By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org
Since the Boston Marathon explosions in April, the largely Muslim Russian territory of the North Caucasus has come back to the forefront via Chechnya, where the family of the Boston bombers' father originated, and nearby Dagestan, the native land of the bombers' mother.
Flashbacks to the wars of the 1990s between Russia and Chechen separatists, and alerts of Islamic insurgency spilling out of Chechnya, appear more prominently in news outlets. Just last week, a bomb exploded and killed two teenagers in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala. Less is heard about the region’s Jewish community, which, although dwindling, continues to maintain relative calm while living in a violent region plagued by North Caucasus insurgency—or so its members say.
Although many Jews from the former Soviet Union (FSU) emigrated in the 1990s—many to Israel—between 60,000 and 68,000 Jews still live in Russian-controlled north Caucasus region, according to estimates by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The Jewish community in Machachkala estimates that there are just under 5,000 Jews remaining in Dagestan, according to journalist Judith Matloff, who has traveled to the region. There are no concrete estimates for the current number of Jews in Chechnya, and the JDC is not aware of any Jews who live there.
Today’s Jewish community in the northern Caucasus is a mix of Ashkenazi Jews, who migrated there from European Russia, and Mountain Jews, who have lived there for many centuries and have their own language called Tat, a blend of Farsi and Hebrew. Mountain Jews were renowned over the centuries “for their prowess with weapons and horses, not very common attributes for Jews in the former Soviet Union,” Matloff told JNS.org. They were also known for cultivating tobacco and wine, and “men still sometimes ‘kidnap’ brides,” a custom usually done with “tacit approval by the family and the community, but which nonetheless is not a custom we normally associate with Jews anywhere,” Matloff said.
The Russian Federation’s Northern Caucasus region includes five predominantly Muslim Republics, including bordering Chechnya and Dagestan on the east of the Caucasus mountains. The Mountain Jews’ distance from the USSR’s center helped them maintain their traditions when the regime repressed religious worship, but “many have left for mainly economic reasons—unemployment is massive,” and “some are disturbed by the violence as well,” Matloff said.
Those who remain find themselves stuck in a volatile area due to North Caucasus insurgency. Two major wars took place between the Russian government and Chechnya during the 1990s and early 2000s after the region declared independence from Russia in 1991. Russian forces completely destroyed the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2000.
Chechnya is now subject to the federal jurisdiction of Russia and is headed by the pro-Kremlin leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Islamist rebel violence frequently spills out into neighboring autonomies like Dagestan. In 2004, Islamist Chechen terrorists took an entire school hostage in Beslan, North Ossetia. More than 300 people were killed, including many children.
Chechen terrorism has reached as far as Moscow. In 2002, Chechen terrorists took 850 hostages in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater, 130 of whom eventually died as Russian forces pumped a chemical agent into the building to force an end to the siege. In 2010, Chechen terrorists exploded a bomb inside a Moscow subway, killing nearly 40 people.
Given the North Caucasus insurgency, moving south it goes from “dangerous, very dangerous, to extremely dangerous,” said Shauli Dritter, director of field operations for the JDC in the FSU. The JDC cares for Jews in 187 sites throughout the entire Caucasus region through their Chesed Welfare Centers, and is expanding its Metsuda young leadership development program to the area.
During the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, an independent country farther south in the Caucasus, JDC rescued 19 Jews from the region. The son of an Auschwitz survivor, Dritter believes that “reaching every Jew in every corner is a mission.” The only protection that you have is “to keep your profile low, no guns, no nothing,” he told JNS.org.
Shimi Dibyayev, an elderly chairman of the Machachkala Jewish community, told Matloff in an article published by the Forward that relations between Jews and Muslims in Dagestan “are fine.”
“Government ministers are friendly to us. We’ve been here so long, we’re part of the local culture,” Dibyayev said.
Nevertheless, Dibyayev said he does “always carry a pistol and (has) seven more weapons at home.” Back in 2007, the windows of his synagogue in Machachkala were smashed, though no one knows by whom.
Jewish musician Rafoi Rafailov, originally from Chechnya, described what he believes to be a close bond between Jews and Muslim Chechens in an interview with JNS.org arranged through the Jewish Agency. Rafailov, a folk musician, has been honored as a National Artist of the Chechen Republic. Now in his 70s, he moved to Pyategorsk in 1993, a city beyond North Ossetia, in Stavropol Krai, a region on the frontline between Russia and the North Caucasus republics.
When Chechens were expelled from the North Caucasus by Joseph Stalin in 1994, the Soviet government told those who were left in the area that they could take over the deserted homes of Chechens. The Boston Bombers’ father’s family had been deported to Kyrgyzstan from Chechnya during this time. But Jewish residents, who knew persecution and did not want to bring harm to others, did not touch the homes, Rafailov said. After Stalin’s death, many Chechens returned to their native land.
Aslambek Paskachev, a civic chamber member of Kadyrov’s current government, recounted the same story in January after he visited the site of an upcoming new synagogue in Grozny. The synagogue will be built despite the few Jews left in Chechnya.
“These people knew what it was to be persecuted, and they knew that Chechens would come back,” Paskachev said, according to the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation.
Rafailov was present for the January 2013 groundbreaking ceremony for the new synagogue in Grozny, built on the site of a 19th-century Ashkenazi synagogue that became a music school in 1937. Israeli Beitar Jerusalem soccer players attended the founding of the new synagogue despite warnings by the Israeli National Security Council not to visit the region. Two Muslim Chechen players joined the Israeli team later that month.
While in Dagestan, Matloff was detained for questioning by the anti-terrorist unit there. “They seemed to be greatly reassured when I mentioned that I really wanted to be released quickly so I could go to Friday synagogue,” she said. “Being Jewish apparently made me seem innocuous and a curiosity. A Jew, in their thinking, would not be aligned to a radical jihadist movement.”
Such stories suggest that Jews remaining in the region, despite North Caucasus insurgency, are not a persecuted minority. Yet frequent violence and the Russian government’s propensity for political repression still loom over the area. Rafailov—whose ancestors arrived in Chechnya in the 19th century—hopes that “in 10 years some Jews will come, and in 15 years more will come.” But as things stand today, Rafailov said he “went back [to Chechnya], looked and recognized only two women” from the Jewish community that he knew.
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