Around the Jewish World Uzbek Jews Scared but Safe As Turmoil Hits Parts of Country

Jewish leaders in Uzbekistan say members of their community feel safe and that no Jews have been hurt in recent unrest that has hit parts of the country. But speaking off the record, some Jews told JTA that Jews could begin leaving Uzbekistan later this year if the situation continues to deteriorate.

In an interview published Tuesday, Uzbekistan’s main Jewish religious authority said it was business as usual for his community, and condemned those responsible for anti-government protests in the Central Asian nation of 26 million.

“The Jewish community of Tashkent and other cities continues to live a normal life,” David Gurevich, a Chabad emissary and chief rabbi of Uzbekistan, was quoted as saying by AEN, a Russian Jewish news agency affiliated with the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, a leading sponsor of Jewish life in Central Asia.

“The Jewish community condemns any disorders against the existing authorities,” he added.

Violence erupted last week in the eastern city of Andijan when armed men stormed a jail and took control of the local administration building. The rebels were joined by thousands of people who took to the streets to protest the trial of 23 local businessmen on charges of Islamic extremism and to complain about poverty and unemployment.

Government authorities blamed the turmoil on radical Islamic groups, and troops opened fire on the crowd.

Uzbek authorities said soldiers shot only at gunmen from a radical Islamist group, but on Tuesday added that more that 150 people had been killed. Opposition sources said the death toll was closer to 800.

The unrest later spread to the eastern border town of Korasuv, where locals seized control of government buildings Saturday.

Andijan, where the turmoil started, is home to some 500 Jews, according to Gurevich.

“No members of the Jewish community took part in the unrest,” said the rabbi, adding that the small synagogue in Andijan remained open.

A Moscow-based Jewish official said his organization has been in touch with the Uzbek Jewish community, and that there had been no calls for urgent help.

“There is a certain sense of stability now after what happened in Uzbekistan, and although I don’t think this will last long, at this point there is absolutely no panic or sense of urgency within the community,” said Roman Spektor, a spokesman for the Moscow office of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

Nearly 90 percent of Uzbekistan’s estimated 20,000 Jews live in Tashkent, the capital, which has not been hit by protests.

“In Tashkent everything is quiet, as if nothing is happening anywhere in the country,” a Jewish activist, who asked not to be identified, told JTA on Tuesday in a telephone interview from the Uzbek capital.

“When the government point of view dominates the press and airwaves here, we don’t even know exactly what is going on,” the activist said. “Rumors seem to be the most reliable source of information.”

The Federation of Jewish Communities, which operates synagogues and day schools across the former Soviet Union, said it will increase the budget for Uzbekistan to make sure the Jewish community has enough security.

“We are sending them additional funds to set up more armed guards around schools,” said Avraham Berkowitz, the federation’s Moscow-based executive director. “They are actually in a lot of fear, but the leaders of the community are trying to calm down the people.”

Since independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been ruled by autocrat Islam Karimov. Despite his increasingly poor record on human rights and democratic issues, Karimov has earned a reputation in the United States as a leader able to keep a tight rein on Islamic fundamentalists in an area plagued by radical and separatist trends.

Apparently as part of his campaign to please the West, Karimov has made many overtures to the Jewish community, allowing Jews to open synagogues, schools and charitable centers.

“Karimov’s government has always been very helpful to the Jewish community, allowing Jews to practice freely, to be public, to educate their children,” Berkowitz said.

A Moscow Jewish woman who has family in Uzbekistan said she urged her relatives to pack up and leave as soon as they can.

“I called my sister in Tashkent the day it all began,” said Mira Rivlina, a pediatrician from Moscow. “I asked her what else needs to happen to make her understand she doesn’t have to sit there any more. But you know, she has family, two kids, and it’s hard to make a quick decision unless someone breaks into your own apartment one day.”

While there’s now no indication that Uzbek Jews are planning to leave, “if the situation drags on for months, we can expect more people will go on aliyah or move to Russia,” Berkowitz said.

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