MOSCOW (JTA) — The sun had already set when the delegation rolled through the pock-marked streets of Tskhinvali, but a bright moon lit the night as they visited the Jewish cemetery and the city’s Jewish quarter.
They had just 4 1/2 hours to sniff out signs of genocide — a charge the delegation’s leaders had leveled against the Georgian government — and collect evidence to submit to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
With the president of South Ossetia as a personal tour guide, the group’s Sept. 16 visit to the South Ossetian capital was the most visible event in a now four-month push by the World Congress of Russian Jewry to cast Georgia as the aggressor in its August war with Russia.
Long after the Russian tanks rumbled back to South Ossetia’s boundaries, a public relations battle continues over how to lay blame for the beginning of the conflict. The World Congress of Russian Jewry is the only Jewish organization in the region to take a public side in the conflict, and that stance is staunchly pro-Russian.
A string of op-eds and news stories have appeared recently in American newspapers and on British television as public opinion in the West has walked back its narrative and recognized Georgia’s complicity, or at least folly, in the run-up to the war.
But some in the Russian-speaking world believe that the World Congress has overstepped its bounds in cheerleading for Russia and vilifying Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. They say that toying with accusations of genocide is dangerous territory for any Jewish group, especially one that purports to represent Russian-speaking Jews worldwide.
"In Tskhinvali, there is almost absolutely no Jews," said one person close to the World Congress who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions. "And more than that, there probably won’t be Jews. Why should a worldwide Jewish congress get involved in this just because a Russian senator is the president of the World Congress of Russian Jewry? I think it’s not right."
Tskhinvali was once home to a vibrant, thousands-strong Jewish community neatly tucked into a Jewish quarter with a historical synagogue. As the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, a border war developed between Georgia and South Ossetia that laid waste to much of the city. Most Tskhinvali Jews fled in that conflict, leaving very few Jews to this day.
The World Congress has taken on a more public profile since Boris Shpigel, Russia’s most prominent Jewish politician, ascended to the presidency. He has expanded the organization’s reach in the four countries where it has offices — Russia, Germany, Israel and the United States.
Local officials approved Shpigel, 55, in 2003 as a member of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, for the Penza Region, southeast of Moscow. He took over the World Congress presidency in November 2007.
His stature has risen with his new position as the head of a government commission on NGO development. Shpigel also has been tapped, pending the clearance of any conflict of interest, to head Russia’s branch of Keren Heyesod-United Israel Appeal, according to a letter between the speakers of the Israeli Knesset and Russia’s upper house of parliament.
Even with the congress’ founding, some Soviet-era refuseniks were wary of a Russia-based organization purporting to represent Russian-speaking Jews worldwide, according to JTA accounts from the group’s first meetings in 2002. Shpigel has done little to allay those fears as he has strongly supported the Russian cause in recent months.
Repeated attempts to reach Shpigel were unsuccessful. But Valery Engel, senior vice president of the World Congress in Russia, said his group had to speak out, given what they saw as falsehoods and propaganda in the Western media during the Russia-Georgia conflict.
The World Congress, through delegations, news releases and promises of witness testimony for war crimes trials against Georgia, has been pushing back on that Western media narrative for months with some degree of success alongside myriad Russian efforts to do the same.
Congress officials have appeared on radio programs and in regional media. Representatives from the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which has ties to the World Congress, have participated in Russian media panels to describe the situation in Tskhinvali.
The days after the conflict started, the World Congress released a diplomatically worded statement that called for an end to violence and understanding from both sides. The statement flew under the radar.
Three days later, Shpigel decided to speak out, releasing a fiery statement that said Jews recognize genocide when they see it and denounced Saakashvili.
"We agree that evil must not go unpunished," the statement said.
Not all Russian-speaking Jews agreed, however. Or if they did, they didn’t think a public Jewish organization should become involved in the conflict. There was a falling-out and arguments among factions. Then the American branch of the World Congress released a competing statement disavowing Shpigel’s remarks.
"He thought that because he is president, he had the right to do this sort of thing," said Michael Nemirovsky, the chairman of the American Forum in New York. "We thought the opposite. This is not a business, this is a public organization."
Even some in Russia didn’t necessarily agree as Shpigel steered the organization toward political activism.
"I am afraid this will harm our ability to reach different parties of the world," one congress employee said on condition of anonymity. "I am pessimistic about the Russian involvement in the Jewish organizations."
Engel said that most of those who disagreed with Shpigel’s statement were colored by Western propaganda, and that the delegation was sent to Tskhinvali so people could see the situation themselves.
One member of the delegation said it was hard in the dark to differentiate between the battle scars of this year’s war and war in the early 1990s, after which the city was never rebuilt.
Elion Velinchik, a representative of the World Congress in Israel and former leader of the Tskhinvali Jewish community, was on the delegation’s trip to the capital. He said the city had absolutely changed since the first war and blamed the Georgians for putting an end to Jewish life as it once was. Velinchik said seven Jews remain in the city.
Velinchik was optimistic that a strong Jewish community could return. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which took no official side in the conflict, has suggested restoring the synagogue, but there has been no firm commitment to restore a Jewish quarter for so few Jews.
Engel said he and the leaders of the federation, including Russia’s head Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, sought out Shpigel to lead the World Congress. The federation has long been seen as the closest Jewish group to the Kremlin, though it is apolitical in practice. The World Congress has reduced its dependency on and connection to the federation, though Engel still holds positions at the top of both groups.
Shpigel founded a pharmaceuticals manufacturing and distribution company, Biotech, in 1990. He sought to sell the company in May to federation president Lev Leviev, who has fallen victim recently to the worldwide financial crisis, according to Russian business-monitoring publications.
Other lay leaders in the former Soviet Union have expressed a range of opinions, from consternation to bemusement, at the political direction Shpigel has taken the congress in a year’s time.
"Russian Jewish oligarchs, they have only one competition — who can kiss up to power the most in that one important place," said Josef Zissels, the chairman of the Vaad umbrella group in Ukraine. "They don’t try to make excuses for those in power. I told Shpigel myself, ‘Is this Jewish business?’ "