The Last Jews of Uzbekistan

Sept. 17 2018

The former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan is home to the three great Silk Road cities of Central Asia—Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara. Since the early Middle Ages, these cities have been home to Jewish communities; their descendants, who now mostly live in Israel or the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, are known generally as Bukhari Jews after the most prominent of these communities. During the Soviet era, significant numbers of Ashkenazi Jews—along with people of many other ethnicities—were deported to, or settled in, Uzbekistan. Armin Rosen, returning from a visit to Uzbekistan after having spent Rosh Hashanah in the capital of Tashkent, reports on what remains of the country’s Jews:

Uzbekistan . . . was under one of the most brutish and vacuous dictatorships of any post-Soviet state. The Jews of Bukhara were never violently liquidated, but they didn’t really have an easy run of things, either. [Now] there are just a few hundred Bukharan Jews left in Bukhara.

Samarkand is four dusty and potholed hours down the road from Bukhara. There had been Jews there for centuries before the local boy Tamerlane, [the 14th-century ruler who tried to revive Genghis Khan’s empire], rampaged through much of the known world. . . . Only when standing between the three ecstatically-tiled portals of the [old city square], or meditating on the sublime proportions of the Bibi-Khanym mosque, is it possible to imagine Samarkand being the capital of an empire spanning from Kabul to the Bosphorus. . . .

A door in a metal gateway abutting the hideous modern plaza across from the Bibi-Khanym mosque leads to a warren of zig-zagging residential streets and the remains of Samarkand’s old city. A passage little wider than an alleyway reveals the fat dome of the late-19th-century Gumbaz Synagogue, its interior decorated in a dazzling blue floral pattern. Inside the sanctuary, it feels as if the dome encompasses the entirety of the room. The space is compact yet airy, a minor miracle of sacral architecture crammed into a tiny footprint.

On the early Friday evening that I visited, a wiry and nearly elderly fellow was praying in the courtyard just outside the shul’s doors. Chickens scurried around the opposite end of the compound. In halting Hebrew, I explained that I was visiting from New York and wanted to know if anyone else would be coming. In somewhat less halting Hebrew, he explained that he prayed at this synagogue three times a day, often alone.

He didn’t expect there to be much of crowd on Rosh Hashanah, either.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Tablet

More about: Bukharan Jews, Central Asian Jewry, History & Ideas, Jewish World, Synagogues

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at BESA Center

More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat