Roman Abramovich (center) visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem, February 7th, 2006.Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS
Jewish institutions have accepted hundreds of millions of dollars from Putin confidante Roman Abramovich. Will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine force a reckoning?
In the first 48 hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Roman Abramovich, the 55-year-old close confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin, boarded his personal Boeing jet in Monaco bound for Moscow. Even as he returned to Putin’s side, Abramovich, who is worth an estimated $14 billion, took some initial steps to protect his considerable assets from being seized by Western governments eager to sanction the Russian president and his inner circle: On Saturday, he announced he would be transferring control of the London-based Chelsea Football Club, which he has owned since 2003, to the trustees of its associated charitable foundation. Then, yesterday, following days of speculation in the British press, Abramovich announced that he would be selling Chelsea. In a statement, he wrote that the sale “is in the best interest of the Club, the fans, the employees, as well as the Club’s sponsors and partners.” Abramovich also noted that net proceeds from the sale would be donated “for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine.” The Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, one of several people approached as a potential owner for the club, told the Swiss newspaper Blick that Abramovich was seeking to sell Chelsea FC “quickly” along with his real estate holdings, implying that he was aiming to avoid coming sanctions.
Abramovich is perhaps the most visible of the “oligarchs” surrounding Putin, who are widely perceived as extensions of the Russian president and keepers of a vast fortune that is effectively under the Kremlin’s control. Much of this wealth was extracted from Russia’s enormous energy and mineral resources, and is now stashed in secret bank accounts in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, in empty mansions and condos from London to Manhattan to Miami, and in yachts and private jets on the French Riviera. A 2017 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that as much as 60% of Russia’s GDP is offshore—which would amount to roughly a trillion dollars outside the country. As Russian forces bombard Ukraine’s cities, the United States and its allies are mobilizing to seize the oligarchs’ overseas assets as a way to isolate and undermine Putin’s government. “Putin views the money in the hands of so-called oligarchs close to the Kremlin as really his money, which can be deployed—and often has been—to pursue interests abroad,” said Ben Judah, a British journalist and author who has written extensively about Putin’s kleptocracy. “Dismantling this network of Kremlin wealth across the West is dismantling a system to advance Putin’s interests.”
Though calls to sanction the oligarchs are escalating, they preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In January 2021, for example, the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny put Abramovich at the top of a list of eight Russian business and political elites who he thinks should be sanctioned by Western governments, calling him “one of the key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy.” (Shortly thereafter, Navalny returned to Russia and faced immediate arrest, and he remains in prison more than a year later.) Navalny’s call is now being echoed by some of the most powerful people on earth. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Joe Biden called out the oligarchs directly. “Tonight, I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who built billions of dollars off this violent regime, no more,” said Biden to bipartisan applause. “The United States Department of Justice is assembling a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of the Russian oligarchs. We are joining with European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets. We are coming for you.”
Abramovich has given half a billion dollars to Jewish charities over the past two decades, sending money linked to Putin’s kleptocratic regime circulating through Jewish institutions worldwide.
The reserved, gray-bearded Abramovich is notoriously litigious toward critics who seek to detail his close ties to Putin. Last year, he successfully sued the British journalist Catherine Belton, who claimed in her 2020 book Putin’s People that the Russian president dictated Abramovich’s major purchases, including his decision to buy Chelsea. He also extracted an apology from a British newspaper for calling him a “bag carrier” for the Russian president. Now, however, he finds himself and his relationship to the Kremlin in the international spotlight, along with the rest of Russia’s richest men. Both the British Foreign Secretary and the US State Department have indicated that they are actively considering sanctions for Abramovich and his peers. “I think he is terrified of being sanctioned,” Chris Bryant, a British Labour MP and the head of the parliamentary standards committee, told the House of Commons on Tuesday, adding that he was worried that Abramovich would sell his UK residences before the government could seize them. “My anxiety is that we’re taking too long about these things.”
