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September 17, 2019 6:20 am

Why Is Keren Hayesod Honoring Vladimir Putin?

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

Opinion

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not pictured) after their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia January 23, 2019. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin via Reuters.

Keren Hayesod, known throughout the world as the United Israel Appeal, is a fundraising arm of the Zionist movement, established in 1920 to raise money and distribute it to facilitate the return of the Jewish people to their homeland. Today, it is one of Israel’s three national institutions (along with the government and Jewish Agency), and raises money for the state through branches of the organization in 45 countries. It has done much good over the last century — which begs the question of why it’s about to make a significant moral blunder.

On September 17, the very same day that Israelis will be choosing their new prime minister, Keren Hayesod will be bringing the world’s foremost Jewish philanthropists to meet the man who has kept Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power as he has repeatedly gassed innocent Arab children.

Keren Hayesod has organized a trip for its largest donors to visit Russia, where the featured speaker will be Vladimir Putin. Yes, that Putin. The Former KGB colonel who also directed the Federal Security Service (the KGB’s domestic successor). The meeting would be questionable enough if Putin only assassinated his political rivals, imprisoned his critics, and dismantled Russian democracy in its embryonic stage. It would be questionable enough if Putin only invaded Crimea and had his opponents poisoned. But most relevant to Jews and their values is the fact that Putin aids Syrian forces in genocide, and protects the nuclear ambitions of Iran.

What could possibly have possessed the world’s most important Jewish charity to commit this error?

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Just last week, we learned that Russia is preventing the International Atomic Energy Agency from inspecting the warehouse in Tehran which Israel says was used by the Iranians to store nuclear equipment and material. This was, of course, in violation of the catastrophic deal that president Barack Obama signed to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb.

We have subsequently learned that Iran has been cheating on the deal from day one. And who is protecting Iran? Putin, who does not want to allow proof of Iran’s deception to become public and threaten the agreement he signed. Furthermore, Russia has sold Iran its most advanced anti-aircraft system to protect its nuclear facilities, and also built Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which is not covered by the nuclear agreement. If Israel one day feels that it has no choice but to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to protect its citizenry from annihilation, the main obstacle to a successful operation will be Vladimir Putin’s missile defense system, which he sold to Iran.

Why would Keren Hayesod’s leaders want to stand next to the dictator who is providing cover for Iran to pursue its genocidal objectives?

I am not naïve. When it comes to political leaders, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, I understand their need to engage Putin. Political leaders must meet with the Russian head of state to discuss political, economic, and strategic interests. Netanyahu must engage Putin so as to curb Iran and Syria’s hegemony in the Middle East and protect the Jewish state. I even understand — though I remain somewhat troubled by — Chabad of Russia’s close relationship with Putin, insofar as they must operate within Russia for the sake of the Jewish community, and Putin, to his credit, has offered protection to that community. I recognize that in a country with a long history of brutalizing Jews, this is no small thing. But even so, the rest of Putin’s record cannot be in any way legitimized by being honored by one of the Jewish people’s most important global charities.

What would Keren Hayesod’s global network of contributors think of their money being used to honor the most important ally of Iran? What possible good can come from Keren Hayesod paying homage to the man enabling the wholesale slaughter of innocent Arabs and Muslims in Syria? And how will this look to the rest of the world? Does it benefit Jewish values to host Putin as the main speaker at the Keren Hayesod biannual meeting when he promised the US he had overseen the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, only for poison gas to murder thousands of Islamic children?

After the Holocaust, it is we Jews who must be the loudest voices against innocent men, women, and children being gassed to death. And the honor being bestowed on Putin by a global Jewish charity is unacceptable.

Putin will no doubt use the meeting for propaganda purposes. Engaging with Keren Hayesod is just another way to legitimize his authoritarian rule. It is an unfortunate example of Jews allowing themselves to be used as tools in the service of a tyrant.

What sort of morality lesson is it to seek an audience with someone whom the entire world looks upon as a cold-blooded killer? Yes, Putin is an extremely powerful man. But the Jews came into the world to speak truth to power and stand up to oppression, as Moses did with Pharaoh, not to kowtow to power.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to rub elbows with the high and mighty is one thing when they are representatives of a democracy, such as members of the American executive and legislative branches, or leaders from the European Union. But seeking a photo op with a man who has allowed poison gas to be used against God’s children is unspeakable.

This meeting is one of the most exclusive in the Jewish world, occurring every two years, with invitations given only to the world’s most important Jewish donors. Keren Hayesod does its prestigious philanthropists a disservice by putting them in this compromising position.

The Jewish community stands for justice, righteousness, and the infinite value of life. Those who trample on those high ideals should not be honorees at our most prestigious events.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the author of Judaism for Everyone and Renewal: The Seven Vital Values of the Jewish Faith. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.

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