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.

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

 

At the UN, Nikki Haley Told the Truth about Israel—and the World Didn’t Burn Down

April 22 2019

Although Nikki Haley had never been to Israel when she took the position of American ambassador to the UN, and had no prior foreign-policy experience, she distinguished herself as one of the most capable and vigorous defenders of the Jewish state ever to hold the position. Jon Lerner, who served as Haley’s deputy during her ambassadorship, sees the key to her success—regarding both Israel and many other matters—in her refusal to abide by the polite fictions that the institution holds sacred:

Myths are sometimes assets in international relations. The fiction that Taiwan is not an independent country, for example, allows [the U.S.] to sustain [its] relationship with China. In other cases, however, myths can create serious problems. On Israel–Palestinian issues, the Trump administration was determined to test some mythical propositions that many had come to take for granted, and, in some cases, to refute them. Haley’s prominence at the UN arose in large part from a conscious choice to reject myths that had pervaded diplomacy on Israel–Palestinian issues for decades. . . .

[For instance], U.S. presidents were intimidated by the argument that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would trigger violent explosions throughout the Muslim world. President Trump and key colleagues doubted this, and they turned out to be right. Violent reaction in the Palestinian territories was limited, and there was virtually none elsewhere in Arab and Islamic countries. . . .

It turns out that the United States can support Israel strongly and still work closely with Arab states to promote common interests like opposing Iranian threats. The Arab street is not narrowly Israel-minded and is not as volatile as long believed. The sky won’t fall if the U.S. stops funding UN sacred cows like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). Even if future U.S. administrations revert to the policies of the past, these old assumptions will remain disproved. That is a valuable accomplishment that will last long after Nikki Haley’s UN tenure.

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More about: Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, United Nations, US-Israel relations