Developments in Kazakhstan have dominated headlines of late, after 164 people were killed in demonstrations over a spike in fuel prices. 8,000 other people were detained for attacking government buildings and security forces as well as looting supermarkets during these demonstrations.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sacked his cabinet, invited Russian troops in to intervene, issued shoot-to-kill orders, declared a state of emergency, and accused the protesters of being infiltrated by radical Islamist extremists, a claim that is denied by the protesters.
During these protests, 21-year-old Levan Kogeashvili of Ashdod, an Israeli citizen, was killed right before Shabbat. The question remains, how are these protests affecting the local Jewish community?
In a recent press release, Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen, chief rabbi of Kazakhstan and the director of Chabad in the Central Asian country, stated that the body of the Israeli who was killed is “now with chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) awaiting permission for an aircraft so that he can be buried in Israel. He had no part in the violence. They shot at his car. We are broken and in mourning.”
According to the rabbi, “It’s dangerous to go out on the streets. People are being shot at without warning. There are many people who are dead and wounded.”
Nevertheless, the respectable rabbi noted that thus far the local Jewish community has not been harmed by these protests. He claimed that the Kazakhstani people are “a peaceful nation” and added: “We pray for the stability of the nation and a stable government. Pray for the peace of the government for were it not for the fear of authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive. The hearts of the kings and ministers are in G-d’s hands. The situation is difficult. Everyone is praying that it ends. We thank the worldwide Jewish community for their concern and prayers.”
Kazakhstan’s first Jews
Kazakhstan is a Turkic nation in Central Asia. For many years, it was inhabited by nomadic tribes, hence the country’s name: Kazakh comes from the Turkish word Kaz, which means “to wander.” The Kazakh Jewish community was established by a group of Jewish merchants traveling along the ancient Silk Road. According to the World Jewish Congress, “A Jewish presence in the city of Turkestan dates back to the 15th century, when there is mention of a synagogue there.”
Today, the Kazakh Jewish community is divided into two groups. The first older community is made up of Bukhari or Mountain Jews in Kazakhstan. They speak a language called Bukhari, otherwise known as Judeo-Tajik, which mixes Hebrew with Tajik and trace their presence in the region to sometime after Cyrus the Great, when they migrated there from the remnants of the Persian Empire. Bukharan Jews not only live in Kazakhstan, but also in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Annika Hernroth Rothstein wrote in Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora: “Under their Muslim masters, the Bukharan Jews were not allowed to build their own houses of prayer, so instead they took to praying at community mosques. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century when the community elders made a deal with the Grand Vizier of Bukhara that the first synagogue could be built in Bukhara. But, it may have been too, little too late.”
According to Rothstein, most of the Bukhara Jews were assimilated, yet “redemption would come in the form of Rabbi Yosef Maimon, a well-known kabbalist from Safed, who arrived on what should have been a short trip but upon seeing the state of the Jewish community, decided to stay on as their leader.” She claimed that he revived the spiritual life of the Bukharan Jews, teaching them how to use Sephardic prayer books instead of the Arabic ones utilized by Saadia Gaon.
Arrival of Russian Jews
Another group of Jews arrived in the 17th century, when the Russian Army was stationed in the area. Most Kazakh Jews trace their ancestry to this period, when Jews who were forcefully conscripted to the Russian Army tried to create a community in the area. However, there are no synagogues that date from this period, as services were usually held in private homes.
According to the World Jewish Congress, “One of the first documentary evidence of the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Kazakhstan dates from 1825 when it was recorded that 12 individuals ‘of the Judaic faith’ lived in the Semipalatinsk region.” However, the first modern synagogue was built in 1884 in Kazakhstan and serviced 100 Jews, mostly veterans and soldiers.
The Jewish Virtual Library records, “Under Communism, thousands of Jews were exiled by Stalin from the Pale of Settlement to Kazakhstan for practicing Judaism, most notably, Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.”
Chabad noted, “Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was arrested by the Communists in 1939, and after nearly a year of interrogations and imprisonment, was exiled to a remote village in Kazakhstan. He passed away in 1944 in Almaty (then Alma-Ata), where he is buried. His resting place has become a revered site of pilgrimage and prayer for the local community and visitors from around the world.”
Shelter during the Holocaust
During the Holocaust, about 8,500 European Jews managed to find safe haven in Kazakhstan. Prof. Anna Shternshis uncovered a World War II era Yiddish song called Kazakhstan that describes the experience of Jews who fled the Holocaust and went to Kazakhstan: “I have suffered from when I was born endlessly, a Kazakh, an Ossetian, a Uigher and a Georgian, Ukrainian, Roma, Russian, Kalymyk, Tajik, Belarussian…. Now, our family has another member: You are our brother, (dear) Jew.”
Under Soviet rule, the Jewish religion was repressed in Kazakhstan, yet after Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson died, Rabbi Hillel Liberov slaughtered animals in a kosher manner in secret, so that Kazakh Jews could have kosher meat for Shabbat and holidays. He also held prayer services in secret. Although he faced grave danger by doing this, his actions saved Judaism in Kazakhstan.
Today, between 3,500 and 20,000 Jews consider Kazakhstan to be their home. There are over 20 different local Jewish communal organizations and 14 Jewish Day Schools in Kazakhstan. Rabbi Cohen claims that the local Kazakhs are tolerant towards the Jewish community, noting that Hanukkah in Kazakhstan is amazing as it corresponds with Kazakhstan’s Independence Day: “It’s a reason to be twice as happy for we still remember Soviet times when everyone had to be the same, as people were afraid to express themselves.”
Relations with Israel
The State of Israel and Kazakhstan enjoy excellent diplomatic relations, with Israel importing 25% of its oil from Kazakhstan. For this reason, while many governments in the West condemned the suppression of the Kazakhstan protests, the Israel Foreign Ministry stated in a recent statement, “The Foreign Ministry is closely following the developments in Kazakhstan and hopes for calm and a return to order. The good and strong relations between Israel and Kazakhstan are based on warm relations between the peoples and flourishing cooperation between the governments.”
This reaction illustrates that Israel has learned from history. In 1979, former US President Jimmy Carter refused to support the Shah, a pro-Western leader, as he was battling for his survival against mass protests. While a good portion of these protesters were leftists that wanted a more democratic government, the chaos that ensued led to radical Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini taking over the country and Iran has been a thorn in the international community’s side ever since, routinely shouting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” while sponsoring terrorism across the globe.
Fast forward to Egypt during the Arab Spring protests. Former US President Barack Obama and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton treated the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, another pro-US leader, no better than how Jimmy Carter treated the Shah. Although there were plenty of Egyptian democrats who wanted Mubarak to go in favor of a more democratic government, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that rose to power, and were it not for the bravery of the current president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, in implementing a coup to topple the Islamists from power, then Egypt would have become another Iran.
For this reason, Israel is not particularly bothered by the suppression of the protests and the intervention of Russian troops. The State of Israel just wants this Kazakh government, who is a friend of the State of Israel, to stay in power, as they do not want to give the Islamists another opportunity to exploit pro-democracy protests in order to obtain power.