What has gotten less attention is that Abramovich—who, like many of the most prominent Russian oligarchs, is Jewish—has for years been a prolific donor to Jewish philanthropies. He has given half a billion dollars to Jewish charities over the past two decades, sending money linked to Putin’s kleptocratic regime circulating through Jewish institutions worldwide. Lila Corwin Berman, a professor at Temple University who has written about the history of American Jewish philanthropy, struggled to think of a comparable single donor off the top of her head. “We know the names of people whose giving doesn’t even approach that level,” she said. “The megadonors like Adelson or Schusterman or Steinhardt roll off the tongues of people who are aware of American Jewish philanthropy, and this person’s name does not.”
The story of Abramovich’s rise from a modest Soviet childhood to the international elite demands close scrutiny. Among other things, he has profoundly influenced Jewish life on three continents, developing deep financial ties with major communal institutions. He is partly responsible for the preeminent role played by Chabad in the religious life of post-Soviet Russia, for the growth of major Jewish museums from Russia to Israel, for a raft of anti-antisemitism programming involving leading American and British Jewish organizations, and for the expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. Now, as Putin’s Russia becomes a global pariah, the Jewish world is forced to reckon with its long embrace of Abramovich, and with the moral costs of accepting his money. So far, there has been no indication that Jewish communal institutions are considering disrupting business as usual. As Andres Spokoiny, the CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, told JTA this week, “I don’t see a problem yet . . . I hope that the important work that people are doing in Jewish communities is not affected by the sanctions.”
Those who have met Abramovich tend to describe him as a non-entity. He is famously press-shy; last year, he gave his first interview in 15 years to Forbes, which asked him only softball questions about his charities and his ownership of Chelsea. Felix Sater—a Russian-born, New York-based Jewish real estate developer best known for having tried to broker a deal for Donald Trump to build a tower in Moscow, and a longtime friendly acquaintance of Abramovich’s late former mentor Boris Berezovsky—described Abramovich as “the most disciplined man you’ve ever met in your life.” “He does not eat meat. He does not drink. He does not smoke,” Sater said. “He goes to bed at a specific hour and wakes up at a specific hour. The man is a machine, and he keeps his thoughts and his mouth closed.” He emphasized Abramovich’s taciturnity by recounting his behavior at one of the several star-studded New Year’s bashes that the billionaire hosted in St. Barts in the early 2010s: “He sat in the corner and didn’t speak to anyone for the entire party.”
Some basic facts about Abramovich have been established by his biographers, Dominic Midgley and Chris Hutchins. The future billionaire was born in Saratov in 1966 to Jewish parents who traced their roots to Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. Before he turned three, both were dead—his mother, Irina, of complications from a back-alley abortion; his father, Arkady, in a construction accident—and the young orphan was taken to the frigid town of Ukhta, nearly 800 miles northeast of Moscow, to be raised by his uncle Leib, who ran the supplies department for the local timber enterprise and gave Abramovich early exposure to the informal commercial economy tolerated during the later decades of Communist rule. In 1986, the 20-year-old Abramovich began dabbling in street vending, and by 1988 he had founded a doll-making company, taking advantage of the liberalized business climate created under Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of perestroika, which sought to reform the ailing Soviet economy. A savvy businessman by all accounts, Abramovich began diversifying almost immediately, and within seven tumultuous years, he went from selling rubber ducks to Soviet children to selling oil and gas on international markets.
Certain Soviet Jews of Abramovich’s generation found themselves at the forefront of an emerging market economy. Concentrated in white collar professions but systematically excluded from desirable posts and from the top ranks of the Communist Party, they were unusually prepared—and, perhaps, motivated—to find legal and semi-legal points of entry into the tightly-regulated commerce between the Soviet Union and the West. This helps explain why, as the historian Yuri Slezkine writes in The Jewish Century, six of the seven top oligarchs of 1990s Russia (Petr Aven, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Fridman, Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Alexander Smolensky) were ethnic Jews.
Abramovich with his mentor Boris Berezovsky in the hallway of Russia’s lower house of parliament in 2000.
The Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, and Russia’s new president Boris Yeltsin soon initiated the firesale privatization of state-controlled industries at the urging of Washington and the IMF—a reckless transition from a command economy to a capitalist one that drove millions of Russians into poverty. It was precisely Russia’s proto-capitalists who stood ready to profit, including Berezovsky and Abramovich, who met on Aven’s yacht in 1995. The orderly, introverted Abramovich quickly became a protege to the gregarious, hard-partying Berezovsky, who was 20 years his senior. That same year, the Yeltsin administration implemented its infamous loans-for-shares program, selling off key state industries in rigged auctions to Russia’s new business elite for a fraction of their real value in order to stabilize the state’s finances in the short term. Berezovsky and Abramovich gained ownership stakes in Sibneft, one of the world’s largest energy companies, and became instant billionaires.
Russia’s new plutocrats wasted no time translating their wealth into political power. In 1996, the handful of leading oligarchs pooled their financial resources—and directed their media companies’ coverage—to reelect the deeply unpopular Yeltsin over his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, whose platform of re-nationalizing industries terrified both the Russian and Western business classes. At a meeting a few months after Yeltsin’s victory, the oligarchs discussed the dangers of acting as power brokers. “Individually, some of them had brushed up against anti-Semitism in earlier years, but now, as a group, they began to fret about the possibility of a public reaction to the ‘Jewish bankers,’” writes David E. Hoffman in his authoritative 2002 book, The Oligarchs. Fearing that it was unsustainable for a small group of mostly Jewish billionaires to prop up an ailing, visibly alcoholic president—especially after the ruble collapsed in 1998, dragging down a generation’s living standards and initiating a hunt for scapegoats—Berezovsky spearheaded an effort the following year to replace Yeltsin with a young, healthy, disciplined, and then-obscure former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. It was a decision he would come to regret.
During his first year in office, the new president moved aggressively against any independent power base in Russia, weaponizing the intelligence services in which he had spent his career against the country’s nouveau riche. The oligarchs’ standing was revealed to be tenuous and theoretical; wealth so easily acquired could just as easily be taken away. In 2001, Putin hounded Berezovsky and Gusinsky—whose TV networks had criticized the president’s mishandling of a naval disaster—with criminal indictments for tax fraud, forcing them to sell their media and energy holdings at a fraction of their true cost. As a result, Abramovich, who had never challenged Putin, acquired control of Sibneft, while Berezovsky fled to the United Kingdom and Gusinsky departed for Spain and then Israel. Abramovich again came out ahead in 2003, when the oligarch Khodorkovsky was sent to a Siberian prison on tax charges after criticizing Putin for corruption, leaving his assets in the energy sector to be redistributed among those on good terms with the president.
The oligarchs’ standing was revealed to be tenuous and theoretical; wealth so easily acquired could just as easily be taken away.
“I don’t think there is a percent of independence in Abramovich,” said Roman Borisovich, a Luxembourg-based Russian banker turned anti-corruption activist who once encountered Abramovich through Berezovsky in the 1990s. “For Abramovich to stay alive, he had to turn against his master [Berezovsky], which is what he did, and he has served Putin handsomely ever since.” The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, who has written a number of books about post-Soviet Russia, said that at this point even the word “oligarch” “betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how power in Russia operates.” Whereas in the Yeltsin era, the term identified a system dominated by truly independent tycoons, “Putin’s top priority when he came to power was to break that system, replacing it with a system of concentrated power in which men who are inaccurately referred to as oligarchs now have only as much access to wealth as Putin allows them to have,” Gessen said.
