VILNIUS, Lithuania (Apr. 15)
A Lithuanian sports association has apologized to the country’s Jewish community for anti-Semitic slogans chanted by fans during a late March basketball game against an Israeli team.
Some at a match in Vilnius between Lithuania’s Lietuvos Rytas and Hapoel Jerusalem dressed up as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and waved Palestinian national flags. In addition, some chanted "Juden raus!" — German for "Jews, get out!"
The phrase is popular among neo-Nazis as well as with graffiti vandals, and it often is seen painted on walls and buildings in the Lithuanian capital.
The chairman of Lithuania’s Jewish community, Simonas Alperavicius, has spoken out before against the phrase, including when it was spray-painted on a wall facing the Lithuanian presidential complex and wasn’t removed for over a year.
This time Alperavicius sent a letter to the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, expressing dissatisfaction with the fans’ behavior and asking why no measures were taken to stop or remove the offenders from the arena. The stadium is managed by a public organization called Krepsinio Arena.
In earlier statements, Alperavicius said the Palestinian flags and Arafat costumes were a personal act on the part of fans, but he objected to the use of "Juden raus" as a verbal attack based on ethnicity.
The Jewish community received a letter last Thursday from the deputy director of Krepsinio Arena, Vitas Mackevicius, apologizing in the name of Lietuvos Rytas for the poor taste of the club’s fans.
Security measures had been taken during the game, "but there was no way to remove fans acting maliciously during the heat of the match," Mackevicius said in his letter, adding that video of the proceedings had been turned over to law enforcement agencies.
"We understand that chants offending players together with the Jewish nation don’t reinforce" cooperation between Lithuania and Israel, he said.
Similar slogans were shouted by spectators at a soccer match between a Vilnius team and Maccabi Tel Aviv in Vilnius last year.
Lithuania’s sole resident rabbi, Sholom Krinksy, who runs the local Chabad community, said he has seen similar reactions in sporting venues during his eight years here.
"I think solving issues like this has to come from the Lithuanian government," Krinsky said. "In this country, anti- Semitism is much more common and much more entrenched than in America. To be successful in uprooting the problem, leading Lithuanian government officials must say the right things and educate their people. I think they are definitely starting to do it."
Linas Kunigelis, a basketball journalist and veteran television announcer, blamed the incident on "drunk people."
"I have seen a lot of games in the last 10 to 15 years and it’s only a matter of the names that change. In Greece they shout it about Lithuanians, and the same when other Lithuanian teams come to Vilnius. It’s just some people with too much beer and vodka and less intellect."
Yet Krinsky insists that the issue runs deeper than drunk hooliganism. He often is subjected to anti-Semitic taunts — "like heil hitler" — on the streets of Vilnius, he said, from people "who are not drunk."
Kunigelis said Israelis just take racial taunts more seriously than others.
"I understand them 150 percent, because they came from bad things and bad memories," Kunigelis said. "From the fans’ point of view, I don’t think they know much about history — Lithuanian, German or Jewish. Maybe they just have talks with their grandparents and that’s it. It’s just a way to express hostility in sport. They were just trying to find ways to insult the visiting team."
He didn’t mention the incident on the air, Kunigelis said, "because then I would have to mention it in every game. I just said ‘the atmosphere is very hostile, as usual.’ "