Russia synagogue stabbing is sign of larger anti-Semitic trend

moscow | Pogroms and purges of Jews are a thing of the past in Russia, but alarm over increasingly open anti-Semitism was spreading this month as women scrubbed the bloodstained floors of Moscow’s Chabad Bolshaya Bronnaya synagogue, a day after a man burst in and stabbed worshippers.

Jewish leaders warned official indifference is fueling a wave of hate attacks and called for a crackdown on aggressive nationalist and fascist groups that have mushroomed in recent years. Police should guard outside synagogues and other Jewish sites, they said.

“We expect government and law enforcement agencies to take real measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Russia’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, said. “If there is indifference, nothing will change.”

Worshippers were somber at the synagogue in downtown Moscow, where the knife-wielding man, shouting “I will kill Jews,” slashed and stabbed at least eight people Jan. 11 before a rabbi’s son wrestled him to the ground.

Before the attack “I felt completely safe, but things have gotten serious now,” said Nadav Zavilinsky, a 21-year-old religious student who witnessed the attack.

Among the eight men wounded were an American, an Israeli and a Tajik, chief Moscow prosecutor Anatoly Zuyev said. Four of the victims remained in serious condition as of earlier this week.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack denounced “this perfidious attack” and said the United States “expresses its sympathy to the wounded and their families.” He also said the United States welcomed condemnation of the attack by the Russian government.

The attack already has spurred a copy-cat crime. A 19-year-old man tried to attack worshippers Jan. 13 at the synagogue of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

The man appeared to be intoxicated and wielded a broken glass bottle. When synagogue security tried to stop him he escaped and attempted to strike people inside the synagogue with his weapon. The attacker was wrestled down and handed over to police. No injuries were reported in the incident.

According to local police, the man said he was inspired to act by the Jan. 11 stabbing incident at a Moscow synagogue.

A million Jews live in Russia, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities, and the Jewish community has experienced a revival after a wave of immigration to Israel and other countries before and after the break up of the Soviet Union.

But hundreds of racially motivated attacks, including the occasional desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, have occurred in recent years in violence aimed at Jews as well as dark-skinned immigrants from former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains region.

More than 40 people in Russia were killed in apparently racially motivated attacks last year, according to the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights. The group estimates that Russia is home to some 50,000 skinheads and numerous neo-Nazi organizations.

Rights activists say such groups are emboldened by mild prosecution of hate crimes and they complain that Nazi and other extremist literature is sold freely.

The suspect in the Jan. 11 attack, identified as Alexander Koptsev, 20, was reading a book about Jews betraying Russia shortly before the assault, his father told the Kommersant daily.

In January of last year, two men assaulted two rabbis near another synagogue in Moscow but were convicted of assault and hooliganism, which carry lesser sentences than hate crimes.

Alla Gerber, head of the Holocaust Foundation, said anti-Semitism persisted within law enforcement ranks despite high-level condemnation.

“I was shocked at what happened, but not surprised. Anti-Semitism is a traditional problem in Russia, and it is flourishing now in a general climate of xenophobia,” Gerber said.

In what was seen as a step forward, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged anti-Semitism as a problem when he attended ceremonies in January marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

But just before the Auschwitz commemorations, a group of nationalist Russian lawmakers called for an investigation aimed at outlawing all Jewish organizations, accusing Jews of fomenting ethnic hatred. Authorities ignored calls by human rights groups to prosecute the legislators.

A day after the attack, Moscow Police Chief Vladimir Pronin promised to deploy officers to help protect synagogues. Lazar and Pronin also agreed in a meeting to set up a joint working group to monitor xenophobic propaganda and extremist groups, Lazar’s office said in a statement.

Recent attacks on synagogues in Moscow