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Russia: Inadequate Response to Antisemitism in North Caucasus

Authorities Fail to Act as Mobs Target Perceived Jews 

A mob at an airfield of the airport in Makhachkala, Russia, where they had come to confront Jewish passengers arrived on a flight from Tel Aviv, October 30, 2023. © 2023 AP Photo

(Berlin) – Russian authorities have failed to respond adequately to a series of antisemitic acts, some of them violent, in several republics in Russia’s North Caucasus region in late October 2023 that left the region’s small Jewish population in fear, Human Rights Watch said today.

These acts included an attack on an airport by a mob hunting for Israeli passengers on a flight from Tel Aviv; an attack by another mob on a hotel, after false rumors that it was housing “Israeli refugees”; an arson attack on a Jewish community center under construction; and the use of antisemitic language by protesters at two rallies. An investigation into the airport riot is under way, but it is unclear whether the authorities will investigate the other incidents.

“Russian authorities have not acknowledged these incidents as antisemitic, called out antisemitism, or taken steps to provide reassurance and improve security for Jews living in the region,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While police have made arrests over the airport incident and an investigation is ongoing, it is important to investigate the other incidents and bring those responsible to account.”

Ovadia Isakov, the rabbi of Derbent, the Dagestan city with the largest Jewish community, told the media in response to the hotel attack that the future of hundreds of Jewish families in Dagestan was in doubt because people feared for their safety. “The situation in Dagestan is very dire,” he said. “The [Jewish] community is very frightened ... there is no place to run.”

The incidents took place against the backdrop of rising public anger in the North Caucasus over the Israeli authorities’ bombardment and blockade of Gaza in response to the Hamas-led October 7 attacks on Israel and amid a rash of false information and hate speech on social media and beyond related to the hostilities in Israel and Palestine. Many peaceful pro-Palestinian rallies have taken place across the North Caucasus region since October 7.

On October 27, online petitions started circulating in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, calling on the governor to stop the construction of a Jewish community center in Nalchik, the region’s capital. On October 29, the Telegram channel Baza reported that the construction site had been set on fire. Baza posted a video of the fire and a photo showing antisemitic graffiti calling for violence against Jews on the wall. A law enforcement source in Kabardino-Balkaria confirmed to the Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti that there was “an extremist inscription” at the site and that a preliminary inquiry was under way. Hours later, the regional Emergencies Ministry stated that their staff had put out a fire of “construction waste” in an “unfinished building” earlier that morning. Neither the police nor the investigative authorities have officially announced an investigation.

In Cherkessk, capital of the republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, following rumors on social media that “Israeli refugees” would resettle in the region, two rallies at which antisemitic language was used took place next to the republic’s administrative headquarters. During the first rally on October 28, several dozen people demanded a ban on “Israeli refugees” entering the republic and called on the authorities to expel Jews. Incitement of hatred is a prosecutable offense under Russian law. The police detained 34 people but charged them only with violating public assembly rules for failing to notify the authorities in advance, a widely used charge in Russia against peaceful anti-government protesters.

At a second rally, on October 30, participants said on camera that they “do not want to live alongside Jews.” Rashid Temrezov, governor of Karachay-Cherkessia, blamed “outside forces” for working to destabilize the situation and said that “any attempts to sow interethnic discord are unacceptable.” Federal authorities have not reacted publicly.

On October 28, a crowd gathered outside Hotel Flamingo in Khasavyurt, a city in Dagestan, after a video circulated online alleging that the hotel was hosting Israelis fleeing the violence and showing a man near the hotel wearing an apparent Jewish skullcap. The crowd demanded that hotel residents show themselves in the windows. When some did not, the crowd started throwing stones at the hotel while the police stood by.

The police allowed the crowd’s leaders inside to verify that no Israeli citizens or Jewish people were there. One video appears to show the police together with crowd leaders going door-to-door inside the hotel. Other videos show the leaders and the police explaining to the angry crowd outside that their delegation did not find any Jewish people. Speaking from a police vehicle, the crowd’s leader said, “I checked their passports, their faces … There are none.” Some of the mob leaders then moved with the police officers to inspect another local hotel for possible presence of Jewish clients. Federal authorities have not publicly reacted.

