Russian prosecutors investigate second Jewish educational institution

For the second time in one month, Russian prosecutors conducted a surprise inspection at a Jewish educational institution.

The latest inspection occurred earlier this month in Novgorod, a city located 335 miles northwest of Moscow, according to Russian Jewish Congress President Yuri Kanner, who spoke of the incident in an interview published last week on the Russian-language, online edition of the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

The Novgorod incident, according to the report, involved a Hebrew class given by the local office of Hesed, a charity with ties to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

According to, the inspection occurred on June 1, four days after prosecutors raided a Jewish school in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow, and confiscated some textbooks following complaints that the faculty had incited against members of other faiths.

Students were forced to present identifying documents to representatives of the public prosecutor’s office, who arrived unannounced and without explaining the purpose of the inspection.

Kanner said documents were also seized during the Novgorod inspection, which he characterized as having “a significant psychological impact on the community.” Kanner said the Russian Jewish Congress has not been able to obtain clarifications from Russian authorities on either action.

“It’s difficult to understand or comment on prosecutors’ interest in coming into an organization where people learn the language,” Kanner said. Still, Kanner said he did not think the two inspections were part of “any kind of campaign.”

The inspections in Novgorod and Yekaterinburg coincide with a number of investigations into alleged extremism in Muslim and other faith communities.

A judge in the Ural region near Yekaterinburg ordered new analyses of two Muslim books prosecutors alleged were of an “extremist” nature, reported last week.

In February, Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that freedom of speech is not infringed by outlawing “extremist” material, which the court defined as proclaiming superiority of one religion or belief system over another. The ruling was on a motion concerning the 2011 banning of material from the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong.

In May, federal authorities banned two Muslim books, “Faith in the Light of the Qur’an and Sunnah” and “Fortress of the Muslim,” which they said were extremist but which the Sova Center, a Russian human rights watchdog, said “contain no signs of extremism.”

The Sova center listed the banning of these books and the Yekaterinburg Jewish school raid as examples of “misuse of anti-extremism” by authorities.

The Disengagement Summer

The column of armored SUVs waited, engines humming, as a phalanx of bodyguards ushered Prime Minister Ariel Sharon into the third truck from the end. As the convoy cleared the main gate of the Israeli government head’s residence, a set of decoy vehicles turned north, toward Jerusalem, while the remaining units proceeded south toward the Negev, where Sharon planned to tour absorption sites being built for hundreds of Israeli families soon to be evacuated from their Gaza Strip homes.

For Sharon, the site inspections this spring were a welcome excursion beyond his Jerusalem office compound or his Negev ranch. But for officers charged with protective security, the outing rivaled an elite combat operation.

Hours earlier, crack teams descended on each of the six kibbutzim and farming villages on the morning’s itinerary, creating “sterile” zones for Sharon to meet with prescreened residents and local leaders. At each stop, a bridgehead of agents cleared the way for the advancing prime minister while, 15,000 feet overhead, an unmanned reconnaissance drone scanned the scene with high-powered optics.

“We don’t spare any effort, money and tools in order to protect the prime minister from the growing threat,” Avi Dichter, the recently retired director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, told JTA.

Dichter was talking less about Palestinian terrorists seeking to harm Sharon than about “Jewish ultra-extremists who are sure that one way to block the disengagement is by harming, if not killing, the prime minister,” he said, referring to the controversial plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank that Sharon pushed through his government.

As the planned mid-August pullout approaches, many fear that protests against the Sharon government could give way to acts of violence. As ringleaders from the far right vow to thwart the withdrawal, security officials are increasingly warning of the prospect of Jewish terrorism.

According to Dichter, the Shin Bet has assessed a number of scenarios, including the prospect of a Jewish suicide bomber.

“We’re not ruling out a Jewish suicide bomber who might use ‘tamut nafshi pilishtim’ as his rationale,” Dichter said, referring to Samson’s words in the Bible as he brought down the Philistine temple around himself, “Let me die with the Philistines.”

