will be focused” on about 300 Holocaust survivors whose presence Tuesday at the former Nazi death camp near Krakow may be the last gathering of its sort.

The generation of Holocaust survivors, after all, is dying out.

Yet critics are charging that politics and tensions between Russia and its neighbors are nonetheless eclipsing the focus on the survivors and even muddling the historical record. Many believe that behind the main event, at Auschwitz, was an organized effort to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending — a reprisal of sorts for Russia’s annexation last year of Ukrainian territory.

Putin in his earlier stint as president attended the 60th anniversary ceremony in 2005. This time, a tentative invitation was extended to the Russian Embassy but not to Putin directly.

An attempt to keep out Putin was “a serious failure in commemoration because it was Russian troops who liberated the camp,” said Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the human rights organization. “This attempt to erase the Russian people’s contribution to defeating Nazism is casting a shadow on this commemoration and creating a vacuum in which untruths flourish.”

One such distortion: On Jan. 21, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told a local radio station that Ukrainians, not Russians, liberated Auschwitz, citing the fact that the Red Army unit that reached Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front. And on Jan. 8, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated that the Soviets “invaded  Ukraine and Germany,” when, in fact, it was the Germans who invaded the Soviet Union. His spokesman later explained that Yatsenyuk had in mind the carving-up of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.

These historical inversions “show the level of hatred that exists for Russia for the moment,” said Peter Feldmajer, a vice president of the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz.

In addition to the event in Auschwitz, the camp’s liberation was scheduled to be commemorated in Prague on Jan. 26 and at the United Nations General Assembly on Jan. 28.

But Putin’s presence would have been an especially sensitive matter in Poland, where anger over Russian aggression in Ukraine is mixed with bitter memories of Russian domination during and predating the Soviet era and fears of its return.

Polish officials denied that Putin was deliberately disinvited or discouraged from attending, noting that no other head of state had been officially invited, owing to the policy of focusing on survivors.

Many, however, doubted this argument, as the list of attending dignitaries at the Auschwitz event grew. Among others it included French President Francois Hollande and his German and Ukrainian counterparts, Joachim Guack and Petro Poroshenko, as well as the Dutch and Belgian premiers, Mark Rutte and Charles Michel, respectively.

Putin, however, had been invited to attend an event near Prague co-organized by the European Jewish Congress that brought hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries to commemorations of the Auschwitz liberation and to the nearby Terezin Memorial for the Theresiendstadt concentration camp.

EJC’s Russian-born president, the industrialist Moshe Kantor, set up the event near Prague with the Czech government to provide a commemoration ceremony where Putin would feel welcome, according to Peter Brod, a board member of the Jewish Community of Prague’s foundation.

“The feeling was that the Russian contribution to the liberation should be honored and commemorated in some way, and this led to the event,” said Brod, a former BBC journalist.

But Arie Zuckerman, a senior EJC official, said the event near Prague — which featured debates about anti-Semitism today and legislation to curb it — were never meant to serve as an alternative to the Auschwitz event, “which, unlike our event, is only about commemoration.”

Marek Halter, a well-known French Jewish author who survived the Holocaust in his native Warsaw before escaping to Russia, said he and his generation “have a responsibility to protect [the] historical record for as long as we can.” The record, he said, “is in danger of being lost in the politics of the new cold war we are entering between the United States and Russia.”

Putin’s attendance at Auschwitz, he added during an interview with JTA, “should have been facilitated to defend against this sort of obfuscation.”

Serge Klarsfeld, a Romania-born Jewish Nazi hunter who survived the Holocaust in hiding in France and whose father died at Auschwitz, said he “could understand the Polish state of mind regarding Putin,” but that he should have been invited.

“It’s not, as some Poles claim, that the Russians liberated Auschwitz because it was en route to Berlin,” he said. “They came to free Auschwitz, and the survivors will never forget the Red Army’s arrival there.”

Still, Halter said he could think of no place more appropriate than Prague and Terezin to commemorate the Holocaust.

“Prague was the only old Jewish city that the Nazis left intact because they wanted to turn it into a Jewish Jurassic Park, a museum to an extinct people,” he told JTA. “Convening hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries is a powerful response.”

But how the message is carried is changing as the last generation of Holocaust survivors passes on, Frans Timmermans, a vice president of the European Commission, told JTA at the Prague’s Municipal House, where Czech President Milos Zeman welcomed leaders of European Jewry and politicians with a brief address.

“We are at a critical point in European history because living memory is becoming history,” Timmermans said. “Soon there will be no more people with numbers on their arms to tell the story, and the tendency to beautify a terrible record is tempting.”

In Auschwitz, one of the survivors who is still telling his story is Ernst Verduin, 87, who lived in hiding in the Netherlands before he was deported to the death camp with his family. Verduin arrived at Auschwitz suffering from a severe lung infection and was sent immediately to the gas chambers.

“As we said goodbye, my sister wished me a quick death,” recalled Verduin, who survived because he left the gas chamber group and snuck to the group of men sent to work.