Hundreds of men, some waving Palestinian flags, stormed the airport in Dagestan’s Makhachkala on Sunday night. Their goal was to seek out and attack the passengers of a flight from Tel Aviv, Israel. After a few hours, the security forces brought the situation under control and arrested eight dozen rioters. Several police officers ended up in hospital after violent clashes.
Israeli expert on Jews in the post-Soviet space, Leonid Gershovich from Tel Aviv University, speaks in an interview for Nauzal about a new and violent form of anti-Semitism, which is inspired by Islamist fundamentalist rhetoric coming from the Middle East. But he also points to the anti-Semitic statements of Russian officials, which go back to anti-Semitism from the time of the Soviet Union.
“On the one hand, the Russian leadership officially claims that it is not against Jews and Israel, but on the other hand, they are coming up with a more sophisticated form of anti-Semitism than we have experienced in the past. And it is precisely this atmosphere that allows people in Dagestan to step into a much more violent form of anti-Semitism,” he explains.
How do you view the anti-Semitic attack in Makhachkala, Dagestan, when a mob wanted to attack passengers on a plane from Israel? Is this an exception, or rather a sign that anti-Semitism is growing in Russia?
This is a new trend in the Muslim-populated Russian republics. Anti-Semitism has existed there for some time, but more so in Chechnya than in Dagestan, and it is mainly latent. Violent manifestations of anti-Semitism are very rare in these parts of the Russian Federation.
What does Russia gain from the war in the Middle East?
The war in Israel is distracting from the events in Ukraine. Russia can benefit from this, according to which the allies will send supplies of aid to Israel. In the long term, however, it is not excluded that the situation will turn against him.
But in Russia, we see anti-Semitic rhetoric that is very sophisticated, and it comes from Russian officials. An example is Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov or his press attache Marija Zakharova, who are trying to teach Israel about what the Holocaust is. Or Lavrov’s words that Hitler had Jewish blood, those are really strange statements. On Sunday, however, we experienced something different at the airport in Makhachkala.
Moreover, the incident in Makhachkala was not the only…
Two days ago there was another incident in Khasavjurt, also in Dagestan, and in the city of Nalchik they set fire to a Jewish center under construction. This is different from traditional Russian neo-anti-Semitism, which sophisticatedly points to Jews without saying so directly. What has happened in the past few days is inspired by Islamist fundamentalist rhetoric coming from the Middle East.
What is important is that this new anti-Semitism in Russian Muslim areas is seen by people as something that is okay. We did not see any clear condemnation of what was happening. They did not even condemn the violence itself, let alone the fact that it was anti-Jewish. And instead they blamed him on Ukraine, which is said to be using anti-Semitism to destabilize this part of Russia and wants people to protest against the government.
You mentioned the words of Sergey Lavrov. So do you think the Kremlin is trying to incite anti-Semitism?
Yes, in my opinion it incites anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is of course banned in Russia, but yet here we have the growing anti-Semitic rhetoric that has always been in Russia. And it went both ways, from the top to the people and vice versa.
It doesn’t always have to be some hard anti-Semitism, but perhaps just a stereotypical perception of Jews. Over the past year and a half, or actually since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, my colleagues and I have observed the return of “good old” Soviet anti-Semitism. Blaming Israel and Zionism for everything.
Who is Leonid Gershovich
Expert on Jews in the area of the former Soviet Union. An academic working at Tel Aviv University is the author of a study on Jews in the interwar period in the territory of southeastern Belarus. He also deals with the Holocaust in the USSR, Zionist movements in the USSR, and Jewish life in the post-Soviet space. He teaches, among other things, the Hebrew Bible and history.
On the one hand, the Russian leadership officially claims that it is not against Jews and Israel, but on the other hand, they are coming up with a more sophisticated form of anti-Semitism than we have experienced in the past. And it is precisely this atmosphere that allows the people of Dagestan to step up to a much more violent form of anti-Semitism.
So is anti-Semitism growing even in majority Russian society, i.e. outside Muslim areas?
Yes, it is the current trend. After all, anti-Semitism is a very old phenomenon in Russia, dating back to 1772, when Poland was partitioned. There were no Jews in Russia until then, but after the partition of Poland, part of the population got there and the Russians had to deal with it – the ideas were different, from assimilation to emigration to extermination. During Tsarist times, anti-Semitism was used as a tool to advance various goals in society, and the same was basically the case during the times of the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin.
