JERUSALEM, Sept. 16 (JTA) — Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi, was expounding on a sacred text Sept. 11 at a small Lubavitch synagogue near the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
As he was about to urge his listeners to support Israel, someone with a mobile phone rushed into the room with news of the terrorist attack in New York City.
From that moment, what was to have been a solidarity mission of community leaders from the former Soviet Union, brought to Israel by the Lubavitch-led Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, instead became a mission of solidarity with the United States.
Half an hour later, the Russian Jews were praying at the Western Wall for their relatives and friends in New York.
The delegation’s visit had been planned to coincide with a 500-person solidarity mission from United Jewish Communities.
UJC members from 25 U.S. communities had arrived at a Jerusalem hotel expecting to lend psychological and financial support to the embattled Israelis, only to find themselves receiving condolences after the terror attacks.
“Moscow now seems to be the most secure place,” said Valery Engel, a Moscow Jewish executive, standing in scorching afternoon sun on a Tel Aviv quay near a modest memorial to 21 victims — mostly Russian immigrants — of a June 1 suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium disco.
The monument was erected not on the spot of the June bombing but near the highway curb, where the terrorist got out of a taxi and prepared to walk the 100 yards toward his victims, mainly teen-aged girls lining up to enter the disco.
A short commemoration brought the Russian delegation together with a large UJC group from Florida led by Sydney Portnoy, who stressed “the powerful and ironic circumstances” of the ceremony the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
After the 21 candles were lit, Leonid Feldman, a Russian-born rabbi based in Miami, told the gathering, “Jews are the test canaries of the world, and when Jews are in danger, it means that the whole world is in danger.”
One member of the Russian delegation praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military action in Chechnya and said, “Israel should act the same way in dealing with the Palestinians,” causing some American Jews to wince.
The words reflected the Russian Jews’ generally tough stance on Mideast politics.
Many Russians, including members of the solidarity mission, believe Israel should use the unique opportunity provided by the terrorist strike against the United States — which has united much of the West against terrorism — to undertake drastic action against terrorist organizations that shelter under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“One of my first thoughts, after the information on the New York City attack came in, was that at last there is an opportunity for Israel to enter the West Bank and break their backbone,”said Eduard Paryzh, a Jewish leader in Belarus.
“Yes, just move in and throw the Arafat bastards out of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, like in 1948,” said Boris Litvak, a Jewish leader in Estonia and a retired Russian naval officer. But, he feared, “the Israelis will miss this unique opportunity, as they always do.”
Different stances on Israeli politics were reflected even in the groups’ itineraries. The U.S. mission didn’t plan to visit any settlements over the Green Line — Israel’s pre-1967 border — aside from one in Gush Etzion, just outside Jerusalem.
“I don’t think we should visit such places as Hebron. I think the Jewish quarter there should be evacuated,” said a New Jersey lawyer and member of the UJC mission. “There is no sense in keeping soldiers there to guard it.”
But Alexander Lakshin, a Moscow-based coordinator of counter- missionary activities who planned the trip for the Russians, insisted on paying a solidarity visit to Jewish settlers in Hebron.
“If somebody wants to evacuate people from Hebron, let him better evacuate the Arabs from there,” Lakshin told JTA.
After the visit to the Jewish quarter and prayer at the Cave of the Patriarchs, all but a few in the Russian delegation appeared to agree with Lakshin.
“What? Evacuate the Jewish quarter? Drive the Arab bastards out,” said Dmitry Zwiebel, a community leader from Petrozavodsk in northwest Russia.
Many Russian-born Israelis, it appears, also support tough action against the Arabs.
Two young Israel Defense Force soldiers guarding the entrance to the Cave of the Patriarchs said they approve of Putin’s actions in Chechnya and appreciate the Russian army’s “cleansing” operations there.
“That is exactly what should be done here and elsewhere in the West Bank — some kind of house-to-house cleansing,” said Mikhail, one of the soldiers.
In Hebron, rough tactics have proven less effective. Mikhail pointed with his rifle to the debris of two Arab houses on a hillside nearby.
“We were shot at from there several days ago, got orders, went there and leveled the buildings. But it didn’t help,” he said. “Every night, we are being shot at.”