Russian chief rabbi: Terrorists in Dagestan attack need to be destroyed

The radicals that attacked churches and synagogues in Derbent and Makhachkala sought to destroy the unity between Russians of different faiths, said Rabbi Berel Lazar.

By MICHAEL STARR | The Jerusalem Post

Chief Rabbi of Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States Rabbinical Alliance chairman Rabbi Berel Lazar told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Monday that the terrorists and fanatics involved in the attack on churches and a synagogue in the Republic of Dagestan on Sunday sought to disrupt the peace between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Russians, and had to be destroyed by the government.

Lazar said the attack, which saw 15 police officers, a priest, and several civilians killed at the hands of Islamic terrorists, wasn’t “so much against the Jews as it was against the government and the church, and the Jews were a part of that” objective.

The attackers had shot at anyone who was walking in the street in Derbent and Makhachkala, said the rabbi, and in the attack on the Derbent Church Father Nikolai Kotelnikov was “slaughtered, they didn’t just murder him.” The Russian Orthodox Church had said in a statement that his throat had been slit. The police that had been killed also suffered indecencies, said the rabbi. A security guard outside the Makhachkala Synagogue was killed, and the Jewish house of worship in Derbent had been set on fire.

The identity of the terrorist organization was unknown to Lazar, but he did know that they were Islamic fanatics from the Muslim region of Dagestan, but not ones that lived in the attacked cities. He said that the locals cursed them as less than animals.

“The local population is shocked, that’s not who they are,” said Lazar. “It’s people that don’t want us to live in peace.”

Lazar offered his condolences and support to the Russian Christian community in the wake of the terrorist attack. Christians were suffering because of the loss of Kotelnikov and damage to churches in Derbent and Makhachkala. Jews were suffering because of the destruction of their holy site, said the Rabbi, and Muslims were also suffering because radicals were misrepresenting them.

A view of Derbent synagogue following an attack by gunmen and a fire, in Derbent in the region of Dagestan, Russia June 24, 2024. (credit: HEAD OF THE DAGESTAN REGION SERGEI MELIKOV VIA TELEGRAM/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

“The interreligious friendship in Russia is very unique, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Grand Mufti of Russia and I meet often and work on projects together,” said Lazar.

The Derbent mayor and Dagestan governor had visited the destroyed synagogue, and had promised to help rebuild the synagogue. Lazar appreciated their support for the Jewish community, as well as the “incredible” support of the local populace.

“I was there for the opening of the synagogue it was an event for celebration for the whole city,” recalled Lazar. He explained that Jews have lived in the region for centuries and were a very integrated population.

In the Russian Federation in general, Lazar said especially compared to the rising antisemitism in Europe, “There hasn’t been any antisemitism in Russia in the last few years.”

“People can walk around freely with their kippa and tzitzit without any harassment,” said the rabbi.

Sometimes there was antisemitism on social media, but nothing of note offline, he claimed. The Jewish community had the full support of the government, but added that the Dagestan incident was troubling and was perhaps a signifier of a greater problem.

The Dagestani capital of Makhachkala also saw a mob raid the airport in October looking for Jews. Lazar said he had spoken to officials recently about the incident. While some could say that it was anti-Israel, there was no point in differentiating in this matter between Jews and Israel, and even if the incident could be said motivated by anti-Israel animus, such radicals would find another reason tomorrow to hunt Jews.

“Thank G-d they didn’t find Jews to hurt, but they also attacked the police, security, anyone that got in their way,” said Lazar.

With this new attack, “we do feel that this has to be a wakeup call, that these people need to be destroyed. They have no place in humanity.”

It was the government’s responsibility to address radicalism and antisemitism, Lazar said, and while Dagestan’s Jews didn’t want to leave, their future in the republic was dependent on the authorities solving those problems.

The rabbi had received phone calls from different Jewish communities about increasing their security and requesting more police aid. There were no immediate threats, but he noted that such acts sometimes trigger more.

“In general people do feel very safe and comfortable, I don’t see any panic — even in the [Dagestan] community itself,” said Lazar.

Lazar said in a message to world Jewish leaders that “when antisemitism rears its head, it should be dealt with through the government, and when the government is not supporting us that’s when we should be worried.”

Otherwise, the response to such terrorism should be “doubling our pride in our Jewishness.”

Lazar gave the example of one Jewish man he had known for 30 years, and while he was “not fully observant yet,” since the October 7 massacre in Israel, he had started to proudly wear a kippa. Lazar was glad to see this, calling on others to wear their stars of David around their necks, to wear their kippas on their heads, to place mezuzahs on their doors, and not just to wrap tefillin in synagogue, but also in the street.

“We are not going to be terrorized or intimidated, we’re not going to be scared, we’re going to stand strong and tall as Jews,” said Lazar “[Radicals] are going to think twice about attacking when they see it only makes us stronger.”

 

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