As It Happens·As It Happens Q&A

Why Russia's exiled chief rabbi is urging Jewish people to flee the country

Pinchas Goldschmidt says antisemitism, fuelled in part by the government, is rising in Russia, and that the country's Jewish community could soon find it difficult to leave.

Pinchas Goldschmidt estimates 25 to 30 per cent of Jews in Russia have left since war in Ukraine began

A bespectacled rabbi with a gray beard.
Pinchas Goldschmidt resigned from his post as Russia's chief rabbi in July and left the country after refusing to endorse his country's invasion of Ukraine. (Matthias Schrader/The Associated Press)

Moscow's exiled chief rabbi is urging Jewish people in Russia to leave the country while they can, as the war in Ukraine continues.

Pinchas Goldschmidt says antisemitism, fuelled in part by the government, is rising in Russia, and that the country's Jewish community could soon find it difficult to leave.

He believes that since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, between 25 and 30 per cent of Russia's 165,000 Jews have fled, or are planning to. Facing pressure to support the war, Goldschmidt resigned his post in July and left the country for Israel.

CBC Radio requested comment from Russia's presidential press office, but did not hear back before deadline. 

Goldschmidt spoke with As It Happens host Nil Köksal from Jerusalem about the changes he has seen in Russia, and how the community has responded. Here is part of that conversation.

Why are you telling Russian Jews to leave their country?

I've been observing, during the last month, a change — a big change — in the direction the country has taken. The country has become from authoritarian to more totalitarian. And [the] Iron Curtain, which went up at the end of the Soviet Union, is going down and lowering itself on a daily basis. And antisemitism is back.

Can you give me some examples of why you see that comparison to Soviet times?

It's extremely difficult today for Jews in Russia to leave the country to go to the West. In order to leave, it is difficult to get a visa. It is difficult to fly. You have to fly through a third country. And it has become more and more difficult to get visas for Russian citizens in Western countries.

Also, in Russia, mobilization has started last year. It has been called a partial mobilization. However, we think that with the beginning of this year, there is going to be a continuation, and actually there is a possibility that ... every male [of] draft age, is going to be forbidden to leave the country.

Vladimir Putin sits at a table with two flags behind him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the invasion of Ukraine is about 'de-Nazifying' the country. (Vladimir Gerdo/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo/The Associated Press)

In September, you may remember, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin delivered a Rosh Hashanah message. He said, "It is very important that while retaining their loyalty to old spiritual traditions, Russia's Jews make a hefty contribution to the preservation of cultural diversity in our country." What do those words from Vladimir Putin mean to you?

The president has been giving, every year, congratulations to the Jewish community with the onset of the new Jewish year, and I think it meant a sign that the Jewish community is important for Russia.

At the same time, Putin has said the war is about, "de-Nazifying Ukraine." What do Russian Jews think when they hear that?

I can speak for myself. To say that Ukraine was governed by Nazis is ridiculous because Ukraine had a thriving Jewish community until the war started. And show me another country run by Nazis where there's a thriving Jewish community.

You talked about a rise in antisemitism. It's something we've spoken about in North America as well. What are you seeing in Russia? What are Russian Jews facing? Do you have some examples?

I would like to, first of all, make a very big difference between what's happening in the West and what's happening in Russia. There's antisemitism everywhere.

The problem is in Russia, we see a rise in governmental antisemitism. And here's the difference: we have seen the government trying to close the Jewish Agency, which has been one of the most important organizations helping Russian Jews with informal education as well as with immigration.

Secondly, there has been an attack from the National Security Council against Chabad, which is a major Jewish organization in Russia.

And also, in its propaganda against Ukraine, Russian Foreign Ministry officials used antisemitic tropes to bring the message home.

So what we are seeing is the return of antisemitism as a government policy.

WATCH | Hannukah celebrations in Ukraine's capital:

Hanukkah commemorated in Kyiv amid ongoing war

6 months ago
Duration 0:35
Ukraine's Jewish community marked the first night of Hanukkah, a holiday that has taken on additional significance amid ongoing resistance to Russia's invasion of the country.

Since you've issued your message telling Russian Jews to get out of Russia ... what have they been saying to you?

I think the best response I received is getting calls from my community members who call me from Jerusalem, from Tel Aviv, and from Dubai and from Istanbul, and telling me that they are out. And they thanked me for my advice.

What about people in Russia — Jewish people who have not left? What are they telling you? Are they as worried as you are?

Yes, even though they're not expressing it. But from what I hear from within the community, people are worried, yes. 

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv's chief rabbi has said Russians — and, specifically, Russian Jews — "could not just sit in front of their TVs and grin," that "they would have to bear responsibility for what is happening, with their tacit or non-tacit consent." What would you say, sir, to Ukrainians who believe Russians should be doing more to stop this war instead of running to save their own lives?

What can citizens do in a totalitarian country? It's quite limited. And I can tell you that 98 per cent of Russian Jewish leaders have not supported the war. They have not actively criticized the war like me, and took such a radical decision to leave the country and help the refugees. But you'll find a very few Jewish leaders who have openly supported the war.

A giant menorah shines in the night sky in Kyiv.
A rabbi stands next to a towering menorah at Independence Square in Kyiv on Dec. 18, 2022. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

What's it like for you to be outside? I know you're in Jerusalem, that you're not at home in Russia. What was it like to leave, and what is it like to watch it all continue to unfold in this way?

I think this war is a catastrophe for Russia. It is a catastrophe for the Russian Jewish community, as well as a catastrophe for Ukraine and for the Ukrainian Jewish community.

In this context, what we can do right now is just help everyone in need, whether the person is a refugee from Ukraine in Europe, in Ukraine or in Russia. These are all communities in distress. 

What do you worry might happen to those to the Russian Jews who don't heed your advice, or can't leave?

Not everyone can leave. Some people have elderly parents. Some other people cannot leave for other reasons. So I would just pray for their well-being and hope that they'll be able to connect and stay in contact with their family and their friends in the future as well.

Are you worried that their lives are at risk?

I wouldn't go that far. But if you ask me, maybe I'm worried that maybe in half a year from now, they will not be able to leave the country. Yes, I think this is a distinct possibility.

With files from Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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