U.S. looking at Chabad-Russia feud over texts

(JTA) — The U.S. Justice Department may weigh in on the ownership of Chasidic texts held in Russia in a case that some experts fear could jeopardize Russia-U.S. cultural ties.

The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Justice Department involved itself in the Chabad case Monday, months after the Russian government began canceling art loans promised to American museums — its stated response to the Chabad victory in its lawsuit against Russia.

Court documents indicate that the issue has become so important to relations between the U.S. and Russia that the department signaled in court papers that it may weigh in on the case, the AP reported. The department requested additional time for review.

In 2010, a U.S. District Court had compelled Russia to return two major collections of Judaica seized by early Soviet governments. The Russian Federation ignored the judgment, having pulled out of the case in 2009 on the grounds of sovereign immunity.

Since January, Russia has canceled loans to major American institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, saying it feared the artifacts would be similarly “seized.”

The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., was forced to shutter its only major show of the year after the Russian government in March called back 37 lent objects. Museum curator Kent Russell told AP that the museum had spent about $300,000 promoting the show when it had to be closed.

"It’s all such a nightmare," said Russell. "We had a lot riding on this. We had a lot of tours that had to be canceled. The catalog is of absolutely no value to us whatsoever."

Chabad attorneys submitted a statement and letter to the State Department declaring that it will not try to enforce last year’s judgment by seizing cultural objects lent by Russia to American museums.

Russia’s Ministry of Culture did not respond to AP inquiries.

Legal experts in the United States said Russian fears of their art being seized while on loan in this country were “far-fetched.”

In 1991, Soviet officials agreed to return the “Schneerson Collection” to Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. The collection, now being held in Russian state repositories, includes thousands of handwritten texts dating back to 1772 and the movement’s founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

The Russian Federation has refused to honor the 1991 agreement, and has resisted Chabad claims since that time, stating that the documents are part of Russia’s cultural heritage. The U.S. State Department has worked the case on behalf of Chabad since the 1990s.

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