No one exemplified that new system better than Abramovich, who Forbes declared the richest person in Russia in 2005—although by that point his presence in Russia had become nominal. Even as he built up his credibility with Putin, he joined many of his fellow oligarchs in stashing his billions in Western financial institutions, which proved eager to assist. “Elites in the post-Soviet space are constantly looking to move their assets and wealth into rule-of-law jurisdictions, which generally means Western countries like the US or UK,” said Casey Michel, the author of American Kleptocracy, a recent book about international money laundering. Over two decades, Abramovich moved at least £200 million of his fortune into residential property in the UK, including a flat in the tony London neighborhood of Knightsbridge, a mansion in West Sussex, and a residence in the Channel Island tax haven of Jersey. In 2003, he also bought Chelsea FC, then a straggler in British football. The club’s turnaround under his ownership made him a folk hero to its fans, securing him waves of positive coverage in the British press. Chelsea also served as his entryway into elite society, allowing him to attend matches beside British and Saudi royals and leaders of the global business class.
But Abramovich’s relationship to the Kremlin followed him to the UK. In 2008, Berezovsky sued his former protege over his confiscated Sibneft shares; then, in 2012, seven months after a judge rejected all of his claims, Berezovsky died in his London home in an apparent suicide. Some former associates believe he might have been murdered. In 2017, BuzzFeed reported that US spy agencies suspect Russian involvement in as many as 14 mysterious deaths in Britain over the previous decade, including Berezovsky’s. In the wake of the 2018 poisoning of the defected double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, British intelligence services became increasingly wary of wealthy expats with close ties to the Kremlin. Diplomatic strain stymied Abramovich’s effort to acquire a Tier 1 British visa, which would have enabled him to stay in the country for 40 months. “There’s an increasing concern about the nature of dirty money in the UK, and a lot of that comes out of Russia,” Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP who serves as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British Parliament, told me last November. “It’s not just London, sadly—the whole world has been corrupted.” (Some observers have pointed out that corruption was hardly a vice imported from Russia: “No one forced the British or American real estate industries to toss their doors open to as much illicit wealth as they could find, or the state of Delaware to craft the world’s greatest anonymous shell company services,” said Michel. “Western policymakers crafted all of the policies that these oligarchs are now taking advantage of.”)
Along with the UK, Abramovich also safeguarded a significant part of his fortune in the US, especially during his third marriage to the Russian American socialite and fashion designer Dasha Zhukova. Even after their 2018 divorce, Abramovich began the process of converting three adjacent townhouses on Manhattan’s Upper East Side into what will eventually become the largest home in the city, an “urban castle” valued at $180 million—making him one of the many wealthy Russians sheltering assets in New York’s booming and conveniently opaque real estate sector. (The mansion is intended for Zhukova and their two young children; Abramovich also has five children from his second marriage based primarily in the UK.) He also owns at least two homes in Aspen, Colorado, a gathering place of the global elite.
Abramovich’s yacht Eclipse, the world’s second largest, moored near Cavtat, Croatia.
Roman Abramovich’s Fyning Hall Estate, West Sussex, England.
If US markets have welcomed Abramovich’s investments, the US government has cast a skeptical eye on Abramovich himself. Following Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which includes a list of 96 Russian oligarchs believed to have close ties to the Kremlin and seen as potential targets for financial penalties. With the invasion of Ukraine, it’s widely understood that the US government is once again considering sanctions against Abramovich and several other names on the list, especially if Russia’s war on Ukraine continues. The measures under consideration could severely impact Russia’s top plutocrats; British Labour and Tory MPs and US lawmakers both left and right have variously proposed seizing homes, jets, and yachts, freezing bank accounts, and instituting travel bans, both to punish the actual owners of these assets and to pressure them to turn against Putin’s government. In short, the oligarchs are now credibly threatened with exile from the West. Countries like France and Germany have already begun confiscating yachts owned by select Russian officials. And although the UK is still struggling to come up with a legal basis for following suit, leading politicians like Labour Leader Keir Starmer are urging direct sanctions against Abramovich. “Abramovich’s reputation has finally collapsed, along with the other supposedly apolitical oligarchs,” Michel said four days after Russia invaded Ukraine. “There’s no recovery from this. This is a titanic shift in terms of how these oligarchs can operate.”
