By Paul Goble
Whenever something happens about which individuals and organizations that should know about it don’t for one reason or another, speculation often runs rampant. Such is the cased with the First Congress of the Jews of the North Caucasus that just completed its work in Grozny.
Indeed, one commentator pointed to that reality by entitling his report about this meeting “What is going on with the Jewish Community in the North Caucasus?” because it is far from clear what this meeting really was about and what its consequences will be (kavkazr.com/a/chto-proizoshlo-s-evreyami-na-kavkazskoy-zemle/28692782.html).
There are only a little more than 100 Jews now living in Chechnya, most of whom are Ashkenazim who returned to that republic after the wars. (The Mountain Jews who were more numerous there and elsewhere in the North Caucasus mostly emigrated to Israel in the last decades of Soviet times.)
But neither of the two umbrella Jewish organizations, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR) or the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Groups in Russia (KEROOP), had any knowledge about the meeting which was either organized by that community or by Ramzan Kadyrov ostensibly to unite all Jews in the North Caucasus.
The meeting appears to have involved the Federation of Sephardic Jewish Communities of Russia, but the exact meaning of that is unclear because many in Russia routinely refer to all the Jews of the North Caucasus as Sephardim although it fact many or perhaps even most of the community there are not.
If the congress leads to an effective umbrella organization for Jews in the North Caucasus, that would multiply the number of such groups in Russia and leave the Jews in a situation much like that of Russia’s Muslims who now have more than 80 Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) headed by independent muftis.
Or alternatively, such a body cold give Chechnya’s Kadyrov yet another lever of power over the region and be used by him to project his influence beyond the borders of Chechnya. Indeed, it could give him yet another lever in Moscow as well.
But perhaps the most interesting possibility was suggested by one of the organizers: Moysey Yunayev, a leader of the Jewish community in Chechnya, said that the congress was intended to unify not the Jews as a religious group but the Jewish “ethnos,” a Russian term for a large ethnic community.
He said that the meeting was the first step toward “the final consolidation of the Jewish ethnos on the territory of the North Caucasus” by developing “a common strategy to unify and improve the life of our people” (nazaccent.ru/content/25127-v-chechne-namereny-obedinit-vse-evrejskie.html).
The Moscow Jewish organizations have promoted the idea that the Jews are a religious group rather than “an ethnos.” For the Chechen Jews to push for an alternative view thus has the potential to spark controversy among the Jews of Russia as well as creating a new player in the complex ethnic chessboard that is the North Caucasus.