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Dagestan: How widespread is antisemitism in Russia? – DW – 10/31/2023

The captain of a Russian airplane at Dagestan’s Makhachkala airport on Sunday urged passengers not to “try to open any doors, there is a mob is raging outside!” The aircraft had parked beside another plane that arrived from Tel Aviv just minutes ago.

Outside, frightening scenes were unfolding. Dozens of angry men were screaming and running around on the tarmac. None of the commotion seemed coordinated, but the atmosphere was clearly aggressive. One of the men managed to climb onto the wing of the Tel Aviv plane, while others attempted opening its locked doors. One picture that circulated after the incident showed one of the men peering into the airplane’s nozzle. The angry mob was searching for Jews and people with Israeli passports. 

A few thousand men had stormed Makhachkala airport, smashing windows and tearing out doors as they headed for the tarmac, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” As the event unfolded, videos of the unrest were posted online almost by the minute.

Rioters are seen rushed onto the tarmac of Machatschkala airportRioters rushed onto the tarmac, chanting antisemitic slogansImage: AP/picture alliance

This outbreak of violence appeared to have taken Dagestan authorities completely by surprise. The police was slow to respond, and it took hours until authorities pacified the angry crowd. Ultimately, 60 individuals were arrested, 20 people injured, two of them seriously. Dagestan’s investigative committee has launched an inquiry into the unrest.

Meanwhile, much of the world remains aghast by this outburst of antisemitism in Russia’s Dagestan republic.

Antisemitic sentiments amplified by social media

Oleg Petrovich Orlov of the Memorial human rights organization told DW that antisemitic sentiments had been simmering in the Caucasus region since the latest Israel-Hamas conflict erupted. Even so, no one had expected such an outbreak, not even Dagestan authorities in the capital Makhachkala, Orlov added.

While he did say Dagestan is known as a region “where street action is much more visible than elsewhere in the Caucasus,” Orlov also emphasized that Telegram channels had played a “provocative role.” He said they called for the storming of the airport, above all the Morning Dagestan Telegram channel.

While the creators behind Morning Dagestan deny being antisemitic, their channel is full of antisemitic content and provocative articles. The fact that such a channel can exist is surprising given how closely Russia’s FSB intelligence agency controls such media outlets and how quickly, if necessary, it can block them, Orlov told DW.

“Of course, I don’t believe that the intelligence services would have deliberately wanted protests of such magnitude; it is possible the situation simply got out of control,” he said.

The Memorial expert said that although Russia is growing ever more totalitarian, the Russian state appears weak. In Dagestan, the Russian state has been caught off-guard, just like last June, when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin marched on Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, used the Dagestan riots to attack the West. At a meeting of Russia’s Security Council, Putin said the events had been instigated in no small part from Ukrainian territory, “at the hands of Western intelligence services.” Putin did not provide evidence for the claim of foreign involvement. The US, meanwhile, rejected the allegations.

A man waves a Palestinian flag at Makhachkala airportSome rioters were seen waving Palestinian flagsImage: Ramazan Rashidov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

A feeling of helplessness

The fact that such an aggressive riot against people of the Jewish faith and Israeli citizens could break out in the first place stems from Dagestan’s dire overall situation, says Saida Sirashudinova of the Dagestani “Caucasus. World. Development” research center.

Personal and social problems as well as a lack of prospects had caused an “accumulated feeling of helplessness,” Sirashudinova told DW. “Of course, the situation of the Palestinians, which is not getting better [either], influenced people [in Dagestan].”

Even so, Sirashudinova mainly blames social media platforms for having incited this violence and having called on Dagestan’s Muslim population to protest.

“This aggression is dangerous, incendiary,” she told DW. “It is being orchestrated by radical, determined Muslims, who have not lived in Dagestan for a long time.”

In this regard, it is important that Dagestan’s religious leadership has taken a clear stand against the attacks, Sirashudinova said. Even so, there is a growing number of people willing to resort to violence, according to the researcher. This is a problem, she said, that is not being addressed: “This outburst of negative energy was possible because there was no outlet for people’s anger.”

She said it was important to emphasize that “not all of Dagestan wants to go around dragging Jews off planes.” DW asked her how prevalent antisemitism was in the Russian Caucasus, to which she replied that the region was highly diverse. “We are also seeing reactions from the Dagestani public that are not antisemitic,” she told DW, adding that Jews have lived in Dagestan for centuries.

A group of people are seen at Makhachkala airportExperts warn of a growing propensity to inflict violenceImage: AP/picture alliance

Will riots spill over into other Russian republics?

Sirashudinova said that for the past five to seven years, antisemitic sentiments in the republic had been stoked from outside. She said Jews have increasingly been made scapegoats, with people in Dagestan who are uneducated especially susceptible to such manipulation.

“Education is an issue in Dagestan,” the research said. “And this is also manifesting itself in this conflict.”

Dennis Volkov of Russia’s independent Levada polling center, however, doubts antisemitic aggression will spill over from Dagestan into other Russian regions.

“There is limited protest potential at the moment, although smaller demonstrations can be seen here and there, from time to time,” Volkov told DW.

He says current polls show two-thirds of the Russian population are not at all interested in the Middle East conflict: “People in Russia are much more concerned with their own problems.”

This article was originally written in German.