In mid-August, at our regular fruit juice stand in Tel Aviv’s Carmel market, I made my order and went to buy a bouquet of flowers. On my return, the fruiterer noted that flowers are bought on Friday but this was Wednesday.
“What’s the event?” I explained that it was our Golden Wedding.
He retorted, “50 years and you buy a bunch of flowers?! Take your wife somewhere special.”
“We’re going to Mongolia,” I said.
“What’s in Mongolia?”
“Desert, camels, tents.”
“So you could go to the Negev! How do you get [to Mongolia]?”
“By train from Beijing.”
He ended triumphantly, “You work for Wiesenthal; there must be Nazis over there?”
“You never know,” I concluded.
On arrival in the capital, Ulan Bataar (The Black Hero) – a city of 1.5 million, or 50% of the national population – one is struck by the massive colorful construction among drab Soviet-style tenements, dotted by the ubiquitous nomadic “ger” (in Russian “yurt”) family tents.
Mongolia is a land mass locked in between Russia and China. Despite 90% trade dependence on China, there is openly expressed disdain for Beijing. The current president, a Russophile, seeks to diversify commerce increasingly with Moscow.
We first met with mutual friends former parliamentarian and Women’s Rights champion Enkhtuya Oidov and her son, Budruun Gardi, an anti-poverty NGO director. (In Mongolia there are no surnames, only – as in Russia – patronymics.) Educated in Communist East Germany, Enkhtuya spoke of the 70 years of Mongolia as a Soviet satellite.
“All religion was forbidden, 30,000 Buddhist monks shot and the temples destroyed.”
Despite this background, post-Soviet Mongolia feels closest to post-Soviet Russia. The script is Cyrillic, Russian is spoken by the older generation and the statutes celebrate the historic alliance against Japan in “the Great Patriotic War” (World War II). Judaism is not recognized as a religion and the Holocaust is still practically unknown.
The standard-bearer for the Jews in Mongolia is Sumati Luvsandendev, a public opinion pollster often associated with Gallup. His mother, a Jewish fugitive from Latvia, and his father, a professor of Mongolian language on assignment in Paris, gave Sumati exposure to the West, and a non-conformist intellectual appetite.
With the family’s repatriation, he was raised in the Soviet system. In 1989 to 1991 Perestroika, the fall of the Berlin Wall, end of the Soviet Union and independence for the satellites led to a wave of Western Jewish organizations and rabbis seeking members of the tribe, and especially Holocaust survivors.
My own beat was formerly known as the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe.
There was the fear of resurgent nationalism and rehabilitation of anti-Bolshevik heroes that happened to be Nazi collaborators.
Together with the “stans” (Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, etc.), Mongolia was off the beaten track.
Sumati got the call in 2003 to represent “Mongolian Jewry” at the Euroasian Jewish Congress. Next came Chabad and others.
He explained the history of a Jewish presence in his country: • Legends of the Khazars • The route to Kai-Feng in China • Russian Jews during the post-Revolution Civil War, wiped out by the anti-revolutionary, antisemitic Whites • The 70 years as a Soviet satellite, when Jews were recognized only as “nationalnost Yevrei,” an ethnic nationality. This status persists in independent Mongolia.
“If you are a Jew, you are not a Mongolian.
As most went to Israel, they are Israeli, even if they return to work in Mongolia,” he stressed.
There are, of course, Jews among the expatriate and diplomatic communities, but no facilities. There is also growing interest in inter-faith contact, especially driven by Evangelical Christians.
Five percent of the capital’s population is Sunni Muslim of Kazakh origin. An Islamic plurality exists in the west where, though not contiguous, the Kazakhstan border is across a land finger of 36 kilometers. There has been growing repatriation across the border.
One source spoke of the fear of jihadi radicalization and the appearance of articles and historiography of Buddhist-Muslim conflict.
These include disputed claims that the national hero Chengis (Genghis) Khan had embraced all the tenets of Islam but the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Despite this rhetoric, it is clear that Mongolia is a new business frontier. The tremendous array of office and residential towers in construction are financed principally by South Korea and, of course, Chinese contractors. Restaurants and bars are booming.
Mongolians are nomadic, but the Soviets brought them a rigid social model. Breaking free, “they are individualists as expressed in our international sports...: wrestling, archery, riding,” argued the NGO director.
Mongol Sabra-style entrepreneurship is eager for Israeli hi-tech and as trade must follow the flag, the non-resident ambassador of Israel was in Ulan Bataar in early August.
In a country almost without Jews or even knowledge of Jews and certainly unaware of the anti-Israel boycott movement, there is still a flow of antisemitic literature from Russia. But as the younger generation do not speak or read Russian there has been little impact.
Returning to “Nazis,” however, there is indeed a nest in Mongolia of individuals who revere Hitler – but are uninterested in Jews.
Their victims are Chinese workers and Mongolian women who associate with them.
They used to appear in Nazi regalia in public, but no longer since the authorities have cracked down. Our fruit juice vendor in Tel Aviv should feel very relieved.The author is director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.