(JTA) — About 100 people in Lithuania protested what they called elections fraud and undemocratic practices by the contested leader of the country’s small Jewish community.
The demonstration Monday was the first time in decades that protesters gathered to demand the resignation of a European Jewish community leader. It reflects an escalation in the community’s internal fight for control, which the conflict’s protagonists say is complicated by millions of dollars in Holocaust restitution funds.
Held in a park across the street from the community building in Vilnius, the rally was led by Simonas Gurevicius, a critic of the leader of the LBZ Jewish federation in Lithuania, Faina Kukliansky.
Gurevicius was elected to head the Vilnius Jewish community last year, but the body run by Kukliansky voided the elections, offering what critics said were unsatisfying reasons and controversial references to ethnic divisions between Russian- and Lithuanian-speaking Jews in the country.
Kukliansky’s title of LBZ chairwoman also is contested.
Last year, her board changed the rules for internal elections, dramatically favoring a select group of organizations over individual community members.
The change came amid growing resentment against Kukliansky over alleged corruption and nepotism that she has denied. It led many to boycott an allegedly rigged election that ended with a renewed term for Kukliansky. But in December, a Lithuanian court voided the elections. A new vote has not been held.
The government in recent years allocated $41 million in restitution money to be used on cultural activities and commemoration projects connected to Lithuania’s some 3,000 Jews.
Gurevicius accused Kukliansky’s board of holding on to power undemocratically to control the money.
Protesters waved banners reading “Jews don’t need a queen” and signs accusing Kukliansky of cronyism.
Kukliansky also referenced the money, saying about the protest rally that it was the cause for the opposition against her.
“It’s sad, but we have only partially passed our ‘trial by money,’” she wrote in a statement Monday. She blamed “over-ambitious community members who believe they can do everything the best” and “by themselves.”
An essay on the Defending History website set up by Dovid Katz, a scholar and community leader who has been critical of Kukliansky, called for a “simple remedy: Free and fair elections,” with trusted oversight.