Four years ago, on the eve of the last Winter Olympics, preparations for the Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, meant increased security for the city’s Jewish community. Jewish spokesmen, while not spelling out specifics, said upgraded security systems were installed at many Jewish buildings in the city.
In Turin, which hosted the 2006 Winter Games, leaders of the Italian city’s Jewish community reported that they had engaged in years of discussions with security officials over protection for Jewish sites.
And in Athens, security was on the mind of Rabbi Mendel Hendel, an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement, in the days before the 2004 Summer Olympics. “We’re very concerned,” the rabbi said at the time.
With this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi just a week away, the issue of security — especially the threat of terrorism at the hands of Muslim extremists from Russia’s Caucasus region — has emerged as a major concern of Olympic athletes, their famililies and visitors. But it appears that — given the nationalistic nature of the fierce conflict between Chechen separatists and Russian President Vladimir Putin — Israeli athletes and the Jewish community are not targets. The situation this time around stands in stark contrast to security planning for all Olympic Games years since 11 Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games.
According to representatives of several Jewish organizations in Russia, security officials there do not consider Russian Jews or the thousands of Jews from abroad — including Olympic athletes and various officials, as well as fans — who are expected to arrive at the shore of the Black Sea in the coming weeks to be in the crosshairs of militants who have vowed to disrupt the Sochi Games.
“I don’t see a security threat here,” said Rabbi Arie Edelkopf, an American-born Chabad emissary who, with his Israeli-born wife, Chani, serves as de facto leader of all Jewish activities that take place in 90-mile-long urban area, home to some 3,000 Jews. “I feel we’re a safe place.”
Baruch Gorin, head of public affairs for Russia’s Federation of Jewish Communities, agrees.
“I don’t think people have to be concerned” about anti-Jewish attacks at the Games, which begin on Feb. 7.
But Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, sees a more active threat against Jews and Israelis. “Jews are always a target for radical Islamic attacks,” Cohen told The Jewish Week.
While the targets of Muslim terrorists who have declared their intention to disrupt the Olympics “are all athletes and [all] tourists,” the “al-Qaeda wannabes” in Russia “are all anti-Semitic and anti-Israel,” Cohen said.
The Sochi Games will be under the watchful eye of the most expensive and most intensive security procedures established for any Olympics.
“Large-scale public events such as the Olympics present an attractive target for terrorists,” stated a “Russian Federation Travel Alert” issued earlier this month by the U.S. State Department. The alert advised “U.S. citizens planning to attend [the Sochi Olympics] that they should remain attentive regarding their personal security at all times. … There is no indication of a specific threat to U.S. institutions or citizens, but U.S. citizens should be aware of their personal surroundings and follow good security practices.”
According to various news reports, the security effort for the Sochi Olympics will include extensive monitoring of electronic communications, thousands of video cameras installed throughout the area, robotic vehicles that will search for explosives, drones patrolling the skies, speedboats on the sea, 25,000 Russian troops and police officers posted on the surrounding mountains and wider region, fighter jets and missiles protecting Olympic sites.
“Wanted” posters of a suspected female terrorist appeared last week in the lobbies of Sochi hotels, and details were reported of a U.S. contingency plan — including warships and transport aircraft — to quickly evacuate American officials and athletes if a major terrorist attack takes place.
Several Russian security officials have warned in recent weeks that while a stepped-up security effort may prevent a terrorist attack in Sochi or at Olympic venues in the surrounding area, “soft targets” elsewhere in the country may be vulnerable.
While access to Olympic venues will be strictly controlled, open only to people with official accreditation, all sensitive buildings will be subject to heightened patrols. The JCC building, where most of Sochi’s Jewish community institutions are housed, is not considered a special target, said Rabbi Edelkopf. The rabbi added that buildings and offices of many religious and ethnic groups, including the few Jewish sites in Sochi, will be under security observation.
While Muslim terrorists in many settings often threaten and attack identified Jews — the 2008 attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai, India, which took five lives, was one glaring example — the Chechen Muslims who have called for attacks throughout Russia during the fortnight of competition, and taken credit for the recent attacks in nearby Volvograd, have aimed their rhetoric at Putin’s government and made no mention of Jews.
“The Muslim radicals” who cite present and historical grievances against indigenous Muslims “have their own conflict with the Russian government — and Jews are not part of that,” said Matvey Chlenov, deputy director of the Russian Jewish Congress. “I think Jews are pretty marginal in this issue.”
Angered by what they see as anti-Islamic acts committed by Russia’s government, Islamic militants have staged frequent attacks on property and individuals throughout Russia in the last few years. According to a Reuters report, three Russian servicemen and four gunmen were killed in a shootout in the southern part of the country this month during a sweep for militants ahead of the Olympics.
Chechen rebel leader Dukov Umarov has urged his followers to “do their utmost to derail” the Games, which he described as “Satanic dances on the graves of our ancestors,” a reference to Turkish Muslims who were expelled from the area by Russia in the 19th century.
Umarov’s followers, who took responsibility for last month’s twin bombings in Volgograd, 400 miles from Sochi, which killed 34 people and injured more than 100, are reportedly angered by Russia’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who has orchestrated a bloody crackdown on Sunni rebels.
Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University and an expert on crime and security issues in Russia, confirms that “the real focus of the insurgents” — both Chechens and fundamentalist Muslims from other parts of Russia — is Putin and “the Russian regime.”
“It’s been years since I’ve seen any mention of Jews or Israelis” in statements by leaders of the country’s Islamic extremists, Galeotti said. He said most of Russia’s Islamic separatists “have largely been insular from the currents of [outside] Islamic extremism” — in other words, from anti-Jewish, anti-Israel rhetoric. “To them, jihad is just an offshoot of nationalism,” a way “to get the Russians out of their country.”
Following the release last week of a video on a Caucasus Islamic jihadi website that warned of “a present” for Putin and for “all tourists who’ll come over,” Putin acknowledged that the high-profile Games will serve as an attractive target for terrorists. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed “a very serious fear” about the possibility of an attack during the competition, and security officials in this country said they were not receiving full cooperation from their Russian counterparts.
A series of attacks last year on Jewish and Muslim clergy in the Caucasus region — and anti-Semitic vandalism in several Russian cities — prompted Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar in December to request increased protection. “There are people in that region who are out to hurt religious leaders, and there has to be a stop to this,” he said.
There is “very little” anti-Semitism in Sochi, said Rabbi Edelkopf, who cited two recent instances — a book, and a poem in a local newspaper — that ended in prosecutions by Russian courts for the anti-semitic acts. He said that as an openly identifiable Orthodox Jew, he encounters no hostility on the street.
In an interview with Time magazine, Vladimir Shklar, vice president of Israel’s Olympic Committee, offered a cautionary note. “We have to remember that the terror attacks in Russia are because of internal tension between the Caucasus republics and Russia. It has nothing to do with Israel and the Jews,” Shklar said. “But of course we have to remember, wherever we are, we attract fire.”
Next week: Profiles of some of the Jewish Olympians at the Sochi Games.