The Knesset Finance Committee last month authorized a budgetary increase of nearly $90 million to cover extra costs associated with Sharon’s personal protection, which a committee aide estimated at some $230 million a year.

While many protective measures were mandated by a commission of inquiry following the 1995 assassination of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — and extended to a wider net of officials after Palestinian terrorists murdered Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze’evi in October 2001 — one recently retired Shin Bet official said the security around Sharon was unprecedented and was directly related to the Jewish terror threat.

“The tension here, the atmosphere here, seems like we’re on the eve of a civil war,” Sharon noted in an interview earlier this year on NBC television. “All my life I fought to defend Jews. Now, for the first time, I am taking steps to defend myself from Jews.”

Little more than a decade ago, Rabin used to walk the Tel Aviv streets to his Shabbat-morning tennis session. With his security detail trained to keep watch from a deferential distance, dog walkers and other early risers had no difficulty approaching Rabin in his tennis whites.

“Rabin rejected the notion that he could become a target for domestic violence,” said Oded Ben-Ami, who served as Rabin’s media adviser at the time.

Even as the atmosphere grew increasingly menacing, with political opponents and rabbinical authorities demanding Rabin’s removal for his “traitorous” dealings with the then PLO leader Yasser Arafat, his 1995 slaying by a religious university student stunned Israel and the world.

On that fateful night in November 1995, Israelis lost not only a leader but also their relatively free access to those in positions of power in the government.

In retrospect, said Hezi Kalo, a former Shin Bet official, the incitement against Rabin pales in comparison with the invective hurled at Sharon and supporters of the withdrawal plan, such as “Sharon: Lily is waiting for you,” a reference to the prime minister’s recently deceased wife.

“Today it’s much uglier. We haven’t learned our lesson,” Kalo said. “We’ve already seen how verbal violence can lead to murder.”

Ephraim Sneh, a Labor Party legislator who chairs the Knesset Subcommittee on Defense Planning and Policy, is privy to what he said were ominous briefings by security officials concerning the Jewish terror threat.

“The potential for political assassination and civil war here are no longer just rhetorical,” he said. “The poisonous atmosphere is getting worse.”

“We’re hearing very disturbing reports about the theft and stockpiling of IDF weapons by a small minority of fanatics who could sweep up the entire Israeli society and the region into catastrophe,” he said.

Beyond political assassinations, catastrophic scenarios range from the indiscriminate killing of Jewish civilians to guerrilla-style warfare against military and police units charged with implementing the withdrawal. Details of one plan that could have resulted in scores of victims were revealed May 18 in an indictment brought against two brothers, residents of the West Bank settlements Yitzhar and Homesh.

According to charges brought in Tel Aviv District Court, the pair loaded two gasoline-doused vehicles with mattresses, tires and other flammable items and planned to set them ablaze at one of the most congested areas of Tel Aviv’s Ayalon freeway during the morning rush hour.

“The suspects practically and intentionally endangered the security and the lives of all drivers and citizens in the vicinity of the vehicles,” the charge sheet proclaimed. “All this was driven by the suspects’ opposition to the disengagement plan.”

Dichter said the early May plot easily could have become a double suicide attack.

“Certainly they would have been killed instantly,” he said of the two planners, “but the rest would have depended on who crashed into them — a passing bus filled with children? A fuel tanker? God only knows what could have happened there.”

Soldiers will not be precluded from defending themselves if settlers open fire during the withdrawal, said the IDF’s new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who called on settlement movement leaders to rein in extremists and prevent events from spiraling out of control.

So, too, have dozens of rabbis who have banded together to criticize colleagues whose interpretations of Jewish religious law appear to sanction violence and insubordination in the army.

“We have a special responsibility to preserve pikuach nefesh,” or the sanctity of life, Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, the head of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, told JTA in July.

