Despite Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s anti-Semitic slurs against the city of Bobruisk and Israel, the prevailing mood of the isolated European nation’s Jewish community is one of nearly surprising calm.
“We are not concerned by the statement,” said Dr. Yakov Basin, the first deputy chairman of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Organizations and Communities. “What worries us are other things — in 20 years not a single person has been punished for anti-Semitic vandalism to the cemetery, etc. The Holocaust is not recognized as a unique historical phenomenon as it is in other countries.”
Behind the scenes, Jewish community leaders in Belarus believe that Jews were not the speech’s intended recipients but may have been used as a scapegoat.
Lukashenko during a live radio broadcast on Oct. 12 said of Bobruisk, a port city in the central part of the country, “This is a Jewish city, and the Jews are not concerned for the place they live in. They have turned Bobruisk into a pig sty. Look at Israel — I was there.”
Community leaders believe the mention of Israel was a calculated message by Lukashenko to the leadership of Iran. Since its controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Minsk in May, the two countries reportedly cemented plans for a “strategic partnership” and trade has dramatically increased between them.
A leading communal figure who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of business reprisals in the repressed former Soviet republic, confirmed to JTA that things have changed dramatically since Belarus and Iran became partners.
“Since Iran has linked up with Belarus, there’s been a distinct anti-Israel flavor in Belarus,” the leader said.
Indeed, even as Basin had expressed confidence that Lukashenko’s comments held no foreboding for his country’s Jews, he indicated deep dismay with the geopolitical implications of the speech.
“The problems with Israel could create complications on the Iran question,” he said. “Belarus and Russia are both involved with Iran in a way that’s almost like the Munich agreement of 1938.”
Despite the Belarusian Jewish community downplaying the statement, neither its significance nor potential impact could be ignored.
Five days after Lukashenko spoke, 15 headstones were desecrated in an attack on the Jewish cemetery in Babruisk, according to the Belapan news agency.
“You know, we always talk about the difference between state anti-Semitism and popular anti-Semitism,” the communal figure told JTA. “This, I think, is popular anti-Semitism. The only trouble is that it was the president expressing it and it was picked up.”
The Union of Belarusian Jewish Organizations and Communities has called a leadership meeting for Monday to discuss a unified response to the statement.
Its president, Leonid Levin, declined to comment for JTA until after the meeting, which will include the chief rabbi of Bobruisk.
Still, some community leaders chose not to criticize the statements made by their autocratic president and continued to minimize their significance.
Maxim Yudin, the director of Hillel in Minsk, saw the comments as a verbal gaffe.
“I’m 100 percent sure he didn’t realize what he was saying,” he said.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 14 years, is widely reviled in the West for his perceived abuses of power, including the crushing of free speech and political opposition. Belarus is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship.”
Yudin expressed concern about the Israeli ambassador being withdrawn, saying it was more likely to affect relations between Belarus and Israel than those between the Belarus government and the Jewish community.
“No one can say he’s anti-Semitic,” Yudin said. “In his 14 years as president I’ve never heard him say such a thing.”
Indeed, Yukashenko’s lack of public anti-Semitism in the past, and the blunt nature of his comments, point not to a new crusade against Belarusian Jews but to a political calculation.
Six days after the broadcast, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni sharply rebuked Lukashenko in the press, though the Jewish state stopped short of recalling its Belarus ambassador for fear of deepening the crisis.
“It is the responsibility of world leaders to battle anti-Semitism, which rears its ugly head in various places around the world, not promote it,” Livni said. “Anti-Semitism reflects first and foremost on the community in which it appears, and on its leaders.”