Within the past year, at least four rabbis of large, wealthy Jewish communities in Russia have been pushed out of Russia by the authorities. The rabbis expelled recently are rabbis Kaplun and Friedman from Rostov and rabbis Yisroel Silberstein from Vladivostok and Zvi Hershcowitz from Stavropol.
The circumstances surrounding the deportations and the justifications provided by the Russian authorities for such actions are particularly concerning because they are reminiscent of the glory days of institutional anti-Semitism in the country. Rabbi Eliezer Kaplun and Rabbi Chaim Friedman returned to Russia after a vacation in Israel only to be told by airport officials that their visas had been revoked without any further explanation.
Rabbi Zvi Hershcowitz was deported last week after a local court found him guilty of failing to notify police of his change of residence. Rabbi Yisroel Silberstein was convicted in court for, among other things, praying in a synagogue.
The government contends that anti-Semitism was not a factor in revoking these rabbis' visas, but rather that the rabbis violated Russian immigration and labor laws. Russia's Immigration Ministry maintains a list of professions permissible for foreign residents. 'Rabbi' is not on this list. For this reason, immigration officials refuse to issue work visas to rabbis arriving in the country. Therefore, once rabbis begin working in Jewish communities in the country, court orders are issued against them and they are deported.
The Jewish community in response turned to the highest Russian authorities for help in the matter, but to no avail. At the beginning of the month, Russia's Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar met with the Russian president with a request that he instruct the Immigration Ministry to issue work permits to rabbis and other clergy. The president promised to help, but has yet to take action.
Not only the Jewish community suffers from these bureaucratic stipulations. A number of years ago, a few Catholic priests were expelled from Russia for what the Orthodox Church called "missionary activity." It should be noted that the Jewish community has had favorable relations with the Orthodox Church and both the previous Patriarch Alexy and the current Patriarch Kyrill have warm relations with the Jews.
Return to 'dark times'?
The Rabbinical Centre of Europe recently published a statement with regards to the expulsion o Russia's rabbis. The statements calls on the Russian government "to investigate the circumstances under which two of our colleagues recently had their visas revoked and were forced to leave the country for what appear to be bureaucratic reasons unrelated to national security or proper enforcement of the immigration rules."
The RCE added: "We appeal to the government at the national level to issue forceful instructions to the local immigration authorities all over Russia, to prevent further abuse of the law of the land for racial and discriminatory purposes.
"We remember too well the past abuse of our people at the hands of bureaucrats with personal agendas, and demand that you ensure that we do not return to those terrible dark times."