By Aaron Feigenbaum.
Crimea, a region of eastern Europe with a complex history and diverse set of peoples, has long been warred over by empires and is now the subject of the sibling rivalry between Ukraine and Russia. The Jews of Crimea have stood witness to these disputes for centuries and, indeed, have suffered through their own internal divisions.
Beginning in the 1st century C.E., the history of the Crimean Jews is as complicated as it is rich and beautiful. Inscriptions tell us that the first Jews in Crimea were descended from Babylonian and Assyrian settlers, as well as ex-soldiers from Bar Kokhba’s army.
Between the 600‘s and 900‘s the legendary Khazar kingdom made Crimea their base of operations. The Khazars (Kuzarim in Hebrew) were a Turkic people famous for having been converted to Judaism by Rabbi Judah HaLevi, author of the Kuzari. In the Middle Ages, the region came to be known as “Gazaria.”
The Khazars were ousted from power in Crimea by another Turkic tribe, the Tatars. Tatar rule gave economic and political advantages to Crimean Jews since it opened up both the trade routes and diplomatic channels to Muscovy (the precursor to the Russian Empire). In fact, the Muscovite representative in Crimea in the late 1400‘s was himself Jewish and certain areas of Crimea underwent a sort of Jewish renaissance. However, this period of resurgence was not to last.
The Ottomans stepped in and made Tatar Crimea a dependant state which caused economic decline and mass emigration. We also see around the late 1400‘s and early 1500‘s a clear split within the Jewish community between Karaites (those who reject the Talmud) and Krimchaks (mainstream Crimean Jews). The Karaites rose to prominence under Ottoman-Tatar rulership. As part of the Ottoman empire, they had to pay the jizya (poll-tax) levied on non-Muslims, but otherwise enjoyed few other restrictions or discrimination.
However, they, along with their Krimchak neighbors, suffered greatly in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the mid-1600’s, the previously benevolent Tatar rulers betrayed both communities in order to forge an alliance with the notoriously bloodthirsty and anti-Semitic Cossack leader Chmielnicki. The Russian Empire conquered Crimea in the 1700‘s and added most of it to the Pale of Settlement, the area that defined where Jews in Russia were allowed to live, in 1791.
In 1853, the Karaites successfully lobbied the Russian government for an exemption from the draconian czarist legislation. This act once and for all isolated the Karaites from the Krimchaks though the two communities remained in close proximity to each other.
Curiously, despite the restrictions placed on Krimchaks, the Russian government starting with Czarina Catherine the Great encouraged Jews of all backgrounds to settle in the region. Tens of thousands of Jews responded to this call and Crimea became a sort of Jewish homeland in the 1800‘s. In fact, many Zionists would perfect their agricultural techniques before moving to the real homeland. Similarly to what Stalin did in the far east in 1934, the Soviet Union briefly considered the idea to establish a Jewish Autonomous Region in Crimea in 1923 but decided against the proposal. Many Krimchaks had already emigrated due to the civil war of 1917-1922 as well as periodic famines.
As was the case in so many other parts of Europe, WWII devastated the Crimean Jewish community. The Nazis spared the Karaites since they did not believe them to be racially Jewish, but a significant portion of the Krimchak community was wiped out. After the Red Army had pushed the Germans out in 1944, Jews returned in droves to their former homes and the community was slowly rebuilt.
Stalinist rule restricted the Krymchaks’ use of Hebrew. Schools and yeshivas were shut down and many Krymchaks were forced to work in collective farms and factories.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many Karaites and Krymchaks emigrated to Israel, the U.S., and elsewhere. The Jewish population of Crimea is currently about 15,000 which includes about 800 Karaites. In the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea this year, the Jewish community is once again divided. Some such as Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, support Putin’s actions as necessary to defend against anti-Semitism on the part of the new Ukrainian government. But many others see Putin as using the Jews as a pawn to legitimize his actions. While there have been a few anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks, the situation is for the most part stable and life is continuing as before. It’s important to remember that the Jewish community of Crimea has endured much harsher tests than this latest one. With G-d’s help it will stay united and strong.
(Adapted from The Jewish Virtual Library and Haaretz)