Why we Care: Standing up for the Crimean Tatars

12/14/2016 03:34 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2016
Tatars children celebrating Eid El Adha in last September with the support of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding
Tatars children celebrating Eid El Adha in last September with the support of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding

Over the course of my more than 25 years as a congregational rabbi, I have taken part in many joyous and memorable simchas (celebrations)--bar and bat-mitzvahs, weddings and holiday celebrations during which members of my synagogue came together to sing, dance and make merry, while committing to one another and to the Jewish people.

This year, one of the most meaningful celebrations in which I was involved was one featuring Muslims, not Jews, and which I was able to experience only vicariously through a video sent to me surreptitiously from far-off Crimea. This was an exuberant Kurban Bayram (Eid Al-Adha) celebration held in mid-September in a fairy tale-like setting in the ancient Crimean Tatar capital of Bakchisserai in honor of the wives and children of Crimean Tatar political prisoners; financed in part through a fund-raising campaign that my agency, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding undertook among Muslims and Jews here in the U.S.

Even though the video happens to be in the Russian language, which I do not speak; I am deeply moved as I watch it again and again to see in the eyes of the adults and children at the party the sheer exultation they felt at being able to come together--if only for an afternoon--to celebrate their culture and religion.

The event, sponsored by Bizim Balalar (Our Children), an unofficial community organization, was held for some 80 Crimean Tatar children whose fathers have either been given long prison sentences for supposed 'extremism' or have simply been held incommunicado in administrative detention for many months. Many of these children endured the trauma of watching their fathers being dragged away from their homes in the middle of the night by masked members of the secret police, and all of them now live in dire poverty with no breadwinner to support them.

The Kurban Bayram celebration was the first happy, stress free occasions many of the children had experienced since their fathers were arrested; with gifts, games, a workshop in making clay objects and entertainment by clowns and a dance ensemble. A mother of one of the children says tearfully, "I have never seen our children so happy and carefree. I only wish their fathers could be with all of us and be part of this holiday."

FFEU raised money for its #OurChildrenNow campaign on behalf of the Crimean Tatar children from 100 donors--mainly American Muslims and Jews--on a crowd-funding site known as LaunchGood.com. The money raised by FFEU not only helped to pay for the celebration, but continues to provide nourishing food, clothing and school supplies for these hard-pressed youngsters.

Some might ask why, with the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in this country and beyond, which FFEU is focused on combating, that I also give priority to supporting the Crimean Tatars, a faraway and little know Muslim community. I would respond that the Torah reminds the Jewish people that we should do what we can to succor any ethnic or religious community enduring suffering and persecution, because we ourselves were once slaves in the Land of Egypt. If we allow the rights of this small people to be violated, we diminish the cause of freedom and justice everywhere in the world.

Certainly, the Crimean Tatars have had a particularly tragic history; one that has eerie parallels with that of the Jews. An ethnic Turkic community which had its own independent khanate until the conquest of Crimea by Catherine the Great of Russia in 1783, the Crimean Tatars suffered brutal repression over the next 160 years by successive Russian and Soviet governments and eventually became a minority in their own homeland.

On May 18, 1944, shortly after the Red Army liberated Crimea from Nazi German occupation, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered that the Crimean Tatar population of about 200,000 should be deported en masse to Central Asia as punishment for supposed "collaboration" with the Nazis. This was a false charge. While a few Crimean Tatars may have supported the Nazis, a much larger number joined the Red Army or resisted the Germans as guerillas. During the ensuing deportation of the Crimean Tatars in boxcars to destinations more than 2000 miles away with little food and no sanitary facilities. an estimated 46 percent of the Tatar population died of sickness or starvation.

The Crimean Tatars began returning to their ancestral homeland during the last years of the Soviet Union and reestablished itself in the Crimean Peninsula during rule by Ukraine from 1992-2013; achieving cultural autonomy and reaching a population of 300,000, more than 12 percent of the total population of Crimea.

FFEU first got involved in Crimea during the years 2011-2013, when members of the Crimean Tatar community and the Jewish community of Crimea held a series of joint educational, festive and social service events under the aegis of our Global Muslim-Jewish Season of Twinning. We also gave support to Crimean Tatar and Jewish leaders who spoke out publicly against hate crimes directed against houses of worship and cemeteries of both communities.

Everything changed abruptly with the Russian takeover and annexation of Crimea in February-March 2014. Angered that the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (National Council) dared to speak in opposition to the extralegal tactics used to achieve the takeover, the occupation authorities began raiding mosques, cultural centers and private homes to arrest activists; seizing Qurans and other religious books. Several of those attained were later found to have been murdered.

The Russian authorities exiled several of the community's top leaders from Crimea and outlawed the Mejlis, which they falsely labelled as "extremist." They also banned the community's solemn annual commemoration of the forced deportation of the Crimean Tatars of May 18, 1944; something that is especially troubling to me as a Jew who lost of most of my family during the Holocaust. I am not saying that Stalin's deportation of 200,000 Crimean Tatars, and the deaths of a high percentage of them is equivalent of Hitler's deliberate murder of six million Jews, but it is clearly wrong to prohibit any people from commemorating a terrible injustice perpetrated against them.

FFEU intends to stay engaged on the issue in 2017; to do what we can do on a humanitarian basis to alleviate the suffering of the estimated 280,000 Crimean Tatars remaining in their homeland. While, the U.S. government labels Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as illegitimate, FFEU sees our role as pressing Russia, as the occupying power, to allow the Crimean Tatars freedom of expression and the right to practice their Islamic faith freely in accordance with international law protecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

The defining principle of the work FFEU has done in Muslim-Jewish relations over the past decade is that Jews and Muslims should stand up for each other if either community is unjustly demonized, discriminated against or victimized by violence. FFEU will continue to stand up for the rights of our Crimean Tatar brothers and sisters every bit as staunchly as we support the rights of Muslims and Jews here in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is the President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and Co-Author with Imam Shamsi Ali of "Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims.

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