Executive Director Schwartz on "Borat" and Kazakhstan
by Stephen Schwartz
CIP In the News , April 2007
To the Editor:
Joshua Muravchik's examination of Borat ignores what should be an important element of any discussion of the film: the reality of life and politics in Kazakhstan ["Borat!," January]. He mentions that Kazakhstan is "historically a Muslim country" in a manner that insinuates that Kazakhs singing "Throw the Jew Down the Well" would be predictable behavior.
I wonder if Mr. Muravchik has heard of the father of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1878-1944). He is buried in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and his grave is a site for Jewish prayer. I also wonder if Mr. Muravchik bothered to check the status of Kazakhstan's relations with Israel. The country established full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state in 1996.
I do not expect Mr. Muravchik to be aware that Kazakhstan has the largest and most beautiful new synagogue in Central Asia, located in the capital, Astana, and administered by the local Lubavitch community since its opening in 2004. Nor do I expect him to know that Kazakhstan has taken the lead in hosting serious and productive talks involving leaders of the American Jewish community and notable Muslim representatives.
Kazakh culture remains essentially nomadic, and it is unfortunate that Mr. Muravchik discovered (to his delight) a Kazakh who admitted that the kidnapping of brides occurs in remote areas. But I find it easier to understand why such an abominable practice would persist among a nomadic Central Asian people than to join Mr. Muravchik in absolving drunken Americans from bellowing a Jew-baiting song.
Kazakh culture has almost no history of hostility to Jews. Kazakhs have historically viewed Mongols from western China as their traditional enemy. They even formed an alliance with the Russian czar on this basis. As a nomadic people, Kazakhs had little contact with Bukharan Jews, but in the Stalin era many politically suspect individuals and communities, including Jews, were deported to Kazakhstan. The country was also a place of refuge for Jews during the Nazi invasion of western Russia. Thus, Kazakhstan today has a population of at least 7,000 Jews, consisting mainly of secular Ashkenazim along with some Bukharans and a few Judeo-Tat people who descend from Caucasian deportees.
Kazakhstan is a member of the coalition fighting in Iraq. Kazakhstan also intervened with Iran in an attempt to protect a group of Persian Jews accused of espionage. It ill behooves a luminary of various freedom-defending organizations like Mr. Muravchik to ignore such matters.
The Borat travesty constitutes a gratuitous slur on a country prepared to make invaluable contributions to Jewish-Muslim reconciliation as well as to the war on terror. Kazakhstan has oil, and could do a great deal of good work with its energy income. Yet thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen, it now elicits only sneers and guffaws.
I will conclude by noting that I am an opponent of the transitional political regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the current president of Kazakhstan. The country has a long way to go before achieving democracy, though it is by no means as bad in this regard as some of its neighbors.
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