Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Russia Rabbi Confident in Putin
November 14, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) - The chief rabbi of Russia flew home Wednesday convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to fight anti-Semitism and ``eradicate it completely.''

Rabbi Berel Lazar led a delegation of a half-dozen Russian and American Jews that met with Putin Tuesday night at the Russian Embassy.

``The meeting proved to me the commitment of President Putin for the well-being of Russian Jewry, his commitment to fighting anti-Semitism in any form in Russia and letting Russian Jews travel freely and retain their dual citizenship,'' Lazar said in a telephone interview from his airplane.

Anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in Russian history, as it is in many European countries. It was rampant both under the czars and the Soviet Communists.

Even after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, synagogues were burned and marked with graffiti.

Since Putin took office at the end of 1999 arrests in anti-Semitic incidents became more frequent and those arrested were prosecuted, Lazar said.

But, he said, ``The judicial system doesn't work so well yet.''

Before the Jewish New Year in September, Putin sent a letter to the Jewish community promising to stamp out anti-Semitism.

There are about 1 million Jews in Russia, the rabbi said, even after massive emigration spurred by Jackson-Vanik legislation that required the Soviet Union to issue exit permits or forfeit trading privileges.

President Bush informed Putin at their White House talks Tuesday that the administration would ask Congress to exempt Russia from the legislation - a move that Lazar said has his support.

``Jewish identity is our biggest problem,'' the rabbi said. ``Seventy percent of Jews haven't come forward to identify as Jews. They used to be ashamed of being Jewish.''

But now, Lazar said, ``there is a pride in being Jewish,'' although it has not reached Jewish communities in remote areas of Russia.

Synagogues are being returned to Jewish control and religious schools are being built.

Asked if he encouraged Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel, the United States or elsewhere, or to remain in Russia with a Jewish identity, the rabbi said he leaves it up to them to make that personal decision.

Meanwhile, David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, called Bush's decision to seek a lifting of Jackson-Vanik's application to Russia ``a momentous event.''

He said 1.5 million Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union under the pressure of the legislation. ``Strengthening the U.S.-Russian alliance at this time requires new initiatives,'' Harris said in a statement.

And yet, he said, ``We, together with our colleagues in other Jewish agencies, shall continue to monitor the situation of Russia's large Jewish community, which has developed rapidly over the past decade.''

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