(JTA) — Has Chabad “taken on an outsize importance” in the Trump-Russia scandal? That’s a claim of a recent Politico article detailing a web of connections between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and a vast network of Chabad-Lubavitch benefactors and their associates.
It’s long been known that a set of Russian oligarchs are also Chabad mega-donors, helping seal a mutual admiration society between Chabad leaders in Russia and Vladimir Putin. The Politico article, published Sunday under the simultaneously blithe and misleading headline, “The Happy-Go-Lucky Jewish Group That Connects Trump and Putin,” adds that those same oligarchs and their associates have worked with Trump, and charts more of their connections to Chabad. The article also sketches out personal links between the oligarchs and Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner — who also support Chabad.
It’s clear from the article that Chabad is a common thread between Putin allies and the Trump family and its business partners — in the sense that support for Catholic charities is a common thread among politicians attending the Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. But the article never actually shows what Chabad has to do with any of the ties between Trump and Russia.
Did Chabad influence any of the business deals or relationships between Putin’s oligarchs, their friends and Trump? The article never reports any influence. Did Trump meet any of his Russian business partners through Chabad? Not according to the article. Did Chabad play a role in Kushner’s success shepherding Trump’s presidential campaign? If it did, the article doesn’t say so.
Despite the article’s info-dump on ties between Trump, Putin and Chabad benefactors, Chabad’s connection to the story emerges as nothing more than incidental. Although the article shows that Trump and Putin allies support Chabad, it does not prove that Chabad has any meaningful role — let alone an “outsize importance” — in the Trump-Russia affair.
Yes, Trump attended a bris at Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s graveside — a bris arranged by oligarch Lev Leviev, a Chabad supporter. Yes, Jared and Ivanka now attend a Chabad synagogue. Yes, Jason Greenblatt met with Berel Lazar, the Chabad chief rabbi of Russia and a Putin ally. But Trump’s bris appearance was a result of his deal-making with Russian oligarchs — not the cause of it. And Kushner’s Chabad support far predates his connection with the Trump clan, going back at least through his college days. The Lazar meeting is important to the Trump-Russia affair, but only to the extent that Lazar is a Putin ally, not because he’s a Chabad rabbi.
The article attempts to buttress its case by spuriously calling Chabad “Trump’s kind of Jews,” betraying a lack of knowledge regarding Chabad, its goals and how it operates. The article’s description of Chabad is misinformed, inaccurate and vague. Most glaringly, the article never quotes any representative of Chabad, nor any experts on Chabad, all of whom are easily accessible.
Instead, it bases its claims on quotes from the following people: Mort Klein, the head of the U.S.-based Zionist Organization of America; Ronn Torossian, a Jewish PR guy with ties to Israel’s right; and Shmuley Boteach, the celebrity rabbi who used to belong to Chabad, broke with the movement decades ago and has since built up his public profile through TV shows and books. It’s not clear what makes any one of them an expert on Chabad or its ethos.
Here are a few of the article’s biggest errors on Chabad:
It says Chabad “lacks in numbers” and has a “small size.” The movement’s core number of hasidim might be relatively small, but in fact, its thousands of emissaries (and the supporters they attract) comprise one of the most widespread Jewish organizations in the world, one that has challenged and at times conflicted with older local Jewish communities across the globe. The fact that it’s hard to tally Chabad’s following speaks to its loose organizational structure, not its lack of supporters.
The article also repeatedly suggests that Chabad is some kind of third way between full-on Orthodox Judaism and lack of observance. This is incorrect. First of all, Chabad is a haredi Orthodox movement led by haredi Orthodox married couples that promotes Orthodox observance. It boasts large communities in New York and Israel. It is one facet of the sprawling Orthodox Jewish world, not a separate category. True, as Boteach suggests, many of the Jews who take part in Chabad religious services and activities like camp and Hebrew school are not themselves Orthodox. But the fact that the movement is open to Jews across the religious spectrum doesn’t mean it isn’t itself Orthodox.
The article then suggests, without evidence, that this “third way” is somehow Trumpian. It quotes Torossian saying, somewhat inexplicably, that “Chabad is a place that tough, strong Jews feel comfortable [in]” — but never explains why that would make Chabadniks “Trump’s kind of Jews.”
In fact, Chabad’s intended emphasis on welcoming all Jews doesn’t really convey toughness and strength. It conveys friendliness and openness. If there is one thing that Trump and Chabad have in common, it is a knack for effective branding. But Trump enterprises are very much a one-man show; Chabad emissaries, or shluchim, must build their own bases of support in whatever communities they are dispatched to, with little support from the main Chabad institutions in Brooklyn and New Jersey.
And even if Chabad represents a third way, Trump’s overarching message isn’t exactly one of compromise and non-judgmental acceptance.
So yes, it’s valuable to know that a web of Trump and Putin associates also bankroll Chabad centers. But it’s a step too far to suggest that Chabad has played a meaningful role in the Trump-Russia affair, or that there is a causal relationship between Chabad supporters and the global political or business worlds they can be found in, or to claim that the movement itself is Judaism’s answer to Trumpism.