Attack widely condemned as an attempted 'pogrom'

Rioters storm airport in Russia’s Dagestan in hunt for Jews aboard flight from Israel

Mob breaks into terminal and onto tarmac, responding to call to ‘avenge Gaza’; airport eventually cleared, 60 arrested; PM urges Moscow to ‘protect all Israeli citizens, all Jews’

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Rioters at the airport in Makhachkala, Dagestan, October 30, 2023, shout antisemitic slogans as they protest the arrival of an airliner coming from Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP)
Rioters at the airport in Makhachkala, Dagestan, October 30, 2023, shout antisemitic slogans as they protest the arrival of an airliner coming from Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP)

Hundreds of people stormed into the main airport in Russia’s Dagestan region and onto the landing field on Sunday evening in an attempt to confront Jewish passengers aboard a flight from Israel. The violence in the mostly Muslim region, which erupted amid the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, prompted Israel to call on Russia to protect its citizens.

The protesters, many of them chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), broke through doors and barriers, with some running onto the runway, according to videos posted on social media and Russia’s RT and Izvestia media.

“There were hundreds at the [Makhachkala] airport. About 50 men approached the airplane and asked passengers if they were Jews. I said no. I’m Russian. They wanted to see my passport. I had a Russian passport. They hung around there and then pulled back at a certain point,” one eyewitness said in a recording obtained by Carmel News, a Telegram channel that focuses on Russia and Ukraine.

None of the passengers were hurt in the incident, according to Alex Bendersky, a Russian-speaking Israeli who covered the event on Carmel News.

According to an unconfirmed report by Carmel News, aboard the plane were Dagestani children who had undergone medical treatment in Israel.

The Israeli Ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Ben Zvi, later told the RTVI news outlet that no passengers on the flight, which included Israelis, Russians and people with dual citizenship, were hurt.

Overnight Sunday-Monday, Dagestan’s interior ministry said more than 150 “active participants in the unrest” had been identified, and 60 of them arrested.

Many of the men in the crowd had Palestinian flags. They came after another Telegram channel called for men to arrive at the airport to confront passengers of flight WZ 4728 by Red Wings, a Russian airline, which took off from Tel Aviv. The messages called on rioters to “avenge Gaza,” a reference to Israel’s war against Hamas, which broke out when terrorists staged an unprecedented massacre in southern Israeli towns on October 7, killing some 1,400 people.

Khabib Nurmagomedov, a former mixed-martial arts champion said to be the most famous figure in Dagestan, posted to over 35 million followers on Instagram earlier this month that Israel was carrying out “genocide” in Gaza, the Guardian reported.

According to officials in the Hamas-controlled territory, Israeli strikes have killed more than 8,000 people in Gaza. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own members killed in Gaza, and the victims of what Israel says are hundreds of errant Palestinian rockets aimed at Israel that have landed in the Strip since the war began.

The website Flightradar indicated that a Red Wings flight out of Tel Aviv had landed at Makhachkala at 7 p.m. The independent Russian media outlet Sota said it was a transiting flight that had been due to take off again for Moscow two hours later.

Rioters at the airport in Makhachkala, Dagestan, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023, shout antisemitic slogans as they protest the arrival of an airliner coming from Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP)

Dagestan is a Muslim-majority state in Russia, where federal and local authorities for years have struggled to subdue an Islamist insurgency. It has a dwindling Jewish community that is mostly concentrated in Derbent, near the border with Azerbaijan. Israelis are often kept apart from the general passenger population at Dagestani border crossings for fear of hostilities against them.

Videos from Sunday’s incident showed rioters approaching the plane, after it landed from Israel, and buses that airport authorities provided the passengers to transport them out of the airport. One video showed two children aboard a bus as men shouted at the passengers outside the vehicle. An airport security car could be seen in the background.

Video and photos on social media showed some in the crowd trying to overturn a police car. Others held hand-written banners saying “Child killers are not welcome in Dagestan” and “We’re against Jewish refugees.”

