Russian Jews back U.S. attack

MOSCOW, Oct. 4 (JTA) — Russian Jews are parting company with their countrymen in overwhelmingly backing a U.S. attack on Afghanistan in retaliation for last month’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Indeed, Jews in Russia — and across the former Soviet Union — overwhelmingly back a U.S. attack on the Taliban regime for its role in supporting Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of being behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in which thousands are believed to have died.

“All local Jews that I know; in fact, the entire community, I think, supports the U.S. action,” said Roman Bensman, a Jewish leader in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan, a country in former Soviet Central Asia that borders on northern Afghanistan, is increasingly being mentioned as a possible launching pad for a U.S. attack.

Uzbekistan and neighboring Tajikistan — with the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin — have agreed to grant air corridors for U.S. planes, but have denied media reports about leasing air bases and that U.S. troops are already on their soil, according to Reuters.

The solidarity many Jews in the former Soviet Union feel for Israelis explains some of the support for U.S. military action.

“Over the last decade, Israel has become a great deal closer to lots of people here and to me personally, and I see these strikes against bin Laden” and his cronies “as part of a common war by Israel and the United States against world terrorism,” said Tanya Gilova, a Moscow-based economist and Jewish activist.

Gilova’s nephew, who lives in Israel, currently serves in the Israeli army.

But Jewish support for the United States also stems form the perception that the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” is widely seen as a crackdown on militant Islam around the world.

While ordinary Russians share this concern and a distrust of Islam, exacerbated by a series of bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen Muslim separatists, they also have a greater distrust of U.S.-Russian cooperation — and little attachment to Israel.

As a result, more than 60 percent of Russians oppose a U.S. retaliation, according to new poll taken by the Public Opinion Foundation.

Official Russian Muslim leaders have been rather cautious over the last decade in publicly expressing their attitudes on Israeli or Jewish issues in order to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, according to Alexander Axelrod, head of the Moscow office of the Anti-Defamation League.

Public anti-Jewish Muslim rhetoric, though not unknown in Russia, has been mainly limited to the war zone in Chechnya, where the Muslim rebels accused “the world Zionist conspiracy” of controlling the Kremlin and unleashing the war in Chechnya.

This seems to have changed after Sept. 11.

At a news conference Sept. 18 in Moscow, some Muslim leaders, including the chief mufti of the Asian part of Russia, Nafigullah Ashirov, accused “the Zionist special services” of perpetrating the Sept. 11 attack against the United States in order “to unleash anti-Islamic hysteria on a world scale.”

Mufti Ashirov, who is also co-chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, said at the conference that “God’s court awaits the U.S. for the sufferings that it has caused the Muslim world.”

And speakers at a pro-Palestinian rally on Sept. 12 in Russia’s Dagestan region expressed a readiness to send Dagestani volunteers to assist in the “liberation of Palestine.”

Outside Russia, militant Islam has strong support in Azerbaijan and especially in Central Asia, where a radical Islamic political grouping known as The Liberation Party is active.

The party, which wants to establish a Muslim state across Central Asia, recently called Uzbek President Islam Karimov a Jew who is being controlled by Zionists.

Karimov, who is indeed friendly toward the local Jewish community — though he has no known Jewish roots — responded with a heavy crackdown on Islamic radical organizations. The attacks brought a wave of criticism from human rights groups, but also relative stability to the region.

In more democratic parts of the former Soviet Union, the growing Islamic anti-Semitism recently started to spill over into local media.

Latvia’s top security agency and the country’s Religious Affairs Department are probing a controversial article recently published in a Latvian newspaper in which a Latvian Muslim blamed Jews for organizing the terror attacks against the United States, according to the Union of Councils for Jews in the FSU.

In “The Sign of Allah to Americans,” which promulgates a canard about the attacks that has spread across the Muslim world, a Muslim named Omar says “the aim of Jews is to turn people of other nationalities into slaves” and that the attacks were part of God’s punishment of the American nation.

Latvia’s chief rabbi, Natans Barkans, voiced indignation over the article calling it “a crime and incitement to hatred directed not only against Jews, but against the whole society.”

Anti-Semitism has traditionally been considerably lower among the estimated 20 million Muslims in the former Soviet Union, than among Slavs, who predominate in such countries as Russia and Ukraine.

And Slavic anti-Semitism continues.

Zavtra, a leading Moscow extremist publication, condemned Putin’s promise to help the U.S.-led operation. “Let’s not stain Kabul’s mosques with Russian blood,” the paper wrote.

Inside mosques across the former Soviet Union, experts and insiders say that the recent steady growth of radical Islamic groupings and the corresponding rise in anti-Semitism and of anti-Zionism are largely a foreign-imported phenomenon, which initially surfaced in the early 1990s. At that time, the doors to Islam — which, like other religions, was suppressed during Soviet times — were thrown open to proselytizers from all walks of life.

“Fundamentalists received millions of dollars from international Muslim organizations over the past decade,” said Dmitry Makarov, an expert on Islam at the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies. “Of course, they influence communities in Russia and make them more radical.”

According to experts in Moscow, it is highly probable that bin Laden himself, the Afghanistan-based Muslim leader suspected of planning the Sept. 11 attack, has provided financial support to Russia’s Muslim radicals.

The situation regarding personal Muslim-Jewish relations is more complex.

A recent day in the life of Konstantin Luzin, a Moscow university student, reflects this complexity.

He recently received Sukkot greetings Monday from a Muslim groundskeeper. Later that day, sitting in a classroom in a local Saudi cultural center, his Lebanon-born Arabic instructor informed the class that the current task of all Muslims in the world is to fight Zionism and destroy the State of Israel.

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