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Central Asia’s Jews for Uzbek Jews, Free Speech Limits an Ok Tradeoff for Increased Security

February 19, 2003
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Here in predominantly Muslim Uzbekistan, Jews are relieved not to endure the sort of pro-Palestinian or pro-Iraq demonstrations seen in the West, with placards comparing Israel’s military to the Nazis, or Ariel Sharon and George Bush to Adolf Hitler.

At the same time, though, Hillel students in Tashkent, the capital, aren’t about to unfasten the Israeli flags from the walls of their club to carry them in a march of solidarity on the main square — even though seemingly everyone here has close relatives in the Jewish state.

Why not?

The question is greeted with an eruption of incredulous laughter.

“We wouldn’t even get to the square before the police would arrest us, and throw us in either prison or a mental hospital,” says Yevgeny Shavzis, 20. “Haven’t you seen? Every 100 meters there’s a policeman!”

Indeed, it’s with a hint of resignation that Boris Nedosekov, director of Hillel-Tashkent, concedes that, “Here, both the bad things and the good things are forbidden.”

Welcome to what locals call the “benign dictatorship” of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

When critics accuse Washington of sacrificing democracy and human rights on the altar of its war on terror, Karimov’s Uzbekistan is sometimes cited as an extreme case study.

A year ago, Uzbekistan became the first ex-Soviet republic to allow U.S. troops onto its soil, now stationed near Uzbekistan’s southern border with Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Karimov permits no democracy, free speech or free media in his nation of 25 million.

His police force is indeed omnipresent and brutal. And international human rights groups estimate that some 7,000 political dissidents rot in Uzbek prisons.

But all this is just fine by a Jewish community estimated at anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000.

Indeed, the attitudes of the Jewish community suggest that Western notions of democracy and respect for human rights are dangerously idealistic in a country with a tradition of neither.

Jews along the Tashkent-Samarkand-Bukhara stretch of the ancient Silk Road — a highway now interrupted every 60 miles or so by police checkpoints, ostensibly on the lookout for terrorists and car thieves

— credit Karimov’s strong hand with keeping the fundamentalist Islamic Movement under control.

Likewise, Uzbek Jews seem unafraid of any potential regional destabilization that war with Iraq may cause.

In Bukhara’s splendid century-old synagogue, Rabbi Aharon Seyanov interrupts Torah study for a dozen students to voice his support for Karimov.

He bellows so loudly, his lambs’-wool cap bounces atop his head.

“We have nothing to be afraid of here,” roars Seyanov, 65, as the young and middle-aged men listen with rapt attention.

“Uzbekistan has its gates, and no one bad can enter these gates.”

They do, after all, also have their own interests at heart. Uzbekistan is facing its own insurgency of Islamic fundamentalists.

Fueling this radicalism is economic deprivation palpable to any visitor, from the ubiquitous broken windows, roads and sidewalks, to the kids in the countryside frolicking in stained, tattered clothing, to the elderly Jews who shamefacedly line up for handouts from canteens supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Compounding this is rampant corruption. The most popular jobs, it is said, are traffic cops and tax police — jobs from which one can extract unlimited bribes, locals say.

Seemingly helpless to overcome the poverty and corruption, some Uzbeks retreat into the comforting embrace of the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan.

The government blames the Islamic Movement for a series of bombings in Tashkent that killed 16 in February 1999 and for trouble-making in neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

In 2000, the U.S. State Department listed the Islamic Movement as a terrorist group with close ties to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida; it now says the group has been weakened, with many members killed while fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Israeli diplomats, too, prefer the current situation to what they say is the alternative.

“It’s very nice to sit in a Starbuck’s in Baltimore, Copenhagen or Jerusalem and talk about democracy and human rights,” says one diplomat sequestered within the heavily fortified Israeli compound in Tashkent.

“But when you go to the villages and find people so poor they cannot even feed their families, you know that democracy is a luxury they can’t afford to think about,” he says.

“If you had democracy here, you’d have Saudi Arabia and Iran building mosques and madrassahs,” schools where Islam is taught.

Not only do Jews here feel safer under Karimov’s heavy hand; they say he has also treated them better than the Soviets ever did.

Back then, Jews endured official anti-Semitism, with restrictions on their entry to universities, passports marked “Jew” and pervasive anti-Zionist propaganda.

Not only is that a thing of the past, they say, but Karimov visited Israel in 1998 and publicly extends his best wishes to the community on major Jewish holidays.

In a decrepit, unheated communal office in Samarkand, Jewish leaders list the many ways in which they say life is better for Jews.

“We now feel equal to every other nation living here,” Yakov Gabay says over steaming tea and tangerines. “We can openly go to the synagogue to pray and freely circumcise our children; who could have imagined such a situation?”

Before skipping out for another cigarette, Gabay suggests, “Perhaps I could compare the freedoms if I’d been born in the U.S., but I was born in the Soviet Union, and I feel greater freedom now than I ever did then.”

But while freedom to worship is one thing, freedom to organize is another.

While the several Jewish cultural centers are permitted and registered with the state, Chabad-Lubavitch’s efforts to form a national rabbinate continue to be stymied.

Uzbek law on religion states that a denomination must have branches in at least eight of Uzbekistan’s 13 oblasts — or districts — with a minimum of 100 members in each.

Uzbekistan’s Jews are primarily concentrated in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, with a smattering in several other towns and regions — not enough to qualify, says Rabbi Abba David Gurevitch, Chabad’s top emissary to Uzbekistan since 1990.

“For the Jewish community, culture is very important, but most important is the religion,” says the soft-spoken, Russian-born rabbi, from his airless office in Tashkent.

“I think this is a mistake for the image of the country, and I must explain this to the president. If Uzbekistan is a democratic country, it must have a rabbinate.”

Historically most Uzbek Jews have been traditional.

The recent flow of emigration during the post-Communist era has left a community that is a mix of Orthodox Bukharan Jews, assimilated Jews of Ashkenazi descent and those who are turning back to religion.

But observers say this restriction is necessary for controlling the country. Such a policy may be aimed at maintaining Muslim supremacy — with its clerics co-opted by the state — while handcuffing fringe groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Yet, this compromise — keeping a lid on extremists, with too little freedom instead of too much freedom — is one Uzbekistan’s Jews say they’ll continue to accept willingly.

Democracy, they say, can come later, after decades of cautious evolution.

“For us, it’s much more important today to have stability than democracy,” says Lev Gulden, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s representative in Bukhara.

“If you untie people’s hands and have democracy, you don’t know who might take charge of government. It could be the fundamentalists.”

The preceding is the second of a series of special articles on Jewish life in Central Asia. This special series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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