On October 29, hundreds of people descended on Uytash airport in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, to attack passengers on a flight arriving from Tel Aviv. The mob first took over the airport security checkpoint and started inspecting vehicles and people’s documents. One video shows a crowd surrounding a man who is trying to convince them he is Uzbek and taking away his passport until the “decision” is made, while someone in the crowd accuses him of being a Jew. The police stand by without interfering until a policeman finally pulls the man away.

The mob then stormed the airport and surrounded a plane that had earlier arrived from Tel Aviv. The Russian media outlet Mediazona reported that the passengers had already disembarked. Airport staff loaded the passengers onto a bus, but the mob chased it, shattering some of its windows with stones, and forced it to stop. The passengers showed the rioters their Russian passports in an apparent attempt to show that they were not Jewish. Military helicopters eventually evacuated the passengers to a military base close to Makhachkala. In media interviews, passengers said that the 15 Israeli citizens who were on the plane, many of whom had dual Russian-Israeli citizenship, had hidden their Israeli passports out of concern for their safety.

The Russian federal authorities should acknowledge these incidents as antisemitic, condemn antisemitism, and open an investigation into incitement of hatred.

On October 30, President Vladimir Putin met with high-ranking law enforcement officials and accused the US of “using their Ukrainian agents” to “instigate pogroms” in order to destabilize Russia. He instructed “the heads of all regions, heads of law enforcement and security agencies to [undertake] firm, timely and clear action to protect Russia’s constitutional order, the rights and freedoms of our citizens, inter-ethnic and inter-faith accord.” 

The recent spate of antisemitism follows Putin’s thinly-veiled antisemitic remarks in September when he mocked a Russian politician who fled to Israel after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, emphasizing and nastily sniggering at the politician’s supposed new Jewish name.

Earlier in 2023, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern about the spread of hate crime and racist hate speech in Russia, including by government-owned media, politicians, and public figures, and the lack of information on accountability for this. CERD said that the Russian government should “[f]irmly condemn any form of hate speech and distance itself from racist hate speech expressed by politicians and public figures ... and ensure that such acts are investigated and adequately punished.”

On November 2, Dagestan governor Sergey Melikov stressed that those responsible for specific damages in connection with the airport incidents should be held accountable while other participants, whom he described as “the victims of the provocation,” should be allowed to realize their mistake and learn from it. He called on law enforcement not to label as “extremists” those “unwittingly involved” but insisted such attacks should never happen again.

Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesperson, said that the Kremlin supported Melikov’s approach. Neither has explicitly referred to the mob as “antisemitic.”

The police detained 201 people for participating in the airport riots, with 155 of them charged with administrative offenses of petty hooliganism, disobeying police orders, and violating assembly rules. A Dagestan court and the police said that many were sentenced to administrative arrests of 3 to 10 days. Dagestan’s chief investigative agency opened a criminal “mass riots” case into the events.

States have an obligation under human rights law to protect the right to life and security of everyone within their country without discrimination. That includes protecting people against antisemitic hate violence. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance’s general recommendation on tackling antisemitism says that states should publicly condemn antisemitic acts, work with Jewish communities to ensure they feel safe, and ensure that antisemitic motivation is taken into account in policing and prosecuting violence.

The lack of adequate police response during the October 28 to 30 events contrasts dramatically with law enforcement’s systematic suppression of peaceful protests, arbitrary detention, and bogus prosecutions of government critics. Instead of cracking down on critics, authorities should focus efforts on preventing xenophobic attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

“Russian authorities need to investigate all of these incidents and bring to account those responsible for crimes apparently committed, or discipline officials who failed to act,” Williamson said. “Russia should also address the broader issue of antisemitism, including by working with Jewish communities to make sure they are safe and publicly condemning antisemitic hate.”


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