But even as the US and European governments contemplate taking a tougher approach to Abramovich, Israel has been more hesitant to hold him to account. So far, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been measured in his comments on the invasion; he avoided mentioning Russia directly in a joint statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urging an end to “bloodshed.” He has also refrained from commenting on Russian airstrikes near the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv. Israel’s circumspection is partly motivated by Middle Eastern geopolitics, as Russia coordinates with Israel on periodic strikes on Hezbollah in Syria—but it is likely also influenced by the extensive financial and personal connections between Israelis and Russians, as exemplified by Abramovich.
In 2018, Abramovich acquired Israeli citizenship through the law of return, immediately becoming the second-wealthiest Israeli, behind Miriam Adelson. As a new Israeli citizen, he joined several dozen Russian Jewish oligarchs who have sought citizenship or residency in the Jewish state—a group that includes Fridman, Gusinsky, and the late Berezovsky. Since 2015, Abramovich has owned and sometimes lived in the 19th-century Varsano hotel in Tel Aviv’s trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood, and in 2020 he purchased a mansion in Herzliya for $65 million—the most expensive real estate deal in the country’s history. Israel has proved an ideal base of operations from which to continue his activities in Britain while avoiding visa issues: As an Israeli passport holder, Abramovich is eligible to visit the UK for six months at a time and is exempt from paying taxes in Israel on his overseas income for the first decade of his residency.
Given his increasingly precarious geopolitical position, Jewishness has become Abramovich’s identity of last resort—and Jewish philanthropic giving has provided him with an air of legitimacy not only in Israel but throughout the Jewish world. Abramovich and his fellow oligarchs “need to spend some money to launder their reputations,” said Borisovich, the anti-corruption activist. “They cannot be seen as Putin’s agents of influence; they need to be seen as independent businessmen. So if they can exploit Jewish philanthropy or give money to Oxford or the Tate Gallery, that’s the cost of doing business.”
Given his increasingly precarious geopolitical position, Jewishness has become Abramovich’s identity of last resort—and Jewish philanthropic giving has provided him with an air of legitimacy not only in Israel but throughout the Jewish world.
Abramovich began his career as a Jewish philanthropist in Russia itself. The Soviet Union of his youth was officially atheist, but Russia’s 1993 constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, setting off a struggle between the Jewish oligarchs to decide the leading Jewish denomination in the country. (Today, most Russian Jews remain secular; Abramovich’s own level of observance is difficult to define.) Gusinsky co-founded the relatively liberal Russian Jewish Congress (RJC), while Berezovsky supported Chabad and its chief rabbi in Russia, Berel Lazar. Then aligned with Berezovsky, Abramovich and his friend Lev Leviev became the main funders of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR), a group headed by Lazar that quickly edged out the RJC to become the country’s strongest Jewish organization. In 2018, FJCR’s president, Rabbi Alexander Boroda, credited Abramovich with 80% of the development of Jewish life in Russia, adding, “He never talks about it, but I want to, because people don’t understand who the source of it is—and it is him. We have more than 160 communities in all of Russia and Roman supports them all.”
Some have suggested that even this use of Abramovich’s fortune was undertaken at Putin’s behest. “When Putin came to power, he had to get rid of Gusinsky, but he was very concerned not to be called an antisemite,” said a researcher of Russian money in Jewish institutions, who requested anonymity out of concern for his safety and professional relationships. “So he decided to set up alternative Jewish organizations to the RJC, and Abramovich and Leviev were the two main people who helped him do that.” Some Jewish leaders regard FJCR as having staged “hostile takeovers” of Jewish communities in the major cities of Samara and Omsk. According to The Wall Street Journal, Omsk’s main synagogue was home to a Reform congregation until Abramovich met with the governor and the local Jewish community leaders in 2001, offering a huge boost in funding to the synagogue if it would switch allegiance to the FJCR—which it did. A 2017 article in Politico, which identified Abramovich and Leviev as “Chabad’s biggest patrons worldwide,” also referred to Lazar as “Putin’s rabbi.” Lazar has often run interference for the Russian president—for instance, by defending his initial crackdown on oligarchs like Gusinsky as not motivated by antisemitism, or by praising Russia as safe for Jews under his governance. (The researcher noted that Putin has also cultivated prominent loyalists in other Russian religious communities, including the Orthodox Church and Islam.) Meanwhile, Abramovich has continued to patronize Chabad’s growth both in Russia and around the world. He reportedly donated $5 million to the Chabad-affiliated Marina Roscha Synagogue and Jewish Community Center, Moscow’s largest synagogue, dedicated in 2001. In 2014, he attended the grand opening of an $18 million Chabad “mega Jewish center” in Aspen, which has “Dasha and Roman Abramovich” listed as donors on the wall of its entrance.
