The Exodus of the Jews from Central Asia

Alexander Vishnevetsky


The free-will exodus and the compulsory expulsion have accompanied Jewish life ever since the exodus from Egypt, which is described in the Scripture. The Jewish exodus had many repetitions during the 2000 years that passed since the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans. The expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the time of the Holy Inquisition left deep scars in the historical memory of the Jewish people. Despite terrible persecutions and pogroms, the Jews again and again managed to restore their national centers. The countries, which they were forced to leave, lost in their economic and cultural development, while the new regions to which they moved were transformed with the influx of Jews. A vivid example of this pattern is the Jewish exodus from the Russian Empire, which started after the pogroms of the 1880s. The total of 3 million Jews left Russia in 1882-1914 (out of the 6 million Jews that lived in the Empire before the exodus). Most of them made it to the USA, and a small part settled on the territory of modern Israel. The last Jewish exodus coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and resulted in a massive aliyah to Israel, which in its turn could feel the beneficial impact of the arrival of over 1 million Russian-speaking Jews on its culture and economy. Of course, all of the above-mentioned facts are well known to the reader. A more interesting issue would be the reason for the aliyah and for the unprecedented scale that it took in the outlying districts of the Soviet Empire. Would the preservation of Jewish national centers in the new states that emerged after the break-up of the USSR be possible, or will these countries eventually become "Judefrei" after the long history of Jewish presence there? Of all Central Asian states, Tajikistan has the most dramatic situation in this regard. While according to 1989 census the country's Jewish population amounted to 14,800 people at that time, today there are only a few hundred Jews left. Because of the civil war, already by 1993 no more than 1,000 Jews were staying in the country. The complete disappearance of the Jewish community is evident from the intention of the Tajik authorities to pull down the last synagogue, which was built more than a hundred years ago in the central part of Dushanbe, despite the protests of the community's rabbi Abdurakhmanov and the Chief Rabbi of Central Asia Abe David Gurevich. The situation in Turkmenistan is equally alarming. Only a few hundred Jews are left there now, compared to 2,500 Jews that lived in the country in 1989. President Niyazov's political regime is largely to blame for the elimination of the community. In authoritarian Turkmenistan both secular and religious community life of national minorities is not tolerated. The abrogation of double citizenship and the chauvinistic policy of the authorities further contribute to the exodus of the remaining Jewish population from Turkmenistan. Already now we can state with confidence that in these two countries the Jewish life is coming to an end. In three Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the authorities are quite tolerant in their attitude towards Jews, and the national rights of the Jewish population are not infringed upon. But, nevertheless, here also the Jewish exodus has a huge scale, due to a number of reasons. In Kyrgyzstan, there are less than 1,500 Jews staying in the country compared to 6,000 in who lived there in 1989 according to the census. Already by 1993 over 3,000 Jews left the country. The economic situation and the bloody conflicts between Kirghizes and Uzbeks in Osh region also played a role. Since 1999, clashes started involving the troops of the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, which tried to make their way home through the territory of Kyrgyzstan. All of this taken together, along with the new law limiting the usage of the Russian language, does not contribute to the preservation of the Jewish life in Kyrgyzstan. The Jewish life in Uzbekistan also has its dramatic turns. According to the census data, which are probably understated, in 1989 95,000 Jews lived on the territory of the Uzbek SSR. Today their number does not exceed 12,000. Only the aliyah to Israel from Uzbekistan amounted to over 70,000 people, while the overall number of Jews who left the country, by demographers' estimates, is not less than 120,000-130,000. The exodus of Jews from the country is mostly due to the unstable political situation, which from time to time goes out of control of the authorities. Many people still remember the pogroms of Meskhetian Turks in Fergana Valley in 1989, and of Armenians and Jews in Andizhan in 1990. In 1995 in Uzbekistan, and later in Kyrgyzstan and in Tajikistan, the radical Hizb At-Tahrir movement became active, which actively uses the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric in its propaganda. The leaflets distributed by this and other similar groups blame Jews for all misfortunes of Central Asia and the Islamic world in general. Israel and the US, which are allegedly governed by Jews, are called the bitterest enemies of all Muslims. Radical Islamists also call a Jew the Uzbek president Islam Karimov, whom they hate. The