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Across the Former Soviet Union Seems Like Old Times? Prosecutors Looking into Russian Jewish Group

June 24, 2005
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Russian prosecutors have launched a preliminary investigation into a Russian Jewish organization for publishing a 500-year-old Jewish text. Two weeks ago, Moscow prosecutors declined to open a criminal case against the authors of a letter calling on Russian authorities to ban Jewish religious organizations as extremist. Now, prosecutors have said they intend to investigate a Jewish organization that published the Shulchan Aruch, which the authors of the anti-Semitic letter had cited as evidence for their claim.

The preliminary investigation has led at least one Russian Jewish official to draw parallels to anti-Semitic events in Russia’s past. However, it is not clear whether the initial investigation will lead to a full probe of the Jewish group, the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia, or KEROOR.

The events are motivating Russian Jewish groups that often squabble with each other to find common ground in opposing the prosecutors’ actions.

The letter, which first surfaced in January, called for an investigation into the activities of Jewish religious groups in Russia that work according to “the morals of Shulchan Aruch,” a code of practical halachah, or Jewish law, that the letter claims contains norms that are offensive to Orthodox Christians.

Alleging that Jews believe in “anti-Christian morals,” the signatories also demanded that Jews be banned from employment in the civil service and in the media.

The letter, which had 20 Duma deputies among its 5,000 signatories, urged a criminal prosecution of KEROOR, which published a Russian translation of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, an abridged version of the code, in 1999.

The news that the prosecutors are investigating a Jewish group generated a front-page report on Thursday in one of Russia’s national dailies, and prompted all three of Russia’s major Jewish groups to respond.

Sergey Marchenko, a spokesman for the Moscow prosecutor’s office, told the Izvestia newspaper that his agency found it necessary to look into KEROOR, although he declined to say what prompted this move.

Izvestia speculated that the probe may result in a criminal charge of extremism against KEROOR.

The probe incensed Russian Jewish groups. Even a Jewish organization that has been at odds with KEROOR said it is flabbergasted that prosecutors went after a Jewish organization instead of prosecuting those who penned the anti-Semitic letter.

“We are outraged by the very fact of this check,” Alexander Boroda, chairman of the board of the Federation of Jewish Communities, told the AEN news agency on Thursday. “A review of books that were written in the 16th or 17th century and are our heritage tells about the shortsightedness of the Moscow prosecutor’s office,” he added.

Rarely do national newspapers in Russia publish rabbinical commentaries on a classical Jewish text in a front-page story.

But that happened this week when Izvestia ran a detailed commentary by Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi and head of the rabbinical court affiliated with KEROOR, who provided his remarks on the passages in the Shulchan Aruch that seemed to most irritate those who penned the anti-Semitic letter. Among the passages is a prohibition for Jews to teach non-Jews any crafts or for Jewish women to help non-Jewish women during childbirth.

In his comments for the paper, Goldschmidt explained that such laws and prohibitions originated in ancient history — some in pre-Christian times more than 2,500 years ago — and referred to idol worshippers, not to Christians.

While his commentary might help the Russia public understand the ongoing dispute over an obscure Jewish code, Goldschmidt told JTA he was uncomfortable providing such comments to the newspaper.

“It’s ironic that I’m going into the role of my predecessor, Rabbi Yakov Maze,” Goldschmidt said, referring to the Moscow chief rabbi who testified on matters of Jewish law during the Beilis trial, an infamous 1913 blood libel case.

“The issues that were at stake during the Beilis trial back then came back to haunt Russia today,” Goldschmidt said.

In a related development, leaders of two Russian Jewish organizations called on the leadership of the Socialist International on Thursday to prevent the organization of social democratic, socialist and labor parties from accepting into its ranks a Russian party whose leaders signed the anti-Semitic letter.

In separate statements, the Federation of Jewish Communities and the Russian Jewish Congress reminded the Socialist International leadership that most of the Russian lawmakers who signed the letter were representatives of Rodina, a left-leaning nationalist party and one of the four Russian political parties currently represented in the Russian Duma, or parliament.

According to some reports, the Socialist International is currently considering a membership application from Rodina.

Leaders of the Federation of Jewish Communities told a conference in Moscow that Rodina members are suffused with anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

“Not one of them apologized,” Vladimir Slutsker, the RJC president, said in his statement, referring to the Rodina members who signed the letter. “Not one was expelled from the party or from the Rodina parliamentary faction.”

In the meantime, the leader of Rodina, Dmitry Rogozin, wrote to Goldschmidt on Thursday, distancing himself from the members of his party who signed the letter.

Rogozin, whose party has gained in popularity since it was founded a few years ago, wrote that in his party’s opinion, theological sources cannot serve the basis for legal prosecution of anyone regardless of faith, including Jews.

He said he regretted that the letter was signed by members of his party and condemned anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Yet, Rogozin’s letter did not mention any sanctions against the 14 Rodina lawmakers who signed the anti-Semitic letter.

Goldschmidt cautiously welcomed the letter but said he would expect Rogozin to rebuke — and perhaps even expel — those lawmakers from his party.

He said the situation created by the anti-Semitic letter and the follow-up reaction of the prosecutors testified to the fact that anti-Semitism is being used for political gain, especially during the run-up to the next parliamentary election, due in late 2007.

“Whether we want it or not, religious anti-Semitism has already become a prime factor in the upcoming elections,” said Goldschmidt.

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