Leaders of the Yesha settler council have backed resistance to the withdrawal but stress that such resistance should be nonviolent.

Gilad and 80 other rabbis — many of them passionately opposed to the withdrawal plan — insist that civilians must not take the law into their own hands, nor should soldiers refuse orders from their commanders.

Kalo, now a research fellow at the Herzliyah-based Institute for Counter-Terrorism, stresses that most in the right-wing camp are patriotic citizens exercising their right to protest nonviolently against what they truly believe is a betrayal by Sharon and his government.

Nevertheless, Kalo estimates that there are dozens of hard-core opponents, many of them veterans of elite IDF fighting units, with the capability and intention of carrying out terrorist acts.

Meanwhile, Sharon and top brass from the IDF and police force are trying to boost the morale of soldiers who will have to confront any anti-withdrawal extremists. As the clock ticks down to the mid-August evacuation, senior officers sense that the esprit de corps is eroding, particularly among troops from nationalist communities where the anti-withdrawal slogan “A Jew does not expel a Jew” has deeper resonance.

In the past several weeks, nearly three-dozen soldiers have been disciplined, reassigned or arrested for refusing orders, a top Israeli general told JTA in late July.

In addition to the possibility of Jews attacking other Jews, security officials also are afraid of a Jewish extremist attack on the Temple Mount mosques in Jerusalem or other Islamic sites. Their vigilance led to the arrest in April of four suspects in two separate attack plots.

Those who hope for a peaceful outcome this summer often look back to the 1982 evacuation of Israeli settlements in the Sinai — part of Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt — when worst-case scenarios didn’t materialize.

“We were ready for the phenomenon of snipers,” recalled Oded Tyrah, a retired IDF brigadier general who managed the withdrawal operation in Sinai’s Yamit settlement. “We had a unit of Golani anti-terror forces ready to go, but we didn’t deploy them.”

As challenging and heart-rending as the Sinai evacuation was, security sources say it may seem like child’s play compared with the pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank. This time around, they face a more emotional and committed group of resisters who have a much more spiritual, financial and cultural attachment to the place they’ve called home — some for more than 20 years.

Simha Weiss, 47, who has lived for 16 years in Shalev, a tiny settlement in southern Gaza, insists most longtime residents of the cluster of Jewish communities known as Gush Katif would never think of provoking violence against Israeli forces who come to evacuate them.

“These soldiers are like my own children,” she said. “I think I speak for most when I say we will never lift a hand against them, nor will they against us.”

Nevertheless, the mother of six said she fears events could lead to bloodshed.

“I’m afraid there will be very tough violence,” Weiss said. “It will be Jew against Jew.”

“More than 90 percent of the people in Gush Katif are very loving and law-abiding. We don’t want violence,” she said. “But the other small percentage, they are looking for trouble.”

There’s also concern about what will happen in the northern West Bank communities that also are scheduled for evacuation. Since Passover, 30 families and another 25 young men have moved to Sa-Nur to “assist us in our fight against the government’s expulsion plan,” the community spokeswoman Miriam Adler said.

Speaking to reporters in early July, ahead of the government’s closure of Gush Katif, Adler said thousands of people might flock to Sa-Nur to join what she predicted could evolve into armed resistance. And while security forces also are expected to cordon off Sa-Nur and the other three northern West Bank settlements slated for evacuation after Gaza, residents say it will be much more difficult to limit the influx of supporters due to the area’s hilly topography.

Adler said plans called for groups to hide in the hills, barricade themselves in structures and otherwise “drive the security forces crazy.”

“We won’t initiate any violence, but developments in the field will depend on the military,” she told visiting reporters. However, she warned, “If security forces will start to beat pregnant women or pull babies out of mothers’ arms, things may spiral out of control.”

Adler said residents have no intention of turning in their weapons to security forces, insisting that they need them for self-defense against “the enemy.”

Asked if she considers the IDF the enemy, she replied, “The IDF is our opponent, not our enemy. By Ariel Sharon sending the army in here against us as if we are terrorists, he is turning the army into our opponent.”

