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Across the Former Soviet Union for Uzbek Jews It’s the Economy Causing Angst, Not Radical Islam

December 29, 2006
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As soon as he discovered his passenger was Jewish, the cab driver issued a warning. “When we come to Fergana, don’t tell anyone you are Jewish,” said Jamshi, 33, a Muslim from Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent. “I don’t mind it, but some Muslims there have a different view. They think Jews are evil.”

The government in Tashkent, and those who have followed the development of Uzbekistan in the 15 years since its independence from the Soviet Union, believe the region known as the Fergana Valley is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

But the Jews who live here don’t seem panicked.

Semyon Abdurakhmanov, who heads the Fergana Jewish community, said local Jews have no specifically “Jewish” problems and that the most important issue facing both Jews and non-Jews in the country isn’t radical Islam but the poor economic situation.

Abdurakhmanov, 53, a lawyer and financial inspector, runs a tiny community office in a one-story building in the center of this city of 200,000 people about 260 miles east of Tashkent.

As if to prove that Jews do not have to hide in the predominantly Muslim valley, a sign in Uzbek and Russian above the door to the community office reads “The Jewish National Cultural Center.” The office has no security, and through the window passers-by can easily see a large Israeli flag hanging on the wall alongside an Uzbek one.

But the idyllic impression is misleading.

In recent decades, the Fergana Valley, a densely populated, multiethnic region split among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, saw violence and bloodshed that harshly affected ethnic groups of Muslims as well as Jews.

In 1989, interethnic clashes between Uzbeks and the Meskhetian Turks, a Muslim people exiled to Central Asia from the Caucasus during Josef Stalin’s rule, resulted in approximately 150 deaths.

The following year, anti-Jewish pogroms took place in the city of Andizhan, some 50 miles from Fergana.

In May 2005, popular unrest in Andizhan led to many civilian deaths. Human rights activists claim the toll surpassed 800 when the Uzbek army opened fire on the raging crowd.

The autocratic Uzbeki government of President Islam Karimov said that fewer than 100 people were killed and blamed the rebellion on Islamic extremists who, the government claimed, pursue the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the region.

During the Andizhan events last year, the Israeli Embassy in Tashkent prompted Jewish leaders in the Fergana Valley to compile lists of community members “in case there will be a need to airlift people to Israel.”

Since then, Abdurakhmanov keeps the list handy — several handwritten pages in a college notebook with names, addresses and phone numbers. One copy is kept in his office, another at home.

“Thank God they didn’t touch anyone” from the Jewish community during the Andizhan bloodbath, he said.

In their daily lives, there’s little to remind local Jews that they’re living in what was dubbed the heartland of Islamic resistance to Karimov’s rule.

The Fergana Valley has a half-dozen functioning synagogues, half of all the synagogues in the country. Several cities in the Uzbek part of the valley still retain a noticeable Jewish presence, from communities of several hundred people in Fergana, Namangan and Kokand to about 100 in Andizhan and 40 in the town of Margelan.

Abdurakhmanov believes there is no immediate threat to Jewish life in the area, and much of what people say about his community is a result of government propaganda against Islamists.

“Tashkent is scared of us,” he said, adding that “all revolutions and wars in Uzbekistan — from the tsars and up until today” — began in this region.

The regime — notorious in the West for allegedly abusing human rights and trampling Muslim activists — is seen by local Jews as the best guarantor of their safety.

When Karimov comes to visit Fergana, several police are on duty at the Jewish center, Abdurakhmanov said.

More worrisome than possible outbursts of Islamic extremism is the poverty of his community and its demographic situation.

Abdurakmanov’s list of emergency contacts includes 113 Jewish names, though he insists there are up to 800 Jews in Fergana, most of whom do not take part in communal activities. The vast majority are elderly, and only 23 have full-time jobs or are officially employed. Most Jews are pensioners or are involved in petty trade, Abdurakhmanov said.

Not long ago it was different, he sighed. Fergana Jews were a visible part of the local economy, working as store and warehouse managers, barbers or soda-water vendors — typical occupations for Persian-speaking Jews in Central Asian under the Soviet Union.

Ilya Musheev, 69, is a vestige of this old community. He is the last Jewish shoemaker in Fergana, where not very long ago shoemaking was almost exclusively a Jewish trade.

On a recent weekday, Musheev was sitting in front of his small, rundown apartment in the backyard of the Jewish center fixing a pair of old Soviet military-style boots. In a few days, Musheev — who is deaf, destitute and has no family — was to leave for Israel. Asked why he was leaving, he had no answer, only a smile.

But Abdurakhmanov is not ready to pull the plug on Jewish life in his hometown. The building his Jewish office occupies is to be demolished in a few weeks due to reconstruction on the street. He already sold the old property and is now dreaming about a new center — not just two small rooms as he used before.

“This could be a bright building with two floors, the only two-story Jewish center in all of Uzbekistan,” he said.

Abdurakhmanov still lacks $10,000 — a significant amount by local standards — to build the center of his dreams. But in any case, who would need the new facility in a community that has shrunk by more than half in the past 15 years?

Yura Abdurakhmanov, the community leader’s 21-year-old son, says there are still enough young Jews in town who are eager to congregate with other Jews.

Like other communities in the region, Fergana Jews receive some aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and from Chabad in Tashkent. But the father and son want to be self-sufficient.

In recent years, Abdurakhmanov opened several businesses under his center’s title — from computer literacy courses to a barber shop — and spends part of the revenues on Jewish charity.

“Last year we earned $700 for the community,” the elder Abdurakhmanov said. “This year we’ll get about $1,000.”

Meanwhile, his son does not have an immediate plan to leave. He studies pedagogy at the local university and wants to earn a primary-school teacher diploma, something he says could be useful wherever he goes.

Yura is also learning English and Hebrew, and wants to see the world.

“If he wants, after college he can go to Russia or to Israel,” his father said. “This is life. What if they tell us to get out? Who could have predicted the Andizhan events?”

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