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From Minsk to Pinsk Living in Europe’s Last Dictatorship, Belarus Jews Face Unique Challenges

March 5, 2004
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The crammed bookshelves in Yakov Basin’s personal library form an unusual collection, a rogue’s gallery of all the anti-Semitic, conspiracy-fueling publications that Basin has plucked from Belarussian bookstores during the past decade.

He pulls one from the shelf to illustrate his point: “War According to Laws of Meanness.” Its thesis of “Jewish crimes” — aspiring to global domination, for example — mirrors the notorious forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Basin describes how on Nov. 29, 2000, Belarussian legislator Sergei Kostian distributed copies of the war book to colleagues on the floor of Parliament.

Basin, a Jewish leader and human rights activist, took the publisher to court. But the state-controlled judiciary in this ex-Soviet republic deemed the book “scientific” and “academic literature” and therefore not subject to charges of inciting ethnic hatred. Some 30,000 copies were published.

Such acts anger and frustrate some of Belarus’ estimated 70,000 Jews.

But others, after decades of Soviet-era anti-Semitic policies, are resigned to a certain level of anti-Jewish provocations.

Jews are relieved that the country’s authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, hasn’t adopted any of the anti-Semitic policies of the past or personally made any anti-Jewish pronouncements, Basin says. But, he adds, Lukashenko also “has done nothing for us.”

Lukashenko sends mixed signals to the Jewish community. He attended the unveiling of a major Holocaust memorial in Belarus’ capital, Minsk, in July 2000. And after a Minsk synagogue was firebombed that December, he was quoted as saying, “We won’t let anyone harm our Jews.”

But the list of what’s not being done is long, says Basin. Vandals of Jewish cemeteries and institutions are never prosecuted. Anti-Jewish screeds like “Laws of Meanness” proliferate unimpeded.

Scores of Jewish synagogues confiscated by the Communists and properties pilfered by the Nazis have not been returned. No national Holocaust remembrance day has been established in a land that saw some 800,000 Jews killed during World War II.

“We would have expected some attempts to correct their mistakes of the past, but nothing like this has happened,” says Basin, who also heads the Reform movement in Belarus.

While many of the negative developments for the Jews are acts of omission, there are negative acts of commission as well.

A new law on religion recognizes Judaism as a traditional religion, but renders the Russian Orthodox Church supreme and blurs church-state divisions. The Education Ministry has stripped the country’s lone Jewish university of autonomy and threatened it with closure.

Jewish remains from a 300-year-old cemetery in the city of Grodno were dug up last summer so a local soccer stadium could expand. A cemetery controversy also festers in Mogilev, where Christians are being buried alongside Jewish tombstones in an old Jewish cemetery.

While it may seem unfair to blame Lukashenko for this state of affairs, he, more than any European leader, enjoys the ability to act single-handedly — and thus bears ultimate responsibility.

After all, he is what many describe as “Europe’s last dictator.”

Lukashenko reigns unfettered over a nation of 10 million. Police patrol seemingly every street corner in Minsk. Residents watch their words on the phone for fear of wiretapping. Several key opposition leaders and independent journalists have disappeared without a trace.

So absolute is Lukashenko’s power that as of last May, no individual in Belarus may carry the title “president” — not the head of a company, an organization or an institution. Why? Because Belarus has one — and only one — president: Lukashenko.

Save for Basin and a few others, Belarussian Jews — the third-largest Jewish community in the former Soviet Union, behind those in neighboring Russia and Ukraine — are loath to criticize Lukashenko. After seven decades of Soviet dictatorship, with long memories of dark times and uncertainty of what may come in the future, Jews here have learned to toe the line.

Many of them are elderly, and they struggle economically, like the vast majority of Belarussians, though the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee assists them with welfare programs and health care.

Meanwhile, long-suppressed Jewish life has rebounded and is flourishing — also supported by the JDC. But after generations of subservience and fear, Jewish reticence on political matters is a difficult and even risky cycle to break.

That’s why Jewish leaders here are so upset with Israel. A series of events converged recently to leave Belarussian Jewry without the local help of its most influential ally; the Israeli government closed its Minsk embassