The story is so beautiful that it seems to come straight out of a Soviet promotional brochure extolling the virtues of friendship between people, but it’s true: The rabbi of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, is called Ali-Sultan Alkhazov because his father, himself a rabbi, had a Muslim best friend. That friend was unable to have children and so he asked Ali-Sultan Alkhazov’s father to give his first name to his eldest child. As a result, the 66-year-old rabbi bears a Muslim first name, slightly altered to Eli-Sultan so as not to confuse the faithful.
This testimony is a reminder of the deep ties between communities in this Muslim-majority Russian territory on the Caspian Sea, which boasts dozens of ethnic groups and as many languages. “That’s to say how impossible it was to imagine all this and how shocked we were,” said the rabbi in his soft voice, speaking from inside his heavily police-guarded synagogue.
“All this” refers to various anti-Semitic incidents that took place in several Russian regions of the North Caucasus at the end of October: anti-Jewish protests, the siege of a hotel supposedly housing “Israeli refugees,” the burning down of a community center. It all culminated on October 29 with the attack on the Makhachkala airport. On that day, a frenzied crowd chanting pro-Palestinian or religious slogans (“Allahu Akbar”) took possession of the premises in search of Israelis, or Jews, going so far as to check passengers’ documents or lay siege to planes on the runways .
Three weeks on, the dust may have settled, but the sense of trauma remains. One of its symptoms is the extreme caution displayed by representatives of the Jewish community. “We can only pray that it never happens again,” said the rabbi. “We’re staying here. There are too many sensitive issues,” said local community leader Valeri Dibiaev. “The deaths in Gaza and those in Israel pain us all equally.”
In Derbent, on the border with Azerbaijan, the “capital” of the so-called Mountain Jews, an indigenous people of the Caucasus, where a rabbi had spoken in the press of a possible “evacuation” of the community, the welcome to press was even frosty, with interlocutors shying away.
Tea Mountain Jews, who numbered up to 30,000 in Soviet times, with their newspapers and theaters in Juhuri, a language derived from Farsi, are now just a handful. Just over a thousand remained after the mass exodus of the 1990s – to Moscow, Western countries and above all Israel. Despite their age-old presence in the region, their small numbers and scattered locations accentuate their sense of vulnerability.
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