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Lithuania Wants to Protect Jews, Improve Israel Ties, Leader Says

The Lithuanian republic, seeking independence from the Soviet Union, would like to protect its Jewish community and improve direct relations with Israel, Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis told a gathering of Chicago Jewish community leaders Tuesday.

Landsbergis spoke at a luncheon meeting arranged by the American Jewish Committee. He was introduced by its national president, Sholom Comay, who noted that a “painful history has hovered over Lithuanian-Jewish relations.”

It was Landsbergis’ only meeting with American Jewish leaders during his two-week visit to the United States. “We want to cooperate with the Jewish community, live together,” he said, speaking of his own country.

He read from a statement he issued last year on behalf of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania, shortly after his party proclaimed independence from the Soviet Union.

Referring to past conflicts between Lithuanians and Jews, the statement committed Lithuania to protect the remnants of its Jewish community, estimated to number no more than 10,000.

“The Republic of Lithuania will not tolerate expressions of anti-Semitism,” Landsbergis declared, reading from the statement.

He said that because most Lithuanian Jews live in Vilnius, the capital, and other large cities, the municipalities have been made responsible for preserving Jewish monuments, museums, synagogues and cemeteries. The government is also doing what it can to promote Jewish education and cultural and religious activities in Lithuania, the president said.

Landsbergis admitted mixed feelings about Jewish emigration. He said that while he is committed to allow Jews freedom to choose whether to stay or leave, he recognizes that Lithuania would be all the poorer without Jews.

“We would be sorry not having Jews among us,” he said.

As for relations with Israel, Landsbergis said he has made contact with several Israeli officials and exchanged letters with President Chaim Herzog, Israel’s chief of state, whom he hopes to meet one day.

He said his government has plans for increased economic collaboration with Israel, especially in the areas of agriculture and the building trades.

Landsbergis alluded to his recent talk with President Bush and expressed hope that “the American Jewish community will be helpful as a contact between the United States and Lithuania and between Lithuania and Israel.” Because of the Shavuot holiday, the JTA Daily News Bulletin will not be published on Monday, May 20.

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