WASHINGTON (JTA) – A U.S. appeals court ruled that a decades-old struggle between Chabad-Lubavitch and the Russian government over a seminal Lubavitch archive can proceed in the American courts.
For decades, Chabad has appealed to the Soviet and later Russian governments to return the texts to the movement’s main library in Brooklyn, said Rabbi Shalom Dovber Levine, the head of the library for Agudas Chasidei Chabad in Brooklyn.
In the opinion released June 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that Chabad should have a chance to make its case before a judge.
Since the suit was filed in 2004, a back-and-forth succession of appeals has focused merely on whether U.S. courts had jurisdiction to hear the case at all.
The more than 12,000 religious texts and an archive of some 25,000 handwritten pages on Chabad philosophy and Jewish law dating back to the 18th century shared the fate of Russian Jews in the first half of the 20th century.
The Bolshevik government seized a portion of the library after the October Revolution in 1917 as the Lubavitcher rebbe fled the country to Poland. The texts were stored in the Lenin Library, later known as the Russian State Library.
The Nazi army confiscated the remainder of the archive around 1939 as it marched across Eastern Europe. It was later taken back by the Russian government and currently resides in the Russian State Military Archive.
The texts are central to Chabad philosophy, Levine said. Though Chabad yeshiva students have been able to study the archives through copies, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, predicted that when the texts were returned to the group, the approach of the messiah would come close behind.
The U.S. case, first filed in 2004, was a last-ditch effort in a long-running legal and diplomatic battle that began on Russian soil.
The most promising legal effort to return the archives to Chabad fell prey to a bureaucratic veto around 1992 when a Russian court ruled that the books should be returned to Chabad. But a post-perestroika power shift stripped that court of its authority to make the decision and the newly minted Russian government continued to stonewall for 10 years, according to Chabad officials.
Levine and others from Chabad made frequent trips to Russia, where eventually they were allowed to assess the archive and determine its authenticity.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. government stepped in, lobbying for Chabad from the highest levels. Al Gore when he was vice president and current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been among those who have pressed the case to Russia over the past two decades.
Most recently, in 2005, all 100 members of the U.S. Senate and more than 350 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed on to requests to have the library returned.
“We felt that all this has past and there are no results, so we went to the federal court in the States,” Levine told JTA.
Lawyers for the Russian government argued that Chabad had exhausted its avenues for the return of the archive in the Russian court system and had nowhere to go outside that system.
Sarah Carey, the lawyer for the Russian government, said her clients – the Russian Ministry of Culture and libraries where the collection is held – had not yet reached a decision on whether to appeal the June 13 ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Either in an appeal or in a trial on the merits of the case itself, Carey said the Russian government would argue that Russia wants to maintain the overall integrity of the collections.
Scholars often come to study the Russian State Library’s large collection of Jewish writings, Carey told JTA, adding that the collection would be diluted without the Chabad archives.
Allowing Chabad to take the thousands of volumes would set a dangerous precedent for museums and historical archives around the world, leaving them open to restitution claims from a variety of groups, she said.
Seth Gerber, a California-based lawyer for Chabad, said Russia’s claims that the U.S. legal system had no right to hear Chabad’s case were considered an “affront to the court,” which could attach damages or property claims to its ruling to gain leverage with the Russian government if the court does rule in Chabad’s favor.
Carey said that any ruling of damages against the Russian government could create an unpalatable situation for the U.S. State Department.
“It’s a very hostile act for a foreign government to try to attach property,” she said.
Gerber rejected that notion, asserting that the Russian government has provided no meaningful explanation as to why it would hold on to the archives and library.
“The time is here to do the right thing,” he said. “The country that liberated Auschwitz should not be holding hostage the sacred texts of victims of the Holocaust.”