Across the Former Soviet Union Protests Erupting After Belarus Orders Jewish Institute to Close

The Soviet Union has been history for more than a decade, but the past still imposes on the present when it comes to suppressing Jewish life in Belarus.

Two weeks ago, the country’s Education Ministry ordered a Jewish studies center, the International Institute for the Humanities, to close down.

In a letter to Alexander Kozulin, the university’s rector, ministry officials offered no explanation for the decision to shut the institute, which is part of Belarus State University and located in the country’s capital, Minsk.

During the past several years, Belarus has been criticized for what is seen as its weak response to anti-Semitic attacks, and it was widely criticized for allowing Jewish remains to be disturbed when it expanded a soccer stadium earlier this year.

The institute opened in 1999 with support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Since then, it has developed strong academic ties with Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a number of universities in the United States and Western Europe.

The institute, which has an enrollment of about 500 students, offers courses in Judaica and other humanities.

Each year, Jewish studies classes at the institute are taught by a dozen visiting faculty from Jerusalem, school officials said.

In addition, the institute also houses a state-of-the-art computer lab and technological center operated by World Jewish ORT.

The Education Ministry’s letter was a one-paragraph statement, and it did not cite any irregularities in the institute’s work that would explain the closure, Igor Dukhan, vice dean of the institute, told JTA.

“But there is no doubt our international contacts with schools in the U.S. and Germany have been causing much anxiety” among some officials and clerics in Belarus, he said.

A representative of an international organization for Jewish studies in the former Soviet Union said the group is extremely concerned about the situation.

“This is the only place in Minsk where academic Judaica is being taught,” said Viktoria Mochalova, director of the Sefer Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization, a Moscow-based group that serves as an umbrella organization for dozens of Jewish studies programs at universities across the former Soviet Union.

“This is a shock to us. We are about to lose a leading university with a very solid program and an established international reputation,” she said.

Dukhan said the BSU, the institute’s parent school, had a long history of accommodating the needs of Jewish students in Belarus.

When the BSU was established in 1921, most of its student body was Jewish, and there were more classes taught in Yiddish than in Russian, he said.

School officials said tensions regarding the institute intensified last summer after the school publicized its plan to build a new campus using Western and Israeli funds.

Some Jewish leaders said anti-Semitism and anti-Western sentiments were behind the decision.

“The authorities simply cannot stomach the existence of a higher-education course in Jewish studies when Hebrew, Jewish culture, history and religion are all taught,” said Yakov Basin, a Jewish community leader and a human rights activist in Minsk.

The regime of Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, is known for its anti-Western statements.

Alexander Zhuk, Belarus’ deputy minister of education, offered no explanation for his ministry’s decision. In a telephone interview this week, he called the issue “confidential” and said the ministry was looking for a solution to a “difficult situation the Institute for Humanities has come across.”

In the meantime, students continue to attend classes at the institute, which has yet to be closed.

Officials with the institute and with the university, together with Jewish leaders in Belarus, have launched a protest campaign that has triggered a largely sympathetic response in the nation’s mass media and its academic community.

Jewish leaders and sources at the university are wondering whether Belarus’ top Christian cleric will take action to keep the institute open, but he is not considered sympathetic to their concerns.

Last spring, these sources say, Metropolitan Filaret, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus, inquired with BSU officials about the “large number” of lecturers at the Institute for Humanities.

Filaret’s office was not available for comment for this article.

A country of 10 million people that soon will border an expanding European Union, Belarus has an estimated 100,000 Jews, a fraction of the community that lived there before the Holocaust.

In addition to criticizing the government’s response to anti-Semitic attacks, Jewish leaders in Belarus, Russia and the West repeatedly have criticized Belarus’ mixed record on preserving Jewish heritage sites in a country that once was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

A possible solution for the crisis was hammered out at a Sept. 22 session of the school’s academic board, which was attended by Western diplomatic officials stationed in Minsk.

At the session, university officials condemned the decision to close the institute. Seeking a compromise, they proposed to preserve the humanities school inside the BSU by downgrading its status from a self-governed institute to a university department under the aegis of the School for the Humanities and Arts.

In the same memorandum, the school official asked those interested in keeping Jewish studies alive in Belarus to keep sending letters to Belarus’ Cabinet in support of the school’s international programs, including its Jewish studies classes.

School officials say authorities have yet to respond to their proposal.

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