The Philadelphia Jewish Voice

MAY 2006

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Photo from
Dushanbe synagogue being razed by Tajik authorities. 
News and Op/Ed

Eminent Anti-Semitism 

A synagogue seized in Dushanbe.

Talk about the power of eminent domain. Our Supreme Court upheld the seizure of property so that the city of New London, Connecticut., could turn 90 acres of waterfront land into office buildings, upscale housing, a marina and other facilities.

Strangely, the plaintiffs - who own 15 homes there - occupy only 1.54 acres of the 90 acres in question.

Thousands of miles east, in a city named Dushanbe - ever hear of it? - the bosses of Tajikistan have injected their own version of eminent domain. They demolished part of a synagogue, including a ritual bath, or mikvah. As of the end of March, only a modest brick building was left, and its days were numbered.

The state is seizing the land for a grand presidential palace that is currently under construction. To accomplish this, in part, the government is eliminating the last synagogue left in all of Tajikistan, which borders China to the east and Afghanistan and Pakistan to the south. The New York Times reported in a March 28 account that the current structure was built nearly 60 years ago and generations of Jews have worshiped at this site for generations. Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, is located near the western border.

The city offered the Jewish community vacant land a few miles away, but the city will not reimburse them to rebuild, and local Jews cannot afford to construct a new synagogue on their own. The government's excuse? Shamsuddin Nuriddinov, head of Dushanbe's municipal department of religious affairs, contended that the Jews did not own the synagogue site and he hoped they build a new one. He does not say how.

If any sample of oppression - especially, religious oppression - cries out as a cause celebre, this is it. A government bullies a vulnerable minority which apparently lacks even the right to appeal to a court and the silence is deafening, even from Jews and our organizations throughout the world. These people need and deserve our help.

In the United States alone, we have a wide range of Jewish advocacy groups which are regularly heard from on many situations. Often they acquit themselves well, sometimes they overdo it to the point of embarrassment and at times you would never know that a serious concern existed even when it walked up and struck these groups? leaders in the face.

Now is the time for them to step forward. Dushanbe is a crisis where we have several hundred Jews, mostly elderly, who will have no synagogue in which to gather because of their government's abuse of power. Already 12,000 Jews exited the city, possibly out of fear of Islamic nationalism that emerged during a bloody civil war from 1992 to 1997.

Food, medicine and clothing are distributed at the synagogue, which also serves as a community center. Religious holidays were once observed in the courtyard that is now filled with construction debris.

I know full well how difficult life can be for an isolated minority in an inhospitable area. My most poignant experiences, as a Jew in ultra-conservative central Pennsylvania, must have been the good life when compared to the plight of Jews in Dushanbe. I could have benefited from support from Jewish organizations, so I am sure that the Jews of Dushanbe need help.

Jewish organizations received their wake-up about Dushanbe on March 28 when the Times laid out the circumstances being endured by that Jewish community. I heard something about it a few weeks earlier, so perhaps it made the radar screen for others elsewhere. Many issues tackled by major Jewish groups are worthy of attention, but the Dushanbe outrage is far more alarming and imminent than an architect's link to an Israeli disinvestment drive, a movie depicting Jesus? crucifixion or a purportedly scholarly report bashing the Israeli lobby.

In the United States, we have police forces that consistently respond to synagogue vandalism and a court system to which we can appeal for property seizures, even if the complainants are ultimately rebuffed. While I do not enjoy learning of the closing of any synagogue in my city or the sacking of schuls in Gaza, Jews nonetheless have at their disposal a wide choice of temples to attend in metropolitan areas in America and throughout Israel.

We can protest to the Tajikistan government to compensate the Jewish community so it can build, at the least, a functional synagogue. It is Tajikistan's responsibility. After all, if Muslims will riot over a Koran tossed down the toilet or a dumb series of cartoons, why can't the Jewish community galvanize in support of their own brethren for their lone religious and communal gathering place?

If the government persists in its refusal, world Jewry can intervene and pay for it. Jewish leaders and wealthy Jews spend millions each year for Jewish charities, political contributions and independent projects, most of which are by all means worthy. Last year, a group of philanthropists raised $14 million in two days to pay former owners of abandoned greenhouses in Gaza to sell the structures to the Palestinians.

Synagogues cost millions of dollars to build, but the cost for a basic temple for Dushanbe's Jews would fall far short of the $14 million spent on the greenhouses.

U.S. Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland tells the Times that the demolition is "not a question of religious freedom, and anti-Semitism is not involved." After all, the state also destroyed a Russian military base, hospitals, schools and numerous residences.

They are leveling the only synagogue in the country and will not do enough to help the community rebuild. If that does not constitute anti-Semitism, what does?

Bruce S. Ticker community @, community editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, and former publisher of CRISIS: ISRAEL.