Why Was It In the North Caucasus that Anti-Semitic Violence Broke Out?
November 2, 2023
  • Denis Volkov

    Director of the Levada Center (Moscow)
Levada Center Director Denis Volkov looks at the unrest in Dagestan and neighboring regions sparked by the latest episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Volkov attributes it mostly to the dismal socio-economic situation in the North Caucasus.
The original text in Russian appeared in Forbes and is being published here with their permission.

My colleagues at the Levada Center have been monitoring the issues of mass xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Russia for almost 35 years. Since 1989, more than ten large-scale sociological surveys have been conducted, the last in April 2022.

Lev Gudkov, one of the people leading the monitoring, has written that one might expect the “special operation,” along with the attendant anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western rhetoric of Russian politicians and media, to cause a broad rise in aggressiveness at the grassroots level toward various ethnic minorities and foreigners; however, the last survey did not confirm this hypothesis. An increase in antipathy or hostility was recorded specifically toward Americans and Ukrainians. But attitudes toward Jews, compared to other ethnic and racial groups, seem to be the most favorable or at least calm.
For more than 30 years, attitudes toward Jews have remained emphatically positive: when people are asked directly, the sum of positive statements reaches 88%, while negative ones make up about 9%.
However, more detailed questions reveal nuances. For instance, up to 22% of Russians are ready to openly tell sociologists that “there are a lot of Jews in the country’s leadership” and show dissatisfaction about that. When asked whether it is necessary to monitor how many Jews are in leadership positions and limit their number, about a third of respondents (35%) answer in the affirmative. Although the absolute majority of Russians (82%) rhetorically agree that people should be free to choose who they want as a spouse, hidden prejudices emerged regarding marriage with a Jewish man or woman, with up to 27-29% of respondents against it.

Traditional religious prejudices against Jews (e.g. “they crucified Christ”) are quickly eroding – they are seen in insignificant numbers, in the range of 13-17%, and are gradually disappearing. Over 30 years, disagreement with such statements has doubled from 30% to 59-63%. The share of positive stereotypes (“good workers;” “honest, decent people;” “many talented people”) clearly prevails and has been gradually growing – according to various estimates, by 20-50%. While the proportion of aggressively anti-Semitic attitudes – for example that “Jews have an unpleasant appearance” – remains unchanged at approximately 13-17%, the rejection of such attitudes has increased in recent years from 60% to 70-74%.

Importantly for current events, the surveys find that
“The greatest intolerance toward Jews is demonstrated by people who do not have higher education and work in low-status professions or are unemployed.
The crowd storming the Makhachkala Airport with a Palestinian flag, Dagestan, October 29.
Source: Telegram
Xenophobic and even racist ideas are concentrated in middle or higher age groups, especially in “peripheral” social strata and places characterized by low incomes or even poverty – villages, small towns and the lower strata of megacities. It is there that internal tensions, together with disparities between aspirations and opportunities, are most pronounced, resulting in a high potential for hidden aggression.

Attitudes toward Jews are gradually improving as the age groups that went through state anti-Semitism pass away. Young people, especially from urban areas, are much less susceptible to such sentiments. Still, many anti-Jewish prejudices have been preserved and reproduced in the mass consciousness, forming, as Gudkov calls it, a layer of “dormant anti-Semitism.” These stereotypes are transmitted not through government institutions and the central media, but in everyday interpersonal communication, including on social networks and instant messengers. The slow weakening of these attitudes does not mean that they cannot be actualized under certain conditions. Dormant prejudices can be “awoken” at a moment of turmoil. This is what seems to have happened in the North Caucasus.

Anti-Israeli protests: The global context and the events in Dagestan

We will not discuss whether the events in Dagestan were deliberately inspired from abroad – let competent experts deal with that. But the fact is that the pogrom at the Makhachkala Airport took place against the backdrop of worldwide protests condemning Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip. Such protests took place in France, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, the US, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and elsewhere. Probably the biggest of these actions was the rally in Turkey at the Istanbul Airport with the participation of President Erdogan. In France, home to the largest Muslim diaspora in Europe, the highest security alert level was put into effect.

In Russia, most anti-Israeli protests were concentrated in the Muslim regions of the North Caucasus. And this is no coincidence. Our surveys on attitudes toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict show that Russian Muslims are one of the groups that respond most emotionally to events in that part of the world. Two thirds of Russians do not want to take a side in the conflict, while every fifth sympathizes with the Palestinians and approximately 6% with the Israeli side. Meanwhile, among those professing Islam, almost half sympathize with the Palestinians at 46%.
Religious solidarity is at work, generating sympathy among fellow believers – even though the current conflict began with an attack by Hamas. In no other social group were such intense emotions observed.
Perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have fueled anti-Semitic sentiment for another reason. The prevailing view in Russian society today is that the main driver of the ongoing instability in the Middle East is the US and its NATO allies. This is precisely the explanation that is constantly heard in statements made by Russian officials and in materials produced by the national media. It is quite possible that due to Washington’s unconditional support of Israel, some of the hostility that was accumulating toward Americans in recent years has been redirected toward Israelis and become an additional trigger for anti-Semitic sentiment.

The socio-economic context

Still, despite all the sympathy for the Palestinians among Russian Muslims, the most aggressive actions have so far occurred in the North Caucasus, and not, for example, in Kazan or Ufa. And this also has its own explanation, which fits well into the general logic seen in the sociological monitoring of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. As mentioned above, such manifestations can be most expected in socially depressed places.

Statistics show that Dagestan is one of the least prosperous regions in Russia. According to Rosstat data for the second quarter of 2023, the average per capita monthly income in there was RUB 31,694 (71st out of the 86 regions with data), versus the national average of RUB 47,798.

For comparison: Moscow ranks fourth (RUB 99,617) and Tatarstan is 16th (RUB 51,309). Meanwhile, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia, where anti-Israeli protests have also taken place in recent days, are 74th and last, 86th, respectively.

In terms of unemployment, as of the beginning of 2023, Dagestan had one of the most alarming figures in the country – whereas the overall unemployment rate across Russia was less than 4.0%, 11.6% of the adult population in Dagestan could not find work (83rd place out of the 85 regions with data). Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia showed similar figures.

Note that mass protests in the North Caucasus are a regular occurrence, and for a variety of reasons. Dagestan experienced violent protests in 2022 during the “partial mobilization.” Back in 2020, Dagestanis protested against the construction of 5G towers, while in neighboring North Ossetia people rebelled against quarantine measures during the pandemic. The list goes on. This time, the mass frustration and social tension spilled over into a pogrom.

Despite the significant reduction in anti-Semitic sentiment in Russian society, pockets of dormant everyday anti-Semitism persist, primarily in environments of stagnant poverty and instability, among people without higher education, stable work and clear prospects for the future. Thus, the outbreak of anti-Semitic violence that took place against the backdrop of another conflict in the Middle East occurred exactly where it could have been expected.
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