The bazaars of Bukhara, Uzbekistan, play host to a symphony of languages. Melons are bought and sold with boisterous exchanges in Uzbek and Tajik. Ceramic salesmen hawk their blue-glazed teacups in Russian, a vestige of the city’s tsarist and Soviet past. European tourists haggle with shrewd shopkeepers purveying handmade rugs in their common English. And occasionally, in the whispers and side conversations of old men seated in the shady edges of the still older Silk Road markets, one can hear the rising and falling tones of Bukhori, the Persian-Hebrew fusion spoken by the Bukharan Jews.
During my time in Bukhara this summer, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with members of the Jewish community, attend Friday Shabbat services and learn about this ancient group. Tracing their legacy in Central Asia back over 2.5 millennia, the Bukharan Jews are now part of an increasingly rare breed: Jews in the Muslim world. Now, the passage of Israel’s new Basic Law enshrining self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people” jeopardizes the last substantial chance for coexistence of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.
The new law, which asserts Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” is a declaration to Muslim, Druze, Christian and non-religious Israelis that they are not fully welcome. In his efforts to forge Israel in the anachronistic cast of the nation-state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but scuppered the last best hope for Jewish and Muslim populations to build a functioning society together.
Once found across the Muslim world, from the rugged Atlas of Morocco to the towering Pamirs of Tajikistan, the historic co-mingling of Jews and Muslims is increasingly hard to find in today’s sectarian and partisan Middle East. Despite systemic and perpetual persecution often punctuated with brutally violent anti-Semitic riots, Jewish society survived, and at times thrived, in a Middle East more pluralistic than today’s. In a climate marred by the destruction of religious minorities across the region, ranging from the Coptic Christians in Egypt to the Kurdish Yazidis of Iraq, forgetting the historic diversity of this cradle of civilization is easy.
This trend of decreasing diversity and tolerance is why the recent passage of the Basic Law by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is such a lamentable event. It signals that Israel, like so many others in the region, has given up on Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the Middle East. Following the expulsion and exodus of the majority of Jews in the region to Israel between 1948 and 1979, Israel remained the last country in the region where members of both faiths shared the same land. Today, Muslims make up nearly 18 percent of Israel’s population, which includes smaller minorities of Christians and Druze. While the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Muslim populations has long been contentious, it remains one of the few cases in the modern Middle East of Jews and Muslims building a state together.
Netanyahu joins a long line of leaders in the region who have chosen to withdraw into the poisonous cocoon of nationalism and particularism. Yet the potential for a peaceful and cooperative state incorporating both Jews and Muslims certainly exists.
In the winding warren of alleys in Bukhara’s Jewish Quarter, I heard from the local residents, both Jewish and Muslim. Jews of this community spoke to me fondly of their Muslim neighbors, and practitioners of Islam informed me that they happily enrolled their children in the well-regarded Jewish school in the area.
Yet today’s Jewish community in Bukhara only numbers approximately 150 members, indicating that the future of this ancient group in their fabled home is bleak. An aging population and extensive migration to Israel and the United States for improved economic conditions mean that twilight is likely close at hand. Bukhara’s Jews have seen the ebb and flow of history as they have outlasted the passage of the Persians, Macedonians, Abbasids, Mongols and Soviets, yet the 21st century will likely be their last. With the rejection of pluralism in favor of fear of the “other,” Netanyahu and his Likud Party have all but eliminated Israel as a site for the type of harmonious interfaith existence that will shortly come to an end in Bukhara.
Remembering the throaty Bukhori chants echoing around the evening cool of the centuries-old synagogue, I can’t help but think that in this dwindling community I’ve seen the slipping dream of Jewish-Muslim harmony, soon to fade away into the sands like the Great Silk Road.
Jeremy Cohen is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.