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Around the Jewish World: Jews in Estonia, Moldova Harmed by Language Laws

The language laws of two former Soviet republics are blocking employment opportunities for their respective Jewish communities and in one case impeding their chances of obtaining full citizenship rights.

In Estonia, most of the country’s Jews do not have passports and are not eligible for citizenship, according to a human rights group based in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.

The Roundtable on Ethnic Minorities’ Rights noted at a meeting last month that Estonian Jews are mostly Russian-speakers and therefore could not pass the language test required to obtain citizenship.

As a result, many Estonian Jews are seeking Russian passports or want to leave the country, the group said in a statement.

The roundtable was set up by the president of Estonia four years ago to monitor human rights violations of the nation’s minorities.

Estonia’s Jewish community numbers about 3,500 and is concentrated mainly in Tallinn.

Having settled in Estonia after World War II, the majority of Estonian Jews had neither the need nor obligation to master the country’s language during the period of Russian dominance.

But after Estonia asserted its full independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, many Jews received a non-citizen status and have found themselves with fewer employment opportunities than those available to ethnic Estonians.

Jews are not the only group who found themselves given this non-citizen status, which affects about 28 percent of Estonia’s 1.6 million population and primarily includes ethnic Russians.

The language provisions of Estonia’s citizenship law have been sharply criticized by Moscow as discriminatory and have strained Russian-Estonian relations.

In its statement, the roundtable said Jews were not to be blamed for their lack of fluency in Estonian. The fault lies with the state for not creating favorable conditions for Estonian-language training, the statement added.

A week after the human rights group met, the European Union agreed to subsidize Estonian-language lessons for minorities in order to smooth ethnic differences in the Baltic nation.

In Moldova, formerly the Soviet republic of Moldavia, the language issue has also caused concern for the local Jewish community.

Earlier this month, Moldova launched a campaign to test its citizens’ knowledge of Moldovan, the country’s official language.

Moldova’s language law includes provisions supportive of minority languages, including Yiddish and Hebrew.

But at the same time, according to the decision passed by the Moldovan Parliament, every citizen should show a good command of the country’s language if he or she seeks new employment or a renewed contract with a current employer.

Planned language-proficiency tests many drive as many as 500,000 citizens from their jobs, including several thousand Jews.

Moldova, which is located in southeastern Europe and borders Romania to the west, has an estimated 60,000 Jews, or about 1.5 percent of the general population.

As in many other former Soviet republics, the majority of the Jewish community in Moldova is Russian-speaking.

At least one parliamentarian spoke out on behalf of those unable to speak Moldovan.

“There is no fault for the half-million non-Moldovans who did not master the official language,” Valeriu Senik was quoted as saying at the Parliament session earlier this month.

Senik said the state did not have enough funds to pay for language courses for minorities.

He added that the language-proficiency tests should be suspended until the country’s financial situation improves enough to allow the government to help people learn Moldovan.

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