Minority categorization and neglected Judaic diversity: the case of Krymchaks and Karaites

Minority categorization and neglected Judaic diversity: the case of Krymchaks and Karaites

The 2017 Ukraine’s Law on education generated heated international debates. The subsequent Venice Commission’s “Opinion on the provisions of the Law on education of 5 September 2017 which concern the use of the state language and minority and other languages in education received quite much attention both from politicians and analysts. In his text, our expert Dr. Kiryl Kascian focuses on a somewhat minor and unnoticed provision of the said Opinion and shows ambivalent effects of minority categorization for the Judaic communities.

In Para 40 of the Opinion, the Venice Commission remarks upon “the languages of “indigenous peoples of Ukraine” and acknowledges that

During the visit to Kyiv, the Venice Commission delegation was given to understand that “indigenous peoples of Ukraine” are those minorities which do not have a kin-state. Specific reference was made to the Crimean Tatar, Karaim and Krimchak minorities, but this category would presumably also include the Gagauz and the Roma minorities.

A literal interpretation of this statement results in the two conclusions. First, the main criterion for the authorities of Ukraine to attribute an ethnic group to the category of “indigenous peoples of Ukraine” might be presumably the lack of own kin-state. Second, specific mention of small Krymchak and Karaite minorities within this category implies that Ukraine regards these two communities as those without their own kin-state.

The approach of the Ukrainian authorities as interpreted by the Venice Commission in its opinion resembles the stance of Poland with regard to its tiny Karaite community. Poland’s Law of 6 January 2005 on national and ethnic minorities and on the regional languages recognizes Karaites not as a national minority, but as an ethnic one. Under Article 2 of the said law, an ethnic minority “does not identify itself with a nation organized in its own state”, whilst a national minority has the state to be identified with.

The question whether the Krymchak and Karaite communities shall be considered as the groups without a kin-state is not always obvious because these two groups are tiny and not well known to a wider public. In the case of Ukraine, these two communities also remain in the shadow of the Crimean Tatars who are numerically much bigger and more visible in the media. To challenge this approach, the main distinctive characteristics of these communities should be addressed.

The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe defines Krymchaks as “indigenous Rabbinite Jewish community of the Crimean Peninsula“, while their native Turkic language is typically referred to as “Judeo-Crimean Tatar”. Because of their Jewishness, the Krymchak community faced Holocaust extermination during the Nazi occupation of the Crimean peninsula. Thus, Krymchaks are a Jewish group that observes the mainstream form of Judaism and differs from other Jews in terms of their native Turkic language.

The case of Karaites, another Turkic-speaking group, is more complicated because they are typically referred to as “a small sect of Judaism who follow only the written Torah and reject the later additions of Oral Law, including the Mishnah and the Talmud“. Under the Russian Empire, the Karaites appealed to the imperial authorities to perceive them as a group distinct from Jews (it ought to be noted that the imperial laws applied significant restrictions to the Jewish population). Karaites also survived the Holocaust because the Reich Institute for Genealogical Research in 1939 recognized them as a non-Jewish group. The said YIVO Encyclopedia points out that the “dejudaizing ideology” of the Karaite leadership (notably Seraya Szapszal, 1873–1961) “created a completely separate self-identification for East European Karaites” (i.e. those of Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine). Despite differences between the Karaites and the mainstream Judaism, and the promotion of distinct dejudaizing identity by their leadership, several hundreds of Karaites from Ukraine emigrated to Israel since the end of the 1980s under the Israeli Law of Return.

In its Article 1, the said Law explicitly proclaims that “every Jew has the right to come to his country as an oleh”, i.e. a Jew immigrating into Israel. The formulation “his country” of this Article without any gender prejudices refers to the State of Israel.

Thus, being opened to accommodate the Krymchak and Karaite communities, Israel meets all formal criteria to be regarded as the kin-state for the said groups. Nevertheless, this situation produces somewhat different effects for the Krymchaks and Karaites. In the case of Krymchak’s connection to Israel, the key element is their adherence to the mainstream form of Judaism. As for Karaites, two issues should be addressed. First, their ethnoreligious identity produces effects when a significant portion of East European Karaites may have the restraint to see the State of Israel as their kin-state. Nevertheless, the laws of the State of Israel see the members of this community as potential olim. Second, there are some differences between the East European Karaite communities. For the Karaite communities in the EU Member States (i.e. Lithuania and Poland), there are neither political nor economic reasons for emigration to Israel, whereas Karaites from Ukraine (including Crimea) can consider aliyah as a better option for their future.

The case of Krymchak and Karaite communities leads us to the three conclusions. First, in the case of Ukraine, it seems erroneous to consider these two communities as those without their own kin-state. A more accurate approach would be to view them jointly with the Ukrainian Ashkenazim as the three distinct minority groups whose kin-state is Israel (with some possible reservations in case of the Karaite community). In this case, both Krymchaks and Karaites can be seen as two distinct minority groups within a Judaic ethnoreligious minority in Ukraine. Second, in the case of Poland, the Karaite collision is somewhat different. On the one hand, the distinct Karaite identity provides Poland with sufficient grounds to treat this community as an ethnic minority within the meaning of the Polish law. On the other hand, they are potential olim as defined in Israeli law. Within the terms of the Polish law, this fact puts Polish Karaites into a specific position somewhere between national and ethnic minorities. Third, the minorities are typically categorized as those with their kin-state and those without it. This approach can unwittingly neglect the diversity of the Judaic communities, as the example of the Krymchaks and Karaites demonstrates.

Image: Complex of Karaite kenesas in Yevpatoriya (Crimea), © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons

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