Belarus Jews now unsure about arson attack motive

MOSCOW, Jan. 14 (JTA) — An incident that Jewish leaders in Belarus thought was an act of anti-Semitism has created something of a quandary. On Jan. 1, vandals set fire to the vacation cottage of Mikhail Nordshtein, editor of Aviv, the monthly Jewish newspaper published in the capital of Minsk. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, leaders of the country’s Jewish community believed the incident confirmed their concerns about a rise of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet republic. Their fears were heightened when, on the day after the incident, vandals daubed a swastika and two Stars of David on Nordshtein’s apartment in Minsk. “If it were not for the swastika, we wouldn’t have reacted to the attack,” said Boris Ozersky, executive director of the Association of Jewish Communities of Belarus. But as details of the incident came to light, the exact nature of the crime became unclear. “We cannot be sure that this was an anti-Semitic act,” Leonid Levin, president of the association, said in a telephone interview this week from Minsk. The circumstances surrounding the arson attack are “extremely complicated,” he added. The burned house, it turns out, actually belonged to Nordshtein’s 34-year-old son, Andrei, a former journalist recently turned businessman. He had borrowed a significant sum for his business and had failed to pay his debt on time. As a result of the new details, some Jewish officials in Minsk believed that the arson could have been an act of Mafia-style revenge on the editor’s son for the unpaid debt. Others, such as Yakov Basin, one of the leaders of Minsk’s 20,000- to 30,000-member Jewish community, continue to maintain that the incidents signify what he described as a “rise of anti-Semitic chauvinism in the country.” But the leader of the nation’s Jewish community strongly opposed this view. “We cannot talk about a new wave of anti-Semitism,” Levin said. Throughout the telephone interview, he tended to downplay the issue. Along with some acts of anti-Jewish violence in recent years, he said, there had also been a few desecrations of churches and Christian cemeteries in Belarus. His reluctance to speak about anti-Semitism or any special Jewish concerns had much to do with the country’s political situation. The fears of Belarus Jews were heightened after a controversial November referendum gave President Alexander Lukashenko virtually unlimited powers. In past months, he has cracked down on the opposition and curbed civil liberties, prompting outrage from human rights watchers. “We are not playing political games,” said Levin, who called the situation of Jews in Belarus “quite normal.” According to Ozersky, the association’s executive director, the Jews of Belarus are more concerned about the country’s steadily deteriorating economic situation. Belarus, whose Jewish community numbers about 100,000, or 1 percent of the general population, has recently been experiencing a 50 percent monthly inflation rate. “The prices are growing tremendously, while salaries and pensions virtually remain the same,” said Ozersky. “We have to be very careful in these circumstances,” one Jewish official said. “Before raising our voice against anti-Semitism, we must be sure that anti-Semitism is involved in one situation or another.” Last week, the Jewish leaders of Belarus met in Minsk to issue a statement calling on the government to condemn the arson attack and other manifestations of anti-Semitism. But the statement has not yet been published. The association’s officials say they plan to do so soon.

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