Tajikistan is one of the five central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union. The Jewish community of Tajikistan is made up of Bukharan and Ashkenazi Jews. The Bukharan Jews have a long and complicated history in Central Asia, particularly in the Turkistan region. The Ashkenazim arrived in Tajikistan during World War II to escape the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. A small Jewish community of approximately 300 remains in Tajikistan, a small fraction of the 15,000 Jews who once lived there.
- Bukharan Jews
- Early History
- Russian Control
- Under the Soviets
- Relations with Israel
Bukharan Jews are an ethnic group in Central Asia, mainly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The term “Bukharan Jewry” was conceived by European travelers when the Jewish community lived under the rule of the Emir of Bukhara. The group's ancestry can be traced to an Israelite tribe exiled during the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C.E., who made their way to Central Asia.
Bukharan Jews call themselves Isro'il or Yahudi and speak Bukhori or Judeo-Tajik, a distinct dialect of the Tajiki-Persian language that incorporated a number of Hebrew words. The group is concentrated in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe.
The history of the Jews in the modern country of Tajikistan is difficult to discern due to the region's constantly changing borders and rulers. The Tajik territory was defeated by the Mongols in the 13th century and came under the khanate of Bukhara in the 16th century. While Central Asia remained Sunni Muslims, Persia was taken over by Shiite Muslims. This led to the isolation of the Jews of Central Asia from the rest of the Jewish world for hundreds of years. For generations, the Bukhara Jews have developed their own unique culture and traditions.
The region was divided into several weak khanates in the mid 19th century, and, by the 1880s and 1890s, Russia had taken control of the Tajik lands. The Jews generally welcomed the Russians, as the conquest signified the end of their oppression under the khanates.
In addition, as the Jews had a tradition of being traders, they had established a warm trading relationship with Russia that had existed for centuries. The Russian conquest helped establish a powerful tradesman class of Bukharan Jews, yet also impoverished the majority of the Jewish community, as their cloth-dying businesses were replaced by Russian industrial enterprises.
Initially, the Russians did not restrict Jewish autonomy, but with the large influx of persecuted Jews moving into the newly created Turkistan region, the government ordered the expulsion of unregistered Jews from a number of Tajik cities. The order was never fully implemented, and many Jews paid off the authorities to allow them to remain in the territory. In general, the Russian authorities treated Bukharan Jews better than European ones.
Under the Soviets
After the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, Tajikistan came under Soviet occupation. The Jews' situation drastically declined and thousands of Jews fled the region throughout the 1920s and 1930s, due to virulent anti-Semitism, persecution, property confiscation, and imprisonments. Jewish activity halted. With the onset of World War II in 1938-39, Jewish newspapers were shut down and, in 1940, the publication of Judeo-Tajik books was terminated and Judeo-Bukharan schools were closed. The loss of Jewish culture led to increased assimilation into the local communities. Despite this, the Jewish community grew tremendously due to an influx of Ashkenazi Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler settled in Tajikistan.
The majority of the Jewish population of Tajikistan is located in the capital, Dushanbe, with smaller communities in Shakhrisabz, Leninabad Oblast and the Fergana Valley. Approximately 40 percent of Tajik Jews are Bukharan; the rest are Ashkenazi.
In September 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan declared its independence. In December of that same year, the country joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
While the fall of Communism brought more freedom to the Jews, almost immediately after independence the country was plunged into a civil war between government forces and Islamic fundamentalists. Continuous military conflicts have kept Tajik Jews in severe poverty and in fear of their lives for years. A mass exodus of Tajik Jews has occurred. In 1989 through 2000, 10,800 Jews have made aliyah out of the 20,000 in the country. In 1992, a secret airlift operation brought a small number of Jews to Israel.
The approximately 900 remaining Tajik Jews are for the most part elderly, poverty-stricken and subject to anti-Semitic attacks and persecution. Community centers working with the Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations send food packages and try to care for the aged. The Jewish community of Tajikistan is barely able to function and relies on the aid of world Jewish organizations for support.
Only one synagogue remained in the country and was located in Dushanbe. However, in the summer of 2004, the Tajik government announced its intent to demolish the 100-year-old structure to make room for a presidential palace. The community of 500 Jews in Dushanbe, as well as the world Jewish community, and the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tajikistan intervened to prevent the destruction of the historic synagogue, but in early 2006 the government demolished the mikve and several classrooms. Despite pleas from the Jewish community and international organizations, the remaining structures were demolished to make way for a new presidential palace. The city has offered alternate sites at the edges of the city but won’t provide compensation for the buildings and the community is too small and poor to build a new synagogue.
UNESCO had written the Tajikistan authorities to halt the construction project, calling the synagogue’s destruction a “contradiction with existing international standards for the protection of cultural heritage.” UNESCO never received a reply from the Tajikistan government and repeated the appeal, but it appeared too late to stop the destruction. Tajikistan's lone synagogue was demolished in June 2008 to make way for a park. The government has promised to allocate land for a new synagogue, though details on the plan are sketchy.
There are currently fewer than 300 Jews left in Tajikistan. Following the destruction of the Synagogue in Dushanbe, the Tajik President's brother-in-law gifted a home to the Jewish community, which was converted into a “secret” synagogue. The Synagogue mostly serves tourists and rarely sees enough worshippers to hold a minyan.
Relations with Israel
Tajikistan and Israel maintain full diplomatic relations. Israel is represented in Tajikistan by its embassy in Uzbekistan. The majority of the Taijk Jewish population has made aliyah to Israel and established a sizable community in Jerusalem.
Sources: Bukharian Jews;
World Jewish Congress;
Joint Distribution Committee;
Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS;
“Tadzhikistan,” “Bukharan Jews” Encyclopedia Judaica;
Zaidner, Michael (ed.) Jewish Travel Guide 2000: International Edition. Vallentine Mitchell and the Jewish Chronicle. Great Britain: 2000;
Hilary Leila Krieger, “Tajikistan moving ahead with demolition of only shul,” The Jerusalem Post, (March 1, 2006);
“Lone Tajik synagogue razed,” JTA (6/26/08);
Berger, Miriam. “In central Asia, Tajikistan's last Jews linger amid a wave of changes,” Forward (November 13, 2015)