In addition to his support for Chabad, Abramovich also significantly funded the construction of the $50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, which opened in 2012 (and to which Putin pledged to donate a month of his presidential salary). In a 2016 article in The Forward, the scholar Olga Gershenson suggested that the museum’s narrative bordered on propaganda, framing Jews as “a model Russian minority” and “glorifying and mourning . . . without raising more controversial and relevant questions that would require the viewer to come to terms with a nation’s difficult past.” The anonymous researcher called the museum “a black hole of confusing information and narratives” that support Putin’s official account of Russian history. “It doesn’t concentrate on grief or on solemn commemoration of the Holocaust,” he said. “It concentrates on the Soviet victory over the Nazis, and then it ends by saying that Jews in Putin’s Russia are all good and content.”
Beyond Russia, Abramovich’s largesse also extends to leading Jewish institutions in the US and the UK. In 2019 the Anti-Defamation League put out a press release publicizing an exhibition match between Chelsea FC and the US-based New England Revolution to celebrate Chelsea’s “Say No to Antisemitism” campaign, and announcing that Abramovich and the Kraft family, which owns the Revolution, would each pledge $1 million to support the ADL and other Jewish institutions. ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt lavishly praised the campaign. “We cannot fight hate without willing partners,” said Greenblatt. “That’s why we are so fortunate to have two world class teams getting together to both raise money and awareness of the problem of anti-Semitism in sports and broader society and to take a public stand against hate in all forms.” Ronald Lauder, the head of the World Jewish Congress and a major donor to Donald Trump, personally attended a Chelsea match with Abramovich in support of the same campaign. “Say No to Antisemitism” has brought together Chelsea players and management with many top Jewish groups; the currents heads of the ADL, the WJC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Holocaust Educational Trust, among others, are all listed on its steering committee. The campaign is at least in part intended to address the antisemitism of some Chelsea fans, who have been known to shout “Yid!” and hiss in imitation of gas chambers when taunting fans of the rival club Tottenham, which has a historically Jewish fan base that proudly refers to itself as “the Yid Army.” Last November, Israeli President Isaac Herzog described the campaign as “a shining example of how sports can be a force for good and tolerance.”
When asked whether they remain affiliated with Abramovich—both before the invasion of Ukraine, when the US government had already identified the oligarch as a potential target for sanctions, and after the beginning of Russia’s war—neither WJC nor the Conference of Presidents responded. The ADL initially replied on February 1st with a statement that it “proudly supports the ‘Say No To Antisemitism’ campaign and the wide range of activities by Chelsea FC to tackle antisemitism globally,” and confirmed on February 28th, four days into the invasion, that its statement still stood.
Per a report in the Portuguese media outlet NiT, Abramovich is also one of the primary benefactors of a Holocaust museum that opened in Porto last May. As of last year, Abramovich is a newly minted citizen of Portugal (and by extension, the European Union), which offers such recognition to anyone who can prove Sephardic ancestry dating back before the Portuguese expulsion of Jews in 1496. According to the Portuguese daily Público, the sole publicly available evidence for Abramovich’s previously unmentioned Sephardic heritage can be found on his Wikipedia page, which was edited 18 times between June and November 2021 by the curator of the very same Holocaust museum in Porto. Reached by email, Berel Rosenberg, a representative of the museum, denied that Abramovich had given the Porto Jewish community any money besides a €250 fee for Sephardic certification; regarding reports to the contrary, he alleged that “lies were published by antisemites and corrupt journalists.” However, Porto’s Jewish community does acknowledge that Abramovich has donated money to projects honoring the legacy of Portuguese Sephardic Jews in Hamburg, and he has been identified as an honorary member of Chabad Portugal and B’nai B’rith International Portugal due to his philanthropic activities in the country.
