Persian Jews began to immigrate from Iran to Turkmenistan in the late 1830s. Fleeing persecution, they settled in the Turkmenistan cities of Mary, Yoletan, and Baram-Ali. Little is known about the development of this community under the Soviets due to its isolation from major cities, transportation, and communication systems. At its peak in the 1980s, the Jewish population in Turkmenistan was 2,500. Today, the figure is 200, most living in the capital, Ashkhabad. There are also communities in Turkmenbashi, Mary, and Dashoguz. A tiny group of Bukharan Jews lives in Turkmenabat, a village on the border with Uzbekistan.
Iranian Jews only make up about 20% of the Turkmenistan Jewish population, comprised mostly of Ashkenazim who immigrated to the region during the Soviet era. A number of Ashkenazim came from Ukraine during World War II.
There is no organized Jewish community or rabbi in Turkmenistan. The Soviets effectively suppressed all Jewish culture in the country, and, unlike the other states of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan's community never recovered. The Ashkhabad synagogue, the only one in the country, was converted into a gymnasium by the Soviets, and no other formal congregations exist. The Turkmen Jews have no semblance of a community, and the majority are non-practicing and do not usually disclose their religious origin due to severe religious persecution.
Turkmenistan has become increasingly Islamicized since independence, and non-Muslims face discrimination on a day-to-day basis. President Saparmurat Niayazov’s Democratic Party has suppressed virtually all civil rights in the country. Other political parties have been banned, opposition leaders have been jailed, and the media is government-run. It is difficult to obtain a passport or exit visa, and Jews have to get visas through the Israeli embassy in Uzbekistan.
Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church are the only religions legal in Turkmenistan. All other denominations are forbidden to have a place of worship, and Turkmenistan is the only country in Central Asia whose government sponsors religious persecution. The flight of some 2,327 Jews from Turkmenistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union left those remaining in a precarious position. The lack of a Jewish community combined with the growing popularity of Islamic fundamentalism and the human rights violations on the part of Niayazov's totalitarian government have created a dangerous situation for Turkmen Jews.
The Turkmenistan chapter of the Jewish Agency, Sokhnut, functions in secret in private homes or rented classrooms. The authorities continually try to shut down the organization. Niyazov criticized the director of the Ashgabat School No. 19 S. Talibova, for leasing rooms to the Sokhnut on Sundays. The school director was fired and the Sokhnut was kicked out of the building. Following this incident, the Sokhnut Chair Sallai Meridor urged the Jewish community of Turkmenistan to make aliyah or otherwise leave the country.
Relations With Israel
Turkmenistan was the last former Soviet republic to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, in 1993. For decades, neither country had an embassy in the other. Israel was represented by its ambassador to Moscow, and consular services were only available in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In a diplomatic breakthrough, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen became the first Israeli Foreign Minister to visit the Central Asian state in 29 years. During his April 2023 visit, he opened Israel’s first permanent embassy in the capital of Ashgabat. He met with President Serdar Berdimuhamedow and reportedly discussed expanding cooperation in cyber-tech, agriculture, and water technology.
“Turkmenistan is an extremely important country in Central Asia and an energy powerhouse in a strategic location,” said Cohen. “The opening of our permanent embassy today strengthens the relationship between the two countries.”
Located just 9 miles (15 km.) from the Iranian border, the new embassy becomes Israel’s closest diplomatic mission to the Islamic Republic.
Sources: UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.
U.S. Department of State.
Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.
World Jewish Congress.
“Israel deepens ties with two of Iran’s neighbours,” BICOM, (April 21, 2023).