MOSCOW, Jan. 19 (JTA) — The arrest of a Belarussian Jewish activist who criticized his country’s record preserving its Jewish historical sites has again thrown the spotlight on Jewish issues in Belarus. But the arrest has triggered mixed reaction among Jewish leaders in this former Soviet republic. On Jan. 14, a Belarussian judge handed an official warning to Yakov Gutman, a controversial Jewish activist, for holding an unsanctioned protest near the presidential office in the capital, Minsk. Earlier that day, Gutman was detained by police and spent a few hours at a police station after he unfurled a poster urging the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to “stop destruction of synagogues, cemeteries and monuments to victims of the Holocaust.” “What happened is very sad,” said Yuri Dorn, the leader of the Union of Jewish Religious Congregations of Belarus, an Orthodox umbrella organization. “On the other hand, both sides in this conflict used methods that can hardly be described as appropriate.” Gutman, who emigrated from Belarus to the United States years ago, is president of the New York-based World Association of Belarussian Jews, which he founded in 1993. For Gutman, the fight for better preservation of Belarus’ Jewish sites also has a personal dimension. Last November he arranged for a memorial plaque to be placed at the site of a Holocaust-era tragedy in Mozyr, 230 miles south of Minsk. In late 1941, about 40 Jewish residents of this town, including Gutman’s grandfather, gathered in a house and set it on fire, choosing to kill themselves rather than become Nazi victims. In an interview last year, Gutman said, “These people repeated the deed of the Jews at Masada,” referring to hundreds of Jews who killed themselves rather than surrender to Roman forces in 73 C.E. For a long time, local officials refused to acknowledge that the tragedy in Mozyr ever took place. The Mozyr victims’ remains were taken to a cemetery that was covered over by a soccer stadium in the 1960s. Recently, six U.S. congressmen asked Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to drop sponsorship of Belarus’ Olympic team because of the stadium. Part of the former burial site also was excavated for a gas pipeline. But the Mozyr memorial lasted only a few weeks and was removed last month after a government decree said it was installed illegally. Dorn said Gutman chose the wrong form of protest. “The authorities have already made a promise to put the memorial back to its original place. It now only takes an official request from one of the Jewish groups that is registered in Belarus,” he said. Lately, Gutman has spent most of his time in Belarus, where he launched an ongoing protest campaign against the country’s mixed record on countering anti-Semitic incidents and preserving its Jewish heritage sites. The activist’s efforts have never been coordinated with recognized Jewish leaders in Belarus, his critics in the organized community said. “He never worked with us” and “we now find it difficult to come out in his defense,” said Leonid Levin, president of the Union of Belorussian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities, a secular umbrella group. For his part, Gutman has long been critical of the country’s established Jewish leaders, whom he accuses of not doing enough to confront anti-Semitism. Belarus has recently seen a series of vandal attacks Jewish leaders have described as anti-Semitic. Many Jewish cemeteries across the nation have been vandalized, and last May vandals scrawled swastikas on the country’s best-known memorial to victims of the Holocaust, located in the former Minsk Ghetto. Belarus also has come under periodic criticism for a mixed record on preserving its Jewish heritage sites. Last summer, the former Soviet republic was placed under especially intense international pressure because of ongoing construction over a historic Jewish cemetery in the city of Grodno. Belarus was once home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. More than 800,000 Jews were killed in Belarus during the Holocaust. Belarus, population 10 million, is now home to an estimated 30,000 Jews. After his brief detention last week, Gutman told reporters he would go on a hunger strike to protest against what he calls the policy of creeping anti-Semitism conducted by the Belarussian authorities. He also said he would ask the European Jewish Congress to focus on Belarus at a conference on anti-Semitism in March.
Jewish activist arrested in Belarus