Politico's attempt to link Trump and Putin via Chabad movement falls as flat as matzah

Is there a newspaper or television station out there that hasn't been contacted by a representative of the Hasidic Jewish organization Chabad pitching a story about local kids helping to bake matzah dough in the days leading up to Passover?

Ah, p.r. manna -- quickie content that beats having to actually ferret out yet another obligatory pre-Passover holiday feature. And what cute visuals; eager kids working alongside cheerful young men sporting classic rabbinic beards dusted with flour.

But Chabad, also known as Chabad-Lubavitcher, is about way more than quickie Passover stories. In case you're not aware of this, let it be said that Chabad is one of the planet's most powerful and far-reaching Jewish religious organizations.

Like all global religious players, it's deeply involved in political gamesmanship, which it plays with considerable skill. Chabad excels at swimming with political sharks of all sorts -- from Nepal to Nigeria, from Ukraine to Uruguay, from Hawaii to Capitol Hill and the White House.

Its supporters lavish donations and praise -- Chabad was key to the survival of traditional Jewish religious practice during the Soviet Union's darkest days. Its critics attack it for a willingness to work with some pretty vile authoritarian governments, its hyper-competitive and often dismissive stance toward other Jewish religious organizations and, yes, its aggressive promulgation of ultra-Orthodox religious practice in a liberal age.

An example of this criticism is a recent piece published by Politico that sought to link American President Donald Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Chabad cast as some shady go between.

I'll of course say more about this lengthy story, including whether it was blatantly anti-Semitic, as some have alleged. But I think I should first disclose that over the decades I've had a series of direct connections with Chabad.

Perhaps most importantly, as a freelancer in the late 1980s I produced various written materials for Chabad's West Coast headquarters in Los Angeles. I've also attended numerous Chabad synagogues in the U.S., as well as in Latin America and Europe, and I've had close friendships with several Chabadniks (as adherents are colloquially known).

All that, however, is past tense. 

Now back to the Politico piece.

The story, headlined "The Happy-Go-Lucky Jewish Group that Connects Trump and Putin," takes a kitchen-sink approach that's, frankly, hard to follow.

It may be a great piece of web research, but no smoking gun proving anything nefarious is evident, in my opinion.

The main connectors it provides to bolster its theory are:

* Over the decades, Trump has had many business connections with super-wealthy Chabad supporters, many of them Russian oligarchs.

* Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, who are Orthodox Jews (she's a convert, of course) also have history with Chabad and currently attend a Chabad synagogue in Washington.

* Chabad's Moscow leadership is close to Putin, a political arrangement that's allowed Chabad to gain official recognition as a representative for Russia's Jews, who still officially number close to 200,000. (There are probably many more who keep their Jewishness on the down low out of fear of anti-Semitism.)

All interesting, but nothing definitive.

The story also suffers from numerous reporting and editing lapses, some big and some small.

For starters, no official Chabad organizational spokesperson is quoted. That's a big one. References to the Reform Jewish moment are all lowercased ("reform") -- an error I frequently see made by mainstream and non-Jewish media. We'll call that a small one.

The story's headline, with its reference to "happy-go-lucky," itself displays what appears to be a profound ignorance of the subject matter.

The only explanation for it's use is a quote about Chabadniks liking to dance at weddings (in keeping with Orthodox Jewish tradition, men and women dance separately, divided by a large partition). I can personally attest to the dancing. I've been to large Chabad weddings and they're energy-packed and great fun, helped along as they are by an abundance of food and alcohol.

But the quote also hints at an utter ignorance of Chabad's -- and the larger Hasidic movement of which it is a part -- origins as a 19th-Century revolt by largely uneducated peasants rooted in mysticism and joyful emotionalism against the severe intellectual elitism that then dominated European Judaism.

The piece contains many more such slip ups, but I think I've made my point. If you think I haven't, read the full story. Read it anyway to reach your own conclusion.

Reaction to the article in the American Jewish and Israeli press has been spotty, but negative.

Here's some of what an Israel-based correspondent for JTA, the international Jewish wire service, wrote.

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.

Finally, is the Politico article anti-Semitic, as argued by a writer for The Federalist, a reporter who also writes for the American Jewish print and online newspaper The Forward?

I don't think so. I'd say that, despite the failed casting of a Jewish religious organization as somehow engaged in underhanded international intrigue, the article is far more about further tarring Trump than it is Chabad.

I'm not one to defend Trump on his still murky dealings with Russia. In truth, I'm not one to defend Trump on any score and I believe that if the full truth on his connections with Russia ever emerges he'll end up looking pretty bad.

But not because of this highly speculative Politico story.

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