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Around the Jewish World Jews Get by in Belarus, but They Feel the Authorities’ Watchful Eyes

June 13, 2005
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In Minsk’s only Jewish day school, there is a portrait of President Alexander Lukashenko in every classroom. The same image of Belarus’ dictator that looks at the 300 students at the Byalik Jewish Day School No. 132 can be found in almost every public institution in this former Soviet republic.

Despite the democratic gains made in other parts of the former Soviet Union, life for many Belarussians is similar today to what it was before communism collapsed 14 years ago.

The agricultural sector still is largely based on Soviet-style collective farms, every major industrial facility is still owned by the state, the state-run media are full of praise for Lukashenko and the state security agency still is called the KGB.

Local Jewish leaders generally agree that despite widespread criticism of the regime in the West because of its lack of democratic freedom, the Jewish community, which numbers around 45,000, has been spared any manifestation of state-sponsored anti-Semitism.

Yet the community always feels the watchful eyes of authorities who try to control all public or religious groups in this nation of 10 million people.

At a recent Jewish memorial event at the site of a Holocaust-era massacre in Minsk, a man in his early 30s stood near the crowd, writing occasionally in a notebook.

When Jewish high school students stood up to sing the Israeli national anthem, the man wrote, “A song in a foreign language.”

Event organizers from the Minsk Jewish community said it was no secret that the man was a KGB agent. One of the organizers handed him a sheet of paper with the names of those scheduled to speak at the event — “to make his job easier,” activists explained.

“There is no state anti-Semitism, but there is a sense that we have come back to the Soviet Union,” said a woman who introduced herself only by her first name, Mira.

Lukashenko, who has extended his term in office several times by avoiding a direct public vote, seems to enjoy widespread popularity. Many ordinary Belarussians praise Lukashenko, a collective farm manager who joined the Communist Party as a clerk, and who has been their leader since 1994.

“It does seem like the Soviet Union, but this isn’t bad at all,” a middle-aged visitor to the Minsk Jewish center argued recently. “At least we feel secure here. There are no super-rich oligarchs or terrorism like in Russia, and none of our factories was closed.”

While the success of Belarus’ state-run economy is hard to measure using open-market criteria, people seem to get their salaries and pensions on time, average salaries are among the highest in the former Soviet Union and every conversation about life in Belarus revolves around the word “stability.”

On the surface, there is little evidence of what some in the West dub “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

But Jewish leaders, who see their primary responsibility as keeping the Jews here safe, say everyday life differs from what visitors see.

Leonid Levin is head of the Union of Belarussian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities, the country’s main secular Jewish umbrella group.

He said the two main supporters of Jewish life and well-being in Belarus, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, give the community enough to survive.

“Our Jews have enough to eat and drink, and they stay away from politics,” said Levin, who is widely credited for his diplomatic abilities defending Jewish interests in the corridors of power. But when it comes to public or political issues such as anti-Semitism, the local Jews are always left “one-on-one with the authorities.”

Levin and other Jewish activists are concerned about the lack of state response to manifestations of anti-Semitism.

“Anti-Semitic books are being published; skinheads are beginning to appear,” Levin said.

Yakov Basin, Levin’s deputy and Belarus’ major anti-defamation activist, said the state never does anything to fight anti-Semitism, even though the Jewish community is always free to complain.

Main sources of anti-Semitism include the local Orthodox church, some intellectuals and politicians as well as marginal youth groups such as neo-Nazi skinheads.

“The government is pretending this problem doesn’t exist,” Basin said.

A spokesman with the State Committee on Religious Affairs, the agency responsible for government relations with the Jewish community, told JTA this week that anti-Semitism is “nonexistent” in Belarus.

“Civil peace, interethnic accord, the absence of confrontation between religions are the characteristic features of today’s Belarus,” the official said.

What most worries some Jewish leaders is what they perceive as attempts by the state to “cleanse” the country’s history of a Jewish presence, similar to what happened in the Soviet Union.

In the year of the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazism, “there’s a mood that the word ‘Jews’ should not be mentioned publicly, that everyone suffered in the war equally,” Levin said.

Jewish activists at times find it difficult to get across messages about the Holocaust in today’s Belarus, he said.

For example, the Russian Drama Theater in Minsk was ordered to change the title of a show devoted to World War II from “Songs of the Ghetto” to “Songs Behind the Barbed Wire” to remove direct references to the Holocaust, Levin said.

Last fall, authorities demanded that a last-minute change be made on a Holocaust monument to be unveiled in Gorodeya, a town some 60 miles outside Minsk where the Nazis killed 1,137 Jews in the summer of 1942.

The memorial was unveiled without a plaque in the Belarussian language that mentioned Jews, though the authorities left similar dedications in Hebrew and English.

The community is careful when it comes to public celebrations of Jewish life, Levin said.

“The situation here is not an easy one, and we have to think ahead about every step we take,” he said.

Jewish leaders complain that the international isolation imposed on Belarus by the West because of Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime harms the community.

There are 43 Jewish community organizations in Belarus and 37 religious congregations, and leaders insist that these groups are generally free to do their work inside the community.

Yet Jewish topics are becoming a matter to avoid in most media outlets.

“Even the opposition papers say they cannot afford having more than one Jewish-related article a month,” said Basin, who is a leading journalist on Jews and Judaism in Belarus.

“But what we see today is the revision of Belarussian history, even of the Holocaust,” Basin said. “The Jewish presence in history is being diminished.”

A recent multi-volume edition of the Belarussian Encyclopedia devoted one-and-a half columns to Jews and their 700-year history in the country.

“Next to it there are 10 whole pages devoted to Japan,” Basin said, “although I have never seen a single Japanese person living in Belarus.”

The local Jewish museum occupies a single room inside what Jews here refer to as “the house” or “the campus,” a JDC-operated community center that serves as the hub for all charity and cultural activities in the community.

Last month, the Museum of History and Culture of Jews in Belarus opened an exhibition devoted to Jewish World War II partisans in Belarus.

Inna Gerasimova, the museum director, said she was happy with the coverage the opening received in the state-controlled media — though she noted that Jewish wartime heroism is probably

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