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Weighing the fallout Even after the riots in Dagestan, the Kremlin doesn’t believe Russian anti-Semitism is at a crisis level
Internal polling conducted by the Kremlin in recent weeks has found that in some regions of Russia, 15–20 percent of respondents reported having negative feelings towards “Jews and Israel,” according to the independent outlet Verstka. Egregious survey question wording aside, there’s no doubt that the protests, riots, and crimes that have occurred in the North Caucasus since the start of the war between Israel and Palestine revealed not just local opposition to Israel’s policies but clear anti-Semitism among some residents, and sources from Moscow’s Jewish community say they’re still on edge. According to Verstka’s sources close to Russia’s parliament, however, the Kremlin has no plans for a policy response, and that won’t change unless the situation reaches a new level of violence. In English, Meduza summarizes Verstka’s report.
No synagogue attacks, no problem
The Kremlin believes that for the time being, there’s no need to take any measures to ensure the safety of Russian Jews in the wake of the multiple anti-Semitic incidents in the North Caucasus in recent weeks, two people close to the Russian parliament told Verstka. “For now, there definitely won’t be any [policy response]. There haven’t been any attacks on synagogues or that kind of thing,” said one of the sources. “The Jewish community doesn’t feel threatened, either.”
The second source, also citing the lack of “pogroms at synagogues or the desecration of [Jewish] symbols,” agreed. “Rest assured, internal surveys are being conducted, and they’re not showing anything alarming,” he said.
At the same time, the source said, the Kremlin’s public opinion research indicates that the situation varies by region, with polls showing that “anti-Semitic attitudes” are more common in the North Caucasus than in other Russian subjects, as is support for Palestine. (It’s unclear whether this source may be conflating anti-Semitism with opposition to Israel.) The share of the population that “supports Palestine” in the current war between Israel and Hamas may be as high as 40–50 percent in the Russian Caucasus, according to Verstka’s source, while an average of 20–25 percent of Russians expressed support for Palestine in nationwide polls. 15–20 percent of survey respondents in the North Caucasian Federal District reported having negative or ambiguous attitudes toward “Jews and Israel,” the source said.
Meanwhile, the mood among secular Jews in Moscow is “not at all calm,” a source close to Moscow’s acting chief rabbi told Verstka, though he agreed that nobody is expecting the Dagestan incidents to precipitate similar incidents in the capital.
Sociologist Lev Gudkov wrote earlier this year about the relatively positive attitude among Russians towards Jewish people throughout the last three decades. “At first glance, it seems that the predominant sentiment is tolerance towards people of other races, nationalities, and ethnicities,” he said. In a Levada Center survey from April 2022, 88 percent of respondents reported having a positive view of Jewish people, while nine percent said their attitude was negative. For comparison, 53 percent of respondents said they feel positive about Americans, and 55 percent said they feel positive about Romani people. Broadly speaking, the respondents who reported negative attitudes towards Jewish people tended to be people without higher education, unemployed people or people with low-status professions, and residents of smaller towns and villages.
At the same time, Gudkov has written about “dormant anti-Semitism” — the persistence of anti-Jewish stereotypes and prejudices in Russia’s collective consciousness. These sentiments are spread not through the official media but through interpersonal communication, he said.
One sign of this phenomenon is the apparent opposition among Russians to the idea of a Jewish president: in a poll conducted by the independent research company Russian Field in September 2023, 33 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t want the country’s leader to be Jewish. (The prospect of a president who’s older than 70 or younger than 40, gay, Muslim, or from the North Caucasus was even more unpopular.)
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Levada Center director Denis Volkov said that latent prejudices can surface during periods of public upheaval, such as the recent incidents in the North Caucasus. He noted that expressions of xenophobia are more common in “depressed” social environments, and that Dagestan, where hundreds of rioters hunted for “Israeli refugees” in an airport last month, is one of Russia’s poorest regions. According to economic data from the second quarter of 2023, Dagestan had the 69th highest income per capita out of Russia’s 85 federal subjects. Other regions that have seen anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks, such as Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia, are even lower on the list.
A historical model of ‘peaceful coexistence’
However, other experts, such as Tatar political scientist Ruslan Aisin, disagree with the idea that the Caucasus is home to persistent anti-Semitic attitudes. “The perception of Israel has always been [negative] among Muslims because of the fact that the rights of Palestinians are violated there,” he explained. “As a result, the entire Islamic world has been paying close attention to what’s happening there. There are negative views of Israel — you could even call it righteous anger — because oppression is occurring there, and it’s obvious.”
According to Aisin, there has historically been very little anti-Jewish sentiment in the Caucasus — after all, he said, Mountain Jews and the Tat people, another Jewish minority group, have lived there for centuries. “In this sense, the Caucasus is an amazing example of peaceful coexistence,” he said. “But now the war has aggravated many people’s feelings, and the protests that have broken out, including in Dagestan, are one response to what’s happening [in Israel and Palestine].”
But regardless of their cause, many of the incidents that have occurred in the North Caucasus in recent weeks have featured slogans and imagery that are indisputably anti-Semitic. At a pro-Palestine rally in Cherkessk, participants demanded the “expulsion of ethnic Jews” and called for pogroms. In Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, an arsonist set a Jewish cultural center on fire and left the words “Death to Jews” written on a wall.
A source close to Moscow’s secular Jewish community told Verstka that the recent crises in the Caucasus set off alarm bells for many Jews in the capital. “As soon as there’s a bit of commotion, we’re like the old joke: ‘Alright, it’s started, probably throughout the entire country.’ But all joking aside, it can be scary. It’s as if years of assimilation can be momentarily swept away and forgotten, as if they never happened.”
English-language summary by Sam Breazeale
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