In Israel, Abramovich has made a $30 million donation for a nanotechnology research center at Tel Aviv University; funded a football-focused “leadership training program” for Arab and Jewish children; and supported KKL-JNF’s tree-planting campaign in the southern Negev, which is dedicated to Lithuanian victims of the Holocaust—and which has drawn opposition from local Bedouin communities who view it as a land grab. (Neither Tel Aviv University nor KKL-JNF responded to requests for comment.) Abramovich has been happy to attach his name to such causes; by contrast, he has kept his support for Israeli settlements well-hidden. A 2020 investigation by BBC Arabic revealed that Abramovich has used front companies registered in the British Virgin Islands to donate more than $100 million to a right-wing Israeli organization called the Ir David Foundation, commonly known as Elad, which has worked since the 1980s to move Jewish settlers into occupied East Jerusalem. Elad also controls an archeological park and major tourist site called City of David, which it has leveraged in its efforts to “Judaize” the area, including by seizing Palestinian homes in the surrounding neighborhood of Silwan and digging under some to make them uninhabitable. Abramovich was responsible for nearly half the donations Elad received between 2005 and 2018, the last year for which records are available, making him by far its largest funder. (Elad did not respond to requests for comment.)
“In order for settlers to take over Palestinian homes, they need a lot of money, both to take advantage of poor Palestinians for the actual purchases, and then for the long and expensive legal struggle that follows, and that can bankrupt Palestinian families. The money is crucial.”
“In order for settlers to take over Palestinian homes, they need a lot of money,” said Hagit Ofran, co-director of the Settlement Watch project at the Israeli organization Peace Now, “both to take advantage of poor Palestinians for the actual purchases, and then for the long and expensive legal struggle that follows, and that can bankrupt Palestinian families. The money is crucial.” Of Abramovich’s support for Elad, she added, “That’s a lot from one source; I assume that if you give such a big donation, you know what it is for.”
As geopolitical tensions mounted last month, Abramovich seemed to step up his giving. Just two days before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, it was reported that Abramovich is donating tens of millions of dollars to Yad Vashem, the global Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem. Perhaps not coincidentally, in a letter sent to the US ambassador to Israel in early February and made public after the invasion, Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan joined the heads of multiple Israeli charitable organizations in urging the US not to sanction Abramovich. The letter was also signed by Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau and representatives of Sheba Medical Center, Tel Aviv University, and Elad. In a column for Haaretz, Israeli journalist Noa Landau noted that organizations like Yad Vashem have become increasingly dependent on private donations, which may explain why Dayan “finds himself lobbying on behalf of the donor Abramovich in a situation Yad Vashem should not be involved in under any circumstances.” (Yad Vashem did not reply to a request for comment.)
Ofran suggested that Abramovich likely made the most recent donation “in order to buy the support of Yad Vashem, which is supposed to represent the Jewish remembrance of the Holocaust.” “I think it’s a cynical donation, and that Yad Vashem shouldn’t have taken it,” she said. “And even once they took it, they shouldn’t have written this letter.”
