Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center is like no other Jewish Museum. First, there’s its size: according to its organizers, it’s the largest Jewish history museum in the world. Then, there are the exhibits. A Russian news site called it “Jewish Disneyland.” One exhibit in the massive, state-of-the-art institution virtually displays Jewish historical clothing on the observer and transports viewers back in time to important locations in Jewish history. But what really sets the Center apart is not its size or its contents. It’s the location, in the heart of the capital of Russia, and the warm affection it receives from the Russian president.
Vladamir Putin gave the Center a large donation—a month of his salary—and he has been personally involved with the Center for over half a decade. Israeli President Shimon Peres, who attended the opening ceremony, said of Putin and Russia, “I came here to say thank you. Thank you for a thousand years of hospitality.”
Other Jews, interviewed by the New York Times, similarly gushed with enthusiasm and praise. Russia’s chief rabbi (and a close ally of Putin’s) said Jews “have never felt as comfortable in Russia as today.” Aleksandr A. Dobrovinsky, a lawyer, who teared up when he saw an exhibit on Odessa, said, ”What the president has done, I simply tip my hat to him.”
Putin’s relationship with the international Jewish community has warmed over the years to outright affection. Russia, the Times notes, wants Jews to come back.
Putin also has a strategic interest in Israel.
Back in 2009 Russia agreed to buy Israeli surveillance drones in a deal possibly worth as much as $100 million. Russia stepped in as Israel’s defender-in-chief at the UN in October, killing a UNESCO initiative that criticized Israel. In June, on his first trip abroad since returning to office, President Putin went to Jerusalem, where he visited the Western Wall. In the wake of Putin’s visit, representatives from Gazprom announced they were setting up a subsidiary to help develop Israel’s giant gas reserves. Russia and Israel also share a number of security concerns, including Islamist regimes in the Middle East and beyond, and the rise of Turkey both politically and in the energy geopolitics of the Middle East and Europe.
It’s a relationship that’s worth watching—a burgeoning friendship that will have an important impact on regional politics. These are interesting times.