Kyrgyz shul attacked amid upheaval

A police truck burns in front of the presidential palace in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on the day opposition protesters overthrew the government, April 7, 2010. (Svobodanews.ru)

A police truck burns in front of the presidential palace in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on the day opposition protesters overthrew the government, April 7, 2010. (Svobodanews.ru)

MOSCOW (JTA) – As the capital of Kyrgyzstan erupted in violence last week, members of the Central Asian nation’s small Jewish community held their breath and sat tight.

The ORT school in the capital, Bishkek, shuttered its doors, sending students home just as they were returning from their Passover break on April 7. With public transportation suspended and the city in disarray, only three people made it to morning services at the local synagogue that day. Meanwhile, Jewish community leaders exchanged frantic phone calls, updating each other about the situation on the street.

In the most frightening incident for the Jewish community, Bishkek’s synagogue was attacked, with assailants hurling molotov cocktails at the one-story building and trying to set it aflame. Kyrgyzstan is a majority Muslim country, but it is not known for anti-Semitism.

An anti-Semitic banner was also unfurled near the presidential palace at a central gathering area for protesters. In another incident, a journalist in the country told JTA about an encounter with a group of drunken young people demanding to know if the journalist was Jewish. The leader of the group made a disparaging remark about Jews.

"It’s the first time in the history of our community here that we see such clear signs of anti-Semitism," the country’s chief rabbi, Arieh Reichman, told Reuters after the synagogue attack. "Kyrgyzstan has always been hospitable. During Soviet times and under its later leaders, it has always been tolerant. So what is happening right now is very alarming."

In last week’s revolution, opposition protestors stormed the presidential compound, overwhelmed the police and took control of the government. The president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, fled, and more than 40 people were killed. A former foreign minister announced she was leading a new, transitional government, which would last six months.

It’s still not clear where this speedy revolution will leave the country — or its estimated 1,500 Jews, most of whom live in Bishkek.

Local Jews speculated that the outburst of anti-Semitism that accompanied the revolution was prompted by resentment toward Evgeny Gurevich, a 33-year-old American Jew with close ties to the deposed president. Founder of the MGN Consulting Group, Gurevich had been a powerful financial backer of the president and his family. Kyrgyz blogs and media outlets had been buzzing about the connection between the two men for the last month or so, since a Rome court issued an arrest warrant for Gurevich in March on suspicion of money laundering and fraud. Opponents of the Kyrgyz regime had used this news to blame the country’s president for consorting with criminals. Gurevich had no known ties with the Jewish community in Kyrgzstan.

The Jews of Kyrgyzstan are comprised largely of the second- and third-generation descendants of Jews from Ukraine, Belarus and central Russia who fled there to escape the Nazis during World War II. Most returned home after the war, but enough remained to make an impression in Kyrgyzstan, where many of the Jews went into health care. Even during the era of Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism, there was little hostility toward Jews in this remote republic, local Jews said. When the country became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jewish security remained good. Though three-quarters of Kyrgyzstan’s 5.5 million people are Muslim, radical Islam has not really gained a foothold in the country.

Last Friday, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s FSU region, Alex Katz, arrived in Kyrgyzstan to assess the situation. He said the streets were calm, that a nighttime curfew was in effect and that the country’s airports were operational. The Jewish Agency said it is contact with the Jews there who are in various stages of their aliyah process and has extended assistance to others interested in immigrating to Israel.

“The situation in the city remains unstable,” Reichman told JTA last week. “All the community leaders keep in touch with each other and with the community members, mostly by phone. I have been contacted by an Israeli foundation that could provide us with humanitarian aid.”

More than half of Bishkek’s Jews are on community welfare, receiving aid through the local Hesed center, which is sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Asher Ostrin, the executive director of JDC’s operations in the former Soviet Union, said the community was working to ensure that its Jewish welfare clients experience no disruption during the unrest.

“When the rioting spread earlier in the week, and then escalated into a full scale revolution, we established immediate and ongoing contact with our sources in the community,” Ostrin said in a dispatch to JDC officials last week. “There were no reported injuries among the Jewish population. Critically, we were told that services to elderly clients were not interrupted.”

After shuttering early on April 7, all the city’s Jewish institutions stayed closed for the remainder of the week, reported Vladimir Katsman, director of Bishkek’s ORT school.

“Yesterday we had to finish the lessons earlier than usual and to close the school until the situation gets more foreseeable. We even called the parents to come and take the children, because we were not sure the school bus that usually takes the children home could be safe enough,” Katsman said on April 8. “Our ORT school is under surveillance. It became more difficult and expensive to keep the security men on duty these days, but we managed to solve the problem.”

The closest Israeli embassy, in neighboring Kazakhstan, said it was tracking events closely.

The ousted government, while widely considered repressive, was also pro-Western, and the United States has a large air base in Kyrgyzstan that’s critical to the NATO campaign in nearby Afghanistan. It’s not clear whether or not the U.S. friendliness toward the former regime — which the opposition denounced and which U.S. observers described as a stance borne of pragmatism — will cost the West in its relationship with the new Kyrgyz government, which has close ties to Moscow. For the time being, the new government announced it would continue to allow U.S. planes to fly over the nation en route to Afghanistan.Opposition members who took control last week said they were interested in creating a government based on “justice and democracy.”

Kyrgyzstan is bordered by three other former Soviet Republics — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – as well as China.

“Jews were treated good in Bishkek even in Soviet times, and we hope that whatever government is in power in Kyrgyzstan, this will remain the same and Jews will prosper here,” Reichman said.

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