Behind the Headlines: Jews in Moslem Lands of Old USSR Frightened by Growing Instability

The estimated 250,000 Jews who live in the six Moslem republics of the former Soviet Union feel endangered by the unstable conditions as the newly independent states seek to define themselves.

Political instability, deteriorating economic conditions, ethnic conflicts, increased anti-Semitism and rising Islamic fundamentalism are all contributing to the fears of Jews in Central Asia, according to Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Cardin, who also chairs the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, made this assessment after recently visiting the capitals of three of the republics: Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan; Tashkent, Uzbekistan; and Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

She was accompanied by Martin Wenick, the National Conference’s executive director, and Betsy Gidwitz, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is assistant treasurer of the National Conference.

The purpose of the trip was to assess the situation of the Jewish communities in the three republics, Cardin said. There are about 100,000 Jews in Uzbekistan, 60,000 in Kazakhstan and 10,000 to 12,000 in Tajikistan. Smaller Jewish populations are in the other Moslem republics: Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.

The Jews living there are either Bukharans, who have lived in the region for centuries, or Ashkenazi Jews, who came there during World War II fleeing the Nazis or were moved to the region as part of the effort to “Sovietize” the republics.

A WORLD ‘OUT OF CONTROL’

“The leaders of the Jewish communities are terrified,” Cardin said. They are in a “world somewhat out of control.”

The new nations are moving from slavery to freedom, but their political leadership has no experience in the democratic process or with majority rule, Cardin said. They were trained in Communist ideology and practice.

These newly independent republics want to assert their individuality, Cardin explained. This means first of all abandoning the Russian language for their native languages. This already puts the Jews at odds, since most of them speak Russian as their main language.

Cardin said that as the new nations exert their national identities, this could unleash “anti-social behavior” against the minorities in each republic, which include not only Jews but Russians and Germans.

The American group also wanted to assess the growing Islamic fundamentalism in the republics, where Iran and Turkey are both vying for influence.

During its visit, Cardin’s group saw that Islamic fundamentalism was already making inroads in Tajikistan, where an Iranian Embassy has already been established.

Cardin witnessed an Islamic fundamentalist demonstration in Dushanbe, in which demonstrators carried a banner saying “Death to Israel” on one side and “Death to Americans” on the other.

She said the community in Dushanbe is the most frightened of the three Jewish communities visited. Mainly Bukharan, it has always felt an integral part of the city. Its main synagogue is in the center of the capital.

“Since the independence, there has been a major increase in anti-Semitism and a sense that the government is not prepared or able to deal with this threat,” Cardin said.

MORE SENSITIVITY IN KAZAKHSTAN

This was basically true in all three republics, where, because of concern for their own insecurity, the governments have failed to move against anti-Semitism. While anti-Semitic literature is not allowed to be published, it is imported from outside and freely available at newsstands.

But in Kazakhstan, “we found sensitivity to the rights of minorities,” Cardin said. The reason may be that the Kazakhs are not a majority in their own country, so they understand that pluralism and diversity are essential, she said.

But one government minister who met with the American Jewish group warned that an explosion could take place.

Because of the government instability and economic disarray, most Jews want to leave, Cardin said.

“They are concerned there is no future,” she said. “The majority have begun to apply for letters of invitation from Israel.”

But Cardin added that many are in contact with relatives and friends in Israel, who have told them about the hardships that Jewish immigrants are enduring.

So some of the Jews believe they can wait out the uncertainty. Others fear leaving after there families have lived in the area for decades or even centuries.

Cardin said the Jews in the republics have strong family ties, so leaving does not mean just a couple and perhaps their children, but also in-laws and grandchildren or grandparents.

The United States and other Western countries have to help these republics, not just economically but also in moving toward democracy and a free society, Cardin said.

She believes much can be done through the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which all of the former Soviet republics have joined.

USE OF JACKSON-VANIK URGED

The CSCE, which was used to help press for emigration and other rights of Soviet Jews, has an established history allowing pressure to be exerted for human rights or democratic practices, she said.

Cardin believes that the embassies and consular offices being opened in the republics by the United States and other countries will also have an influence. So will non-governmental organizations, which have shown they can be effective in the CSCE.

As for economic aid, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry recently issued a statement endorsing U.S. and other Western support for the newly independent republics. It also supports lifting restrictions imposed on the former Soviet Union, which would allow such steps as extending credit and developing energy resources.

But at the same time, the National Conference has urged that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment be extended to the new republics, to ensure that free emigration is allowed. “We believe it was a very effective instrument” with the former Soviet government, Cardin said.

NEXT STORY