Anti-Semitic riot in Russia's Dagestan leaves some local Jews shaken

DERBENT, Russia (Reuters) -There were few visitors to Derbent's sprawling Jewish cemetery in Russian's Muslim-majority Dagestan region on Thursday, but some of those laying flowers on relatives' graves said an anti-Semitic riot four days earlier had left them feeling unsettled.

"Such things upset us a lot," said Zoya Solomonova, who now lives in St Petersburg but recalled growing up in a neighbourhood of Derbent where she said Russians, Jews, Azerbaijanis and others all got along.

"We want peace and friendship to be always present here," she said.

The riot, at an airport in the regional capital of Makhachkala 66 miles (107 km) from Derbent, saw hundreds of Dagestanis, mostly young men, rampage through the terminal building and onto the tarmac hunting for Israeli citizens and Jewish people who had just flown in on a flight from Tel Aviv.

Apparently caught off guard, the authorities managed to evacuate the passengers to safety, but not before a bus carrying them had been chased around the airport by a mob angry over Israel's bombing of Gaza in response to the slaughter of Israeli civilians by Hamas on Oct. 7.

The police made over 80 arrests and President Vladimir Putin, who accused the West and Ukraine of stirring up the trouble, convened an emergency meeting with security chiefs to discuss what could be done to prevent a repeat.

With row after row of gravestones engraved with the Star of David or portraits and pictures of the dead, Derbent's Jewish cemetery gives an indication of how large this coastal city's Jewish population once was.

The community, which was centred around a synagogue in central Derbent, numbered 13,000 in 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has since shrunk to just hundreds of people. Many took advantage of newly open borders to emigrate to Israel or move to Moscow or other cities.

An Islamist insurgency which spilled over from neighbouring Chechnya to roil Dagestan in the 2000s and 2010s saw more leave a region that has long been one of Russia's poorest with high rates of unemployment, especially among young men.

In 2013, Derbent's then rabbi was shot and wounded in an apparent assassination attempt.

An ancient walled city straddling a narrow pass between the Caucasus mountains and the Caspian Sea, Derbent still continues to play host to one of the country's oldest Jewish communities though.

One of a string of enclaves of so-called Mountain Jews that pepper both Russia's Caucasus and neighbouring Azerbaijan, Derbent's Jews still speak a dialect of Persian that evokes their hometown's rich history.

Several Jewish leaders in Derbent declined to speak to Reuters about the riot, citing security concerns.

Some Jews have likened the violence to Tsarist-era pogroms against Jews.

"The pogrom in Dagestan only serves to underscore a terrible and uncomfortable truth," Shneor Segal, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Azerbaijan, said after the riot.

"Even in our region, the Caucasus, where Jews have already been all but decimated, anti-Semites will use any excuse – the current Middle East crisis being just the latest – to terrorise the dwindling numbers of us that still remain.

Today there are barely 2,000 Jews still living in Dagestan, once home to 10 times that."

Alexander Fedotov, who was visiting Derbent's Jewish cemetery with Zoya Solomonova, said he thought the airport riot had been planned by someone intent on spoiling ties between Russia and Israel.

"As far as I remember this was the first time something like this happened in Makhachkala and I hope it will be the only time. Even the war in Chechnya didn't provoke peaceful people to shed blood. I hope things will settle down and this horrific incident won't be repeated," he said.

Another visitor to the cemetery, Eduard Ilgiyaev, who was tending his father's grave, said he would not be intimidated by what had happened.

"I'm a pure real Mountain Jew," he said.

"I've never felt any discomfort living here all my life since childhood and I'm almost 70 now. I've never felt anything like that and I'm not planning on feeling it."

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Andrew Osborn and Felix Light; Editing by Daniel Wallis)