The IDF’s Tyrah said he’s tired of the doomsday scenarios about withdrawal, which lend what he considers unwarranted credibility to “marginal criminals and hooligans.”

“After the evacuation,” Tyrah said, “we’ll have to live with these people and fight alongside them against the real enemy. So it’s imperative that our government and our security establishment accomplish this mission with utmost determination and professionalism, but also with compassion.”


Alarmists and Alarms

The crowd that turned out in a driving rain last Sunday evening to hear experts discuss the terrorist threat was testament to at least one ongoing fact of life since Sept. 11: we’re still scared.

The question is, are we scared enough to do something besides act scared? We know terror lurks. And the mixed bag of panelists assembled by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) at the Simon Wiesenthal Center offered enough frightening scenarios to send us all back under the covers.

Consider this chiller, offered up by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism: The United States Coast Guard inspects just 2 percent of the cargo that arrives in the country’s ports each day. "We have a real problem with our borders," Cantor said. Cantor wants a national identity card that would use a retinal scan and other biometric wizardry to help authorities determine if people are who they say they are.

That prospect concerns even non-card-carrying ACLU members, but what are their brilliant ideas to sift out the Mohammed Atta’s among us? Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Leon Edney (USN-Ret.), a JINSA adviser and panelist, outlined an even broader world of terror, the result, he said, of U.S. support for autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

"They are matches waiting to be lit," the admiral said. Edney called for an American foreign policy that is "values-based," the values being unequivocal support for states that practice democracy.

The "special ops" representative on the panel, Brig. General David Grange (USA-Ret.) offered an overview of how American forces operate in a terrorized world. At any given time, these soldiers are on the ground in 70 countries around the globe. That fact, which was probably more comforting before Sept. 11, didn’t shake what seemed to be the panel’s consensus: we are in for more attacks. All the increased military spending President George W. Bush could muster from Congress won’t protect us from the radicalized spawn of repressive regimes.

Thankfully, in his State of the Union address, Bush named Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah as part of the "terrorist underworld," something he was reluctant to do immediately following Sept. 11.

Then there’s the homegrown threat.

Two weeks ago, journalist Steven Emerson spoke to large audiences at Valley Beth Shalom, Sinai Temple and the Jewish Community Relations Council about the radical Muslim movements alive and well on American soil.

Emerson has been delivering this message for years now. Suddenly, people are listening. "I’ve not changed my views," he told me during an interview at his hotel, "but everything else has changed around me."

As he had in the past, he still identified Muslim groups some in our region that promote anti-Western rhetoric here and abroad, and blasted Jewish groups that think dialogue is the best way to deal with demagogues.

"There’s a tendency to think dealing with these people through the ‘Kumbaya’ culture is the answer to differences of opinion," he said. "All that does is legitimize them."

The answer, said Emerson, is to encourage moderate Moslem intellectuals to speak out while stigmatizing groups espousing militant ideologies.

"Terrorism is 2 percent violence and 98 percent incitement." Infiltrate and isolate groups that preach hatred, said Emerson, who wrote the recently released, "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us." "They’re not illegal but they promote a culture of violence."

If the FBI didn’t take such groups seriously in the past, said Emerson, they had now better start. Nothing focuses governmental efforts like 3,000 dead, and the threat of more.

Back at the JINSA conference, some of the more saber-rattling panelists seemed to be urging America to invade Iraq, dismantle the European Union, pull out of the United Nations, threaten China and uproot the Palestinians (disturbing applause on this point). In the midst of the proceedings, an alarm sounded — a real alarm.

No one in the audience budged, and the panelists kept right on speaking until the noise stopped.

Nuclear and biological terror await us, said Edney at the evening’s end, but we’ve yet take these threats seriously. "Look at how the alarm bell rang and everyone just ignored it," Edney said.

Then again, he didn’t move either.