The international response to the war in Ukraine has put immediate pressure on Russia’s oligarchs; two of the most prominent, Oleg Deripaska and Mikhail Fridman, were already calling for peace negotiations just three days after the invasion. (Fridman and Deripaska are also major Jewish philanthropists, as are other Russian oligarchs including Petr Aven, Yuri Milner, and Viktor Vekselberg. All of them now face global scrutiny.) Abramovich himself accepted an invitation to help broker peace talks on the Belarusian border with Ukraine a day later, reportedly at the request of the Ukrainian government via Jewish community ties. Even before he announced he would be setting up a charity to help victims in Ukraine, members of Abramovich’s family were quick to distance themselves from the war: A contemporary art museum in Moscow co-founded by Abramovich and Zhukova has announced that it will halt all new exhibitions in protest of the war. Abramovich’s 27-year-old daughter Sofia, who lives in London, posted a message on her popular Instagram account that read, “The biggest and most successful lie of the Kremlin’s propaganda is that most Russians stand with Putin.”
But in spite of some of these oligarchs’ belated efforts to rein in the Russian president, there is no getting around the fact that Abramovich and others have spent more than two decades loyally serving and profiting off Putin’s corrupt and violent regime—one that has been accused of murdering and jailing journalists and political dissidents and of committing war crimes from Chechnya to Syria. And for much of that time, Jewish institutions worldwide have been more than happy to take money from Abramovich and his peers. Even alongside statements of solidarity with Ukraine—for instance, an email sent on Wednesday by the Conference of Presidents, which described the situation in Ukraine as a crisis but refrained from directly condemning Russia—the response from Yad Vashem, Tel Aviv University, and other Israeli organizations, as well as the silence from many Jewish institutions on the oligarchs, suggests that longstanding philanthropic ties may affect the Jewish communal world’s willingness to hold Russia accountable for its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“The view of much of Jewish philanthropic leadership has been the bottom line: If the purposes for which the philanthropy is given are positive, humane, and holy, then to sit and analyze whether the donor was exploitive or not would be hugely diverting, amazingly complicated, and divisive.”
Reached by phone, John Ruskay, the executive vice president emeritus of UJA-Federation of New York, was unambiguous in his criticisms of Russia’s invasion. “All occupations are disasters, and watching invasions is obviously appalling,” he said. But when asked whether Jewish organizations that have accepted money from oligarchs like Abramovich have an obligation to cut ties, Ruskay was hesitant. “I think the view of much of Jewish philanthropic leadership, right and left, conservative and liberal, has been the bottom line: If the purposes for which the philanthropy is given are positive, humane, holy, and seen to strengthen both the Jewish community and the whole of society, then to sit and analyze whether the donor was exploitive or not, and whether this was kosher or not, would be hugely diverting, amazingly complicated, and divisive.” He brought up other kinds of controversial donations, such as money made by insider trading or proffered by pharmaceutical companies, arguing that it was ultimately futile to question the morality of accepting such funds: “Should one begin to assess such matters, there would be no end.”
“Would it be preferable for the funds of the oligarchs, however obtained, to remain in their bank accounts,” he asked rhetorically, “or to be made available to Yad Vashem, the ADL, and many other nonprofits?”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, acknowledged the difficulty of making ethical calls about donors, but argued that the attempt is still necessary. “In philanthropy, nearly all money is tainted, either because it was acquired by exploiting workers, by harming the environment, by selling harmful products, or by taking advantage of systems that benefit the wealthy to the detriment of others. That said, we can’t throw up our hands and say that we can either take no money or all money; there have to be red lines,” she said. (Jacobs is a member of the Jewish Currents advisory board.) Berman, the scholar of Jewish philanthropy, agrees. “It is tempting to say all money is fungible, so where it came from does not or cannot matter,” she said. “But no matter how much we might want to launder the money, wash it clean of its past and its connections to systems of power, the very act of doing so is an erasure, an act of historical revisionism. Even worse, it can actually participate in bolstering harmful systems of power, often by deterring institutions reliant on that money from holding a person or system to account.”
Jacobs says Jewish communal organizations should have a red line around money from “close associates of Putin” as he carries out a war that could lead to “mass death and displacement, and that could have disastrous consequences for democracy and the world order. Even if the money is supporting worthy causes, it also serves to prop up the image of these oligarchs, to offer them glory and honor, and to cleanse them from their association with the Putin government.” But as Putin’s war continues to escalate, it remains to be seen where the Jewish world will draw its line.