It’s a scene burned into the Jewish psyche. Mobs form and begin to prowl for Jews. They block the roads. They force their way past the authorities. Their intent is clear. They want to teach the Jews a lesson. And that means kill them. Chisinau, Baghdad, Fez. Pogroms are the horrific drumbeat of Jewish history that all our families have run from. And this week it almost happened again in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, in Russia’s tense, Muslim and often violent North Caucasus.
A thousand miles from Gaza, after protests in London marched chanting the viral slogan — “Globalise the Intifada” — the ancient melded with the modern and the terrifying with the absurd in Makhachkala. It began on the app Telegram. A frenzied mob waving Palestinian flags then stormed the airport, burst through the security and surrounded a plane from Tel Aviv. “Please stay seated, and don’t try to open the plane’s door,” the cabin crew announced. “There is an angry mob outside.” Just under the wing, an aspiring pogromist in a sports hoodie, was photographed sticking his head into the jet engine. That might be where the Jews are hiding.
It’s easy to say this is just Russian history rearing its head. It was pogroms, from Kyiv to Minsk, in the Tsar’s fraying empire that began the great stampede of Eastern European Jews westwards and was the biggest spark to the Zionist movement. But what happened in Dagestan is not a simple repeat of a Russian historical pattern. The mobs were not assembling to take revenge on the Jews for imaginary crimes or to expel them from the cities. They were whipped up around a new kind of fear. That Jewish “refugees” from Israel were now going “return where they came from.”
The Mountain Jews, a martial, military-minded community, have a legend — that they are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. And their ancestors, speaking a Persianate language, hinting at ancient journeys through long-vanished empires to mountains in the north, have lived in the Caucasus since pre-Islamic times. In the 1990s, when the implosion of the Soviet Empire left the North Caucasus in a state of civil war and Islamic extremism, they mostly emigrated to Israel seeking safety. The fact that mobs could form so easily around hallucinations of their return shows in one small city the malignant hypocrisy of those branding Israeli Jews “colonists” and calling for a “decolonial” or “Algerian solution” between the river and the sea.
The majority of Israeli Jews are the descendants of Jewish families from Islamic lands. That is to say, Mizrahi or Sephardi Jews who never left the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Are millions of Jews supposed to “return” to North Africa, where, in Tunisia, a synagogue was recently burnt to the ground by a furious mob? Are millions of Jews supposed to “return” to Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Egypt or Iraq where their families fled waves of pogroms and persecution to the state of Israel? The mob in the airport in Dagestan is what would be waiting for them. Because surely such principled people would not be advocating expelling the ancient and indigenous Jewish populations of the Middle East to America?
Framing Israel as “French Algeria” denies its Middle Eastern nature. Mahmoud Abbas, the ageing leader of the Palestinian Authority, a man whose early life as a refugee from 1948 was spent in exile, was shocked when he learnt that most Israeli Jews were the descendants of Middle Eastern families. This had a profound impact on him — a man who, for his many flaws and antisemitic outbursts, has spent much of his life in negotiations with Israelis. This is because it unlocked why branding Israel as French Algeria, as was popular in ideological circles then as now, was a fundamental misread on the nature of the Jewish State and harmful to Palestine.
What happened at Makhachkala International Airport illustrates the moral and strategic bankruptcy of the “decolonial frame”. There are — and nobody serious is denying — deep colonial dimensions to Israel’s founding and the occupation. But critically, Israeli Jews are not settlers with a metropole to return to. Those claiming this in the West are wilfully blind to the nature of Israel. The assumption — or rather the fantasy — that Israel is French Algeria, and that if life can simply be made unbearable for the population they will leave, has been key to Palestinian extremism and rejected by moral heavyweights such as the poet and author Mahmoud Darwish. The only solution — if one exists — is one that recognises that everybody is staying. Because Israeli Jews know there is no going back to the lands they fled. They know exactly the meaning of what almost happened in Makhachkala.