Other videos showed a crowd inside an airport terminal trying to break down doors as staff members tried to deter them.

Though police could be seen arresting at least three individuals on the tarmac outside the plane, the officers did not initially intervene, according to Boruch Gorin, a spokesperson for Russia Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar.

“The crowd is checking cars leaving the airport, searching for people, looking for Jews. No police in sight. They broke into the airport building,” Gorin wrote on Facebook.

In a statement, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday evening that “Israel expects the Russian authorities to protect all Israeli citizens and all Jews, and to act decisively against the rioters and against incitement to violence against Jews and Israelis.”

Lazar in a statement called on clergy in Dagestan to “not allow the bridges between people of faith to be burnt.” Dagestan’s top mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Afandi Abdulaev, urged an end to the rioting, saying, “This is not the way to protest.”

Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis and the former chief rabbi of Moscow, called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to “issue a resolute instruction against any acts of violence and pogroms targeting Jews in his nation.”

Shortly after the incident, Russia’s aviation agency Rossavitsia announced that it had closed the airport to incoming and outgoing flights and that the security forces had arrived on site.

“The situation is under control, law enforcement is working at the scene,” said a statement from the government of Russia’s Dagestan Republic posted on Telegram. Later Rossavitsia announced that the airport had been “freed” from the mob and would remain closed until November 6.

The Combat Antisemitism Movement, a prominent group founded in 2019, connected the incident to global antisemitic agitation that has peaked in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 assault.

“This latest outrageous attempted lynching in Dagestan, coupled with many other events around the world, including the ‘Flood Brooklyn for Gaza’ event on Saturday, demonstrate sadly that this is open season on Jews,” CAM CEO Sacha Roytman Dratwa said. “We call on authorities to use all the tools at their disposal to act against antisemites.”

A pro-Palestinian mob storms an airport terminal in Dagestan, Russia, as they look for passengers from a flight arriving from Israel, October 29, 2023. (video screenshot)

In a Telegram post, the Dagestani government urged citizens “not to continue illegal acts and not to interfere with the work of airport employees.” The text read: “It is not easy for each of us to stand and watch the inhumane massacre of a civilian population — the Palestinian people. At the same time, we urge residents of the republic not to succumb to provocations of destructive groups and not to create panic in society.”

The head of the Republic of Dagestan later denounced the mob and vowed punishment.

“All Dagestanis empathize with the suffering of victims by the actions of unrighteous people and politicians and pray for peace in Palestine. But what happened at our airport is outrageous and should receive the appropriate assessment from law enforcement,” Sergei Melikov, the republic’s governor, said on Telegram. “This will be done.”

Earlier Sunday, a Jewish center under construction in Dagestan was set ablaze and the words “Death to the Jews” were inscribed on its walls.

Ze’ev Elkin, a Ukraine-born member of Benny Gantz’s National Unity party who often served as a translator for Israeli prime ministers in talks with Russian President Putin, said the mob overrunning the airport was not coincidental or random, but rather the consequence of the Russian political leadership’s stance in the wake of Hamas’s massacre of Israelis.

“There are radical Islamic groups in those areas, but what’s happening today is not happenstance,” he said in a Channel 12 interview.

He noted that Russia’s deputy foreign minister gave “a king’s welcome” to a Hamas delegation in Moscow on Thursday, and said the Hamas delegates claim they were told that Russian military schools would for years study the “success” of the October 7 assault on southern Israel.

From left to right: Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Putin’s Special Envoy to the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov, and Hamas head of international relations Mousa Abu Marzouk, during a trilateral meeting in Moscow on October 26, 2023. (Hamas Telegram channel)

“When that is the nature of the discussion, obviously there are radical Islamic groups that conclude: It is permitted [to carry out attacks like the one in Dagestan],” Elkin said.

Elkin noted that Russian Jewish organizations have been telling Russian Jews “not to think about holding demonstrations in support of Israel. That wasn’t the case in the past. The atmosphere was different in the past.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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