Behind the Headlines: Russian Jews Greet New Year Amid Heavy Security, Heavy Hearts
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Behind the Headlines: Russian Jews Greet New Year Amid Heavy Security, Heavy Hearts

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Russian Jewry ushered in the Jewish new year amid heavy security and an aura of fear that has gripped the country in the wake of several terrorist attacks.

In Rosh Hashanah greetings sent to Russia’s chief rabbi, President Boris Yeltsin stressed the importance of interethnic and interfaith peace and condemned ultranationalism and extremism.

His message came amid new concerns that the terrorist incidents, which have left scores dead, could lead to a rise of xenophobia and ultranationalism.

“There should be no room on our soil for fascism and anti-Semitism,” Yeltsin wrote to the Jewish community.

The other top politician in Russia who extended holiday greetings to the Jewish community was the leader of Russia’s Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov.

Zyuganov, who in the past has made thinly veiled racist and anti-Semitic statements, placed second in the 1996 presidential elections and is expected to run again in elections slated for June 2000.

Presidential politics aside, however, this year’s holiday events were marked by an unprecedented level of security measures at Jewish institutions.

The hundreds who attended services at the Moscow Choral Synagogue passed through an airport-style security system installed here earlier this year following a series of anti-Semitic attacks in Moscow.

And the recent bomb attacks that rocked Moscow and southern Russia marred the festive mood.

The Jewish Agency in Russia had to cancel one of the largest holiday events in Moscow. The agency’s annual Rosh Hashanah reception, which usually brings together hundreds of Jewish leaders, was canceled after Yeltsin declared a day of national mourning Monday for the victims of two terrorist attacks.

At least 150 people were killed in two similar blasts — one in Moscow Sept. 9 and another earlier in the month in the south of the country.

On Monday, another powerful blast razed an apartment block in southern Moscow, killing more than 100 people.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, Russian leaders have described them as deliberate terrorist attacks. Officials have blamed the blasts on Islamic militants fighting Russian rule in the North Caucasus.

Russian federal forces have been battling to crush an armed Islamist revolt in its southern region of Dagestan since early August. The rebels are reportedly led by warlords from the southern Russia’s breakaway republic of Chechnya.

These conclusions have led some politicians to remarks that could incite racial hysteria in Russian society.

Moscow’s popular mayor and a likely presidential candidate, Yuri Luzhkov, promised that city officials would take decisive measures against “guests” of the Russian capital — an expression which is commonly related to dark-skinned people from the Caucasus area.

Luzhkov was quoted saying that Moscow would set up special security measures that would include special checks of non-Muscovites who are currently residing in the capital.

Some experts believe that such measures could lead to “ethnic cleansing” of the Russian capital.

According to public opinion surveys conducted in recent years, people from the Caucasus — usually referred to here as Caucasians — top the list of most- hated ethnic groups in Russia.

Some politicians and observers warned against hasty conclusions that could fan racial and ethnic hysteria.

In a television address to the nation, Yeltsin said terrorists do not have “nationality or religion.”

Some Jewish leaders also expressed concern over a possible rise of ultranationalism.

One of them said the issue alarms Jews.

“There is no secret that many Russians tend to blame all wrongs on either Jews or Caucasians,” said Pavel Feldblum, executive vice president of the Moscow Jewish Community.

“At different times, one of these two groups comes out on top in public consciousness. Jews do not have reasons to be happy when ethnic hatred is aimed against a different minority group.”

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