Central Asian Jews live near the front


MOSCOW, Oct. 21 (JTA) — The overwhelming support that Jews in Central Asia have for their countries’ participation in the U.S.-led airstrikes against Afghanistan is not creating any troubles with their Muslim countrymen, say Jewish leaders in the region.

But given the tenuous state of relations between Jews and Muslims in the region, this assessment could soon change.

“There have been no acts of anti-Semitism recently. The situation is stable,” Roman Bensman of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, told JTA, praising Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Marek Fazilov, a leader of the Jewish community in Tashkent, added: “All local Jews side with President Karimov in his support of the U.S. action in Afghanistan and in his crackdown on the Islamic extremists inside the country.”

Karimov does indeed appear committed to maintaining friendly relations with his country’s Jews, and to his crackdown on Islamic fundamentalism.

But the reality for the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Jews in the region — split between Bukharan Jews, who have long been in the region, and Ashkenazic Jews, who settled here in the past 75 years — is, and long has been, far more complex.

“There has never been any real anti-Semitism here, probably because we have very close links with the locals and they perceive us” as their own people, Boris Borukhov, a leader of the 2,000-person Jewish community in Tajikistan, told JTA.

Borukhov is mainly speaking about the attitude of the Tajik population toward Bukharan Jews.

Bukharan Jews, who are descendants of the ancient Persian Jewish community and speak Farsi, are believed to have settled in what is now called Tajikistan as early as the fifth century B.C. E.

During the first few centuries of the common era, they moved north and eventually formed large communities in what is now Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.

During the ensuing centuries, Bukharan Jews enjoyed a generally peaceful co-existence alongside their Muslim neighbors.

Manifestations of anti-Semitism, including forced conversions to Islam and even cases of blood libel, were not unknown in Central Asia, but they were far less frequent and less numerous than in the Slavic parts of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

Bukharan Jews long made up the majority of Jews in the region, but after the mass emigration to Israel and the United States in the 1990s, they are now only an estimated one-third of Central Asia’s 60,000 Jews.

Many of the remaining two-thirds are the Ashkenazic Jews who settled here during World War II after fleeing Poland and Western parts of the Soviet Union.

Many of these Jews were skilled professionals — in such fields as medicine, engineering, science and music — who formed after the war the backbone of the local intelligentsia and greatly enhanced the level of culture and technology in the region.

But as far as many ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kazakhs are concerned, the Ashkenazic Jews were Russian colonizers.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, nationalists in Central Asia started to press for the expulsion of all Russian speakers, no matter what their ethnic origin.

As a result, 80 percent of these Ashkenazi Jews left during the last decade for Israel, Russia, United States and Germany.

Those who stayed occasionally meet with animosity.

Maria Semenova, a university instructor, says she was recently harassed and beaten by ethnic Uzbeks in a Tashkent bus on her way to classes.

When she appealed to the police, the officers held her until late at night at the police station, planted drugs in her bag and tried to squeeze a $300 bribe out of her before freeing her, she said.

According to her, the police said, “What are you Jews still doing here? We’re the masters of the place. You have nothing to do here.”

As Mikhail Degtiar puts its, “There is no state anti-Semitism. But on the everyday level there is a permanent pressure. All Russian speakers live in a state of a constant fear. Besides the Islamic terror, there is the terror of the authorities against everybody.”

Degtiar, a sociology professor, would know.

Until recently, he was a Jewish community leader in Uzbekistan. But after the authorities pressed charges against him for an article he published in a journal in which he predicted the end of Jewish life in Uzbekistan, he fled to the United States.

Jewish leaders report that Muslim-Jewish relations have not deteriorated, but some worry that tensions could mount as the war in Afghanistan intensifies.

“The situation is stable, there are no anti-Semitic outbursts, but there is an uneasy feeling because the war is drawing nearer,” Rosa Fish, the leader of the 2,500-strong Jewish community in Kyrgyzstan, considered the most democratic country in the region, told JTA.

Indeed, reports from provincial cities in Tajikistan say Islamic activists are distributing leaflets blaming the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Zionists who wanted the United States to launch a war against Islam. These leaflets echo a lie that has gained widespread currency in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The unease that some Jews are feeling is not the only problem in the region, according to some human rights groups.

Though Uzbek President Karimov is viewed by the U.S. administration as the main guarantor of stability in the region and a crucial ally, some of these rights groups are not happy with his methods.

“We are very concerned about the situation for Jews in Central Asia as Islamic fundamentalism becomes increasingly strong,” Nikolai Butkevich of the Washington-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union told JTA.

“At the same time, Uzbekistan is a classic case study of how not to deal with radical Islam. By arresting and harassing people simply because they demonstrate Islamic piety by growing beards or wearing head scarfs, the government is pushing them into the arms of the fanatics.”

Recommended from JTA