As an expert on the post-Soviet space, do you see similar tendencies in other post-Soviet republics?
Something very similar is happening in Belarus, where propagandists are trying to imitate their Russian colleagues. There is no free press in the country, everything is controlled by the government. And the media has a role that we don’t know in your country or in Israel, namely official propagandists.
In Russia, such a propagandist is, for example, Vladimir Solovyov. Then there is a man in Belarus named Ryhor Azaronak who does the same thing. All of their anti-Semitic statements are regularly published by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora and they prepare reports on the rise of anti-Semitism. Violent anti-Semitism is not there, just like in Russia. For now.
How Russia is taking action against critics of the regime
“I admit guilt: I failed to convince enough people of how great a danger the current Kremlin regime is to the world,” Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza said in his closing speech. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison on Monday.
“My case is political. Therefore, I do not think of myself as someone who is on trial for committing a crime. For me, admitting guilt is the same as a teacher admitting that he is a teacher, or a doctor admitting that he is a doctor.” These words were heard in the closing speech of 41-year-old Russian opposition politician Lilia Chanysheva before the district court in Ufa, eastern Russia. A woman who headed the staff of the Naval anti-corruption fund was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison on Wednesday for inciting extremism and creating an extremist organization.
You mentioned the war in Ukraine and the growing anti-Semitism in Russia. In your opinion, can this affect Russian-Israeli relations in the future?
Yes, there is already considerable tension between Russia and Israel. Part of the Russian government – it doesn’t have to be Putin – has quite anti-Jewish attitudes, some have even expressed them clearly. Some people would prefer a return to Soviet times with an anti-Zionist and anti-Israel attitude.
Otherwise, the ties between Israel and Russia continue, even if they are much weaker than, say, eight or ten years ago. He doesn’t think that the Russian government, for example, is very interested in what is happening in Gaza. Still, they play this card. Why did they invite Hamas officials to the talks despite what Hamas did? For Russia, it is a tool to put pressure on Israel. Moscow wants to show that it is still a powerful empire that takes an independent position, different from the Americans.
Russia’s position is now very problematic for Israel, Israel cannot accept that Russia is negotiating with Hamas. Israel is in a war with him that he must win, there is no room for compromise.
Is Russia’s dealings with Hamas legitimizing terrorists in the eyes of the Russian public?
Of course. Ordinary Russians do not understand the history and ideology of Hamas, and when the government deals with them, it is fine with them. However, many Russians also do not accept the government’s position and do not agree with it, but they, in turn, cannot freely express what they really think. In a country where you call a war a war and not a special military operation, you will go to jail.
Do you think the Jews in Russia now have reasons to worry?
I believe that what happened in Makhachkala is one of the reasons for concern. They are not exactly in a stable situation, there are about 100,000 of them living in Russia, although there are discussions about that number, and rather it is not talked about. In 2020 and 2021, there were demonstrations in Moscow in support of Israel, this would no longer be possible in the current hostile atmosphere.
The lie on “Ukrainian antisemitism” was pushed since years. Israel’s embassy sadly chose to amplify it, cooperated with murky experts and ignored protests of the leaders of Jewish community like Yosyf Zisels. Now antisemitic mobs hunt Jews everywhere in Europe, but not in Ukraine
— Sergej Sumlenny, LL.M (@sumlenny) October 29, 2023
Is the deportation of Russian Jews to Israel still going on?
Aliyah continues now, but it is a very small number of people, a really large number of people came in the first months after the start of the war in Ukraine. They were mainly young people who could be drafted into the army.
You say a large number of people, what can be imagined under that? Hundreds, thousands?
A little over 30,000 people came to Israel. Interestingly, it is more people than came from Ukraine, there were a little over 10 thousand Jews who could come under the law of the right of return. Many others went to other countries such as Poland, Germany or Canada, perhaps even to the Czech Republic.
In Israel, we call it latte coffee alija, because those people from Russia are used to a high standard of living. They came mainly from big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. Some do not reach the same standard of living even in big cities like Tel Aviv or Haifa. They are quite critical of the Israeli reality.