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Behind the Headlines: Russian Jews Remain Cautious Amid Conflagration in Chechnya

January 11, 1995
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Russian Jews are responding cautiously as the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya claims an increasing number of lives.

Jews here are warily observing the country’s shifting political climate and expressing fears about the future of democracy.

At the same time, however, most of the organized Jewish community has not taken an official side in the conflict.

“The clear Jewish answer is absent,” said Roman Spektor, the vice president of the Vaad, the federation of Jewish institutions in Russia.

Except for signing a statement issued by the Congress of National Minorities last month expressing concern about the use of violence in Chechnya, “as an organized Jewish group, we have not participated,” Spektor said.

Still, Spektor said that as a private individual, he and other Jewish activists have taken part in anti-war gathering and ceaselessly discussed the political implications of the military operation.

“I can only express my personal viewpoint, that the Chechnya war is a very real example of the anti-democratic trend in Russia,” he said.

“It is a mirror reflecting who is in power now,” he said.

Spektor said that as the country’s nationalist, militarist impulses come to the fore, President Boris Yeltsin is losing support from long-time democratic allies, while winning backing from extremists such as the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

“We have a new public atmosphere, and in the shadows we also see anti- Semitism,” he said.

Zinovy Kogan, the spiritual leader of Moscow’s reform synagogue, Hineini, said, “I share the mood of the members of the community that the war in Chechnya is a tragedy.

“Like any religious person, I think the conflict should be dealt with through words,” he said. “However, there is no distinct Jewish voice in the anti-war movement because this is a common problem for all Russians.”

He added that he is involved in a new committee bringing together Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist religious leaders, but none of them have yet discussed making any statement about the war.

Vladimir Shapiro, a sociologist who studies Russia’s Jewish community at the Academy of Sciences, added, “I support the opinion of those who say we are seeing a movement towards a totalitarian regime.

“The present leadership is ready to use force without paying attention to human life or international norms,” he said.

Yet he said he did not foresee an immediate link between more authoritarian leadership and the loss of new-found freedom for Jews.

One observer, Rabbi Berel Lazar of the Chabad Lubavitch community, saw some encouraging signs within the strife.

“Yeltsin is bowing down to pressure from the nationalists, but most people are against the war and in favor of democracy,” he said. Public protests and uncensored media coverage is a sign, he noted, that elements of democracy are still alive in Russia.

Only one Jewish group, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, which describes itself as an American Jewish human rights group, has publicly joined forces with Russian human rights organizations such as Memorial to excoriate the Russian government’s actions in Chechnya.

“Part of making Russia a place where Jews can feel comfortable, at least temporarily, is building a Russia that is democratic and supportive of Jewish rights,” explained Maureen Greenwood, who works in the organization’s Moscow office.

“Russia is now committing massive human rights violations and we felt it was important to speak out,” she said.

The Union of Councils has also provided financial support for Jewish refugees from Grozny.

At least 30 refugees have already arrived in Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency for Israel. And others are reportedly on the way.

Only about 10 or 20 Jewish families remain stranded in Grozny, while most of the community has escaped to Nalchik, a city in a nearby republic, according to Chaim Chesler, who oversees the Jewish Agency’s work in the former Soviet Union..

Other Jewish groups may be reluctant to become publicly involved for a number of reasons, according to observers.

Some believe that developing a Jewish voice within politics could spark anti- Semitism. Others fear that political action could spur disunity within the Jewish community or divert attention from Jewish issues. In addition, many Jews, unless they are being directly affected by the conflict, are hesitant about officially condemning a government under which they have received unprecedented freedoms.

Meanwhile, the effect on emigration remains to be seen.

So far, the war has boosted Jewish emigration from the Caucasus region, where Chechnya is located, according to Chesler of the Jewish Agency.

But emigration elsewhere remains stable.

“There has not been any effect in the big cities of Russia,” he said. “I assume that this event in the Caucasus will eventually speed up emigration, but right now we don’t see it.”

Some experts have said that if Russia becomes highly unstable politically, emigration is bound to redouble. But Chesler predicted that unless the current situation leads to economic upheaval, many Jews will remain.

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