When the poor, central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan descended into ethnic bloodshed in early June - resulting in carnage that caused the deaths of some 400 people and the displacement of 400,000 - many of those familiar with the country expressed surprise. Kyrgyzstan, though still far from being a liberal democracy, has always been the least despotic of the former Soviet republics in the region, and the most auspicious candidate for some form of decent government. Relations between the country's Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek ethnic minority (who suffered the brunt of the violence ) had been peaceful, barring riots in 1990 that had less to do with ethnic grievances than controversy over post-Soviet land distribution. And Kyrgyzstan has long had an active civil society, open media and raucous political culture.
But looking back on the turbulent events that this country - which I have visited twice in the past five months - has experienced, I realize that a foretaste of the June disturbances was already evident in early April, just days after Kyrgyzstan's autocratic and corrupt president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was violently ousted from power by an angry mob. Hanging from the gate of the burned-out presidential office compound was a large, white banner with the words "Kyrgyzstan has no place for dirty Jews and the likes of Maxim," a reference to the ousted president's son. And the evening after Bakiyev fled Bishkek, the capital, a group of vandals attacked the city's only synagogue, a tiny, decrepit compound serving a minuscule community of mostly Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian Jews who have been living in Kyrgyzstan since Soviet times.
On the surface, the source of this anti-Semitic sentiment can be traced to Maxim Bakiyev, who was appointed by his father to head an economic development body, and in that capacity was rumored to be running shady business deals with a Russian-American Jewish businessman named Eugene Gourevitch. In the months leading up to the April revolution, both Kyrgyz- and Russian-language media reported that Gourevitch and the younger Bakiyev were involved in a far-reaching financial conspiracy; the coverage was often replete with anti-Semitic insinuations.
When I interviewed the community's rabbi, Arieh Reichman, about a week after the revolution, he was quick to place the blame for the anti-Semitic incidents on a handful of thugs. "The Kyrgyz people are very hospitable and warm-hearted," he insisted. "This is confirmed by the fact that Jews have lived here untroubled."
What makes the anti-Semitism in Kyrgyzstan especially disturbing, however - particularly in light of the xenophobic nature of the June riots - is that it is a country that barely has any Jews left in it. From a peak of 40,000 at the end of World War II, Kyrgyzstan's Jewish population is now somewhere below 2,000 (most Jews immigrated to Israel after the Soviet Union's collapse ).
But anti-Semitism is unique among all other forms of racial, ethnic and religious prejudice because of its protean and universal nature. It has existed throughout history and can be found in societies where there are no Jews or where knowledge of Judaism is extremely limited. Anti-Semitism is distinct in that it attributes to Jews the powers of global domination, traces of which could be found in the accusations against Gourevitch, who, like other prominent Jews throughout history, was portrayed as a corrupt courtier to power. As Christopher Hitchens, one of the most insightful observers of anti-Semitism, notes, "Sinhalese who don't like Tamils, or Hutu who regard Tutsi as 'cockroaches,' do not accuse their despised neighbors of harboring a plan - or of possessing the ability - to bring off a secret world government based on the occult control of finance."
To be sure, there was no overt connection between April's anti-Semitic incidents in Bishkek and the ethnic violence in the south two months later. Marauding Kyrgyz gangs probably weren't thinking of Gourevitch or "dirty Jews" as they ransacked Uzbek homes. But the way a society treats its Jews - or, in places where no Jews exist, talks about them - is a barometer of its health. Two weeks after April's anti-Semitic incidents, a Kyrgyz mob burned down dozens of houses belonging to Russians and Meskhetian Turks. Something has gone deeply wrong in Kyrgyz society, which has begun to manifest an ethnic nationalism the likes of which the country has never shown before.
When I visited southern Kyrgyzstan some six weeks after the June riots, I encountered a broken place where distrust runs deep on both sides of the ethnic divide. Uzbeks are reporting increased use of the term "sart," a crude epithet for "city-dweller," directed against them personally and in grafitti. It is now common to hear many of the negative qualities that anti-Semites ascribe to Jews - that they are greedy, cosmopolitan and clannish - pinned on Uzbeks. Newspapers are running stories with headlines like, "Kyrgyzstan for Kyrgyz people." One journalist who has been living in central Asia for more than 15 years told me that some Kyrgyz, upon learning he was German, praised Hitler.
The Jews have long been the "canary in the coal mine" of civilization. The Nazis' depredations began with the Nuremberg laws and resulted in the most catastrophic war the world has ever seen. As if it is not suffering enough, Kyrgyzstan has provided us with but the latest example of the eternal lesson about prejudice: It often starts but never ends with the Jews.
James Kirchick is writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributing editor to The New Republic.
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