When Jew shoots at Jew

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 21, 2008

The Russian invasion of Georgia has been compared to many historical conflicts - from Iraq 2003 to Czechoslovakia and Munich 1938 - so here's another one: World War One.

In Jewish history, the Great War went down as the conflict in which Jews shot at Jews. Hundreds of thousands served with the warring armies of Britain, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy, the US and Turkey.

The Balfour Declaration cast the allies as the pro-Zionists, but over 12,000 German Jews died for the fatherland.

On a much smaller scale, the same has been happening in this latest war. We will probably never know whether Jews were directly firing at their fellow tribe-members this month in the Caucasus, but as both Georgia and Russia have well-integrated Jewish communities and compulsory military service, they were certainly part of the two armies fighting each other. And not only as regular soldiers; a few young men of the minuscule Jewish community of Tskhinvali have reportedly joined the Ossetian militia that has been terrorising the Georgian countryside.

But the real Jewish involvement in this war hasn't been on the battlefield, but in the upper political echelons. On the Georgian side, this was more marked, with senior ministers such as Defence Minister Davit Kezerashvili directing the war and Reintegration Minister Timuri Iakobashvili in charge of the government's policy in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both are Hebrew-speakers and staunch Zionists (Kezerashvili holds dual Israeli citizenship), and eager to highlight their Jewishness.

Iakobashvili even said to Ha'aretz last week: "War is something we can understand, but when bands of Cossacks carry out pogroms, as a Jew I have a different feeling."

Senior Jewish figures on the Russian side have, on the whole, kept a lower profile. As a rule, the oligarchs' ties with the administration are shadowy. One of them, though, Boris Spiegel, a Russian Senator and chairman of the World Congress of Russian Jewry (a government "front group"), issued a statement accusing the Georgians of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" against the Ossetians and calling for the establishment of a tribunal to investigate their "war crimes".

"We, as historic victims of genocide, cannot stand aloof," he said.

Pogroms or genocide, Jews were also on the receiving end on both sides. The Jewish Quarter of Tskhinvali was at the centre of the Georgian bombardment. Almost the entire Jewish community of Gori joined the waves of refugees fleeing in the wake of the Russian advance and the havoc caused by Ossetian, Chechen and Cossack militias. The international Jewish aid agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, had teams on both sides of the battlefield, rescuing Jews and finding safe havens for them.

The South Ossetian conflict has engulfed Jews in a wider context. The Georgian Jewish community, a tiny remnant of its past glory, less than a quarter of a per cent of the total population, is a close-knit, intensely patriotic group, almost unique in history for not having suffered antisemitism. The million Jews of Russia are in a much more precarious situation and they rely on the government to protect them against ancient hatreds. And we haven't even mentioned the role of the Jewish state, which over the last decade has tried to maintain an impossible balancing act between its complex strategic relationship with the Kremlin and the business, energy and diplomatic opportunities offered by a pro-West government in Tbilisi.

Jewish and Israeli concerns should have played no part in a war which erupted as a result of historical and nationalist tensions between Russian, Georgians and the separatist groups. Jewish politicians have every right to aspire to high office in their national hierarchies, and should be able to do so without dragging their heritage into it. Israeli businessmen can travel the globe in search of a quick profit.

But they also have a certain responsibility to their fellow Jews. Careless words, greed and opportunism can too easily lead to tragic results when Jews are transformed from bystanders to unwilling partisans.

Anshel Pfeffer is an Israel-based JC correspondent


Last updated: 2:38pm, August 22 2008