What does a Brooklyn yeshiva have to do with the president of Uzbekistan?
Plenty, if you ask Pearl Kaufman, executive director of Be’er Hagolah Yeshiva, an oasis of Jewish learning for 1,000 kids from the former Soviet Union, located just off the Belt Parkway in the Starrett City section.
Be’er Hagolah, Hebrew for “well in the diaspora,” planned to give President Islam
Karimov its “international leader award” at a gala Plaza Hotel reception Wednesday night.
Karimov was fresh from a White House meeting with President Bush where he was hailed for his nation’s strategic aid to the United States in the Afghanistan war, but also advised to improve his “poor” record on religious freedom and human rights, according human rights advocates.
For Israel and Jews, however, Islom Karimov is seen as a staunch ally. He established full diplomatic ties with Israel. His aviation minister, Arslan Ruzmetov, director general of Uzbekistan Airways, launched direct commercial flights with Tel Aviv, the only Muslim country to do so.
So when Kaufman found out that Karimov would be in the U.S. it was quickly decided the school would honor him. After all, she explained, more than half of the school’s students have ties to Uzbekistan, with about 21 million people bordering on Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan was the first of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia to offer a military base for U.S. use in the war against the Taliban. More than 1,000 American military personnel remain at the southern Khanabad air base.
Kaufman says it’s clear from her Uzbeki students that Jews had more religious freedom there than in other Soviet states. “Anyone who has eyes can see that the kids from Uzbek have been allowed to practice their religion. They have a sense of knowledge of being a Jew. Karimov tolerates and appreciates Jews.”
Karimov has ruled since before the 1991 Soviet collapse. Last January, he won an extension of his presidential term in a referendum that the U.S. and other international critics called neither free nor fair and human rights advocates cite a long list of violations, from torture by police to lack of freedom of expression, press and religion.
Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, a Be’er Hagolah supporter, and a New York political operative, said he first established relations with Karimov about four years ago. Back then Karimov was seeking U.S. aid to battle radical Islamic terrorism and the Taliban.
“Who would have known years later that America would have the same trouble with the Taliban, and that Uzbekistan would come and assist them,” he says.