most radical Islamic movement of Uzbekistan has carried out several large-scale acts of terrorism in Tashkent and other cities of Uzbekistan since 1999. Several times the Islamic fighters from this movement tried to unleash guerilla warfare in hard-to-reach districts. Without doubt, all this urges Jews to leave the republic. A separate ethnic group that lived on the territory of Uzbekistan for several centuries are the Jews of Bukhara. According to 1989 census, there were 26,000 of them living in Uzbekistan, but now their population hardly exceeds 3,000 people. There were 19,900 Jews living in Kazakhstan in 1989 according to the census data. By 1993 their number decreased to 12,500 people. Today the country's Jewish population most probably amounts to 10,000 people. Of all five Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan has the most favorable political and economic climate. Financial support from the president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, businessman and philanthropist Aleksandr Mashkevich, as well as pronouncedly tolerant attitude of the authorities, play a huge role for the country's Jewish population. Problems related to political instability are further aggravated by other factors urging Jews to leave the Central Asian region. Among them are unemployment, low living standards, aspiration for family reunification, uncertainty in the future, employment-related language problems, and hopes to find good jobs in their new countries. The activities of international and Israeli organizations also played their role. Thanks to the work of the Sokhnut Jewish Agency, people can learn Hebrew and repatriate to Israel free of charge. The youth program Na'ale, aimed at sending 9-10th graders to Israel, where they are later joined by their parents, proved to be very popular. For some part of the Jewish population youth programs of religious education played the same role. Special programs of professional training for specialists in different fields that make finding jobs in Israel easier also fostered emigration. The general enthusiasm of the first years of the aliyah was stimulated by Israel's economic success, which had previously been denied by the Soviet propaganda. The civil was in Tajikistan, which reached its peak in 1992-1993, became an important and a telling lesson for the Central Asian Jews. In extremely complicated and dangerous circumstances, the employees of Israeli embassies in Moscow and Tashkent flew to the airport in Dushanbe, which was surrounded on all sides and guarded by Russian troops. All land transportation links through Uzbekistan were blocked out of fear that military operations could spread to the territory of Uzbekistan from Tajikistan. Israeli representatives went on armored troop-carriers from the Dushanbe airport to the city, gathering Jews to send them to Israel via Moscow. My memory keeps the story told by Ben Zion Yehoshua, the first director of the Israeli Culture Center in Tashkent. He is a writer and an ethnic Iranian Jew, and is fluent in Farsi. He was very helpful during this operation of saving the Jews of Tajikistan, since both Tajiks and the Jews of Bukhara speak Farsi dialects. I can remember the reaction of the people when I translated from Hebrew the story told by Ben Zion at the Israeli Culture Center. At that time it seemed very likely that such bloody events could also take place in other Central Asian countries, and Israel's willingness to save Jews notwithstanding the risks involved excited admiration, especially taking into account the lessons of the Holocaust. I know from my own experience the important role played by Jewish community and culture centers in the aliyah, especially during the period of maximum repatriation volumes in 1989-1992, before Israeli and international Jewish organizations started their work in Central Asia. The national structure of the Jewish exodus deserves special attention. I would like to quote just one case, which I heard from the Israeli embassy staff. A family of several dozen people arrived for the consular interview from a remote Uzbek village in order to obtain the right to repatriate to Israel. The younger generation of the family did not even speak Russian. The head of the family, the grandmother, was a Jewish orphan who was sent to this village as a wartime evacuee, and married there. All generations of the family have the right for the aliyah to Israel. This, of course, is a unique example, but in general mixed families prevail among those repatriating to Israel. An important consequence of the large-scale exodus and the demographic trends of the last decades is the age structure of Jewish communities, where today there are practically no young people left. This means that the revival of the communities is an unrealizable task, even if the political and social situation changes for the better. Such is the general picture. If we consider the prospects for the future of the Jewish communities of Central Asia, I am afraid the situation is rather pessimistic. However sad this may be, they have no future there. Unfortunately, with the exception of Kazakhstan, the opportunities for further development or at least for preservation of Jewish communities in Central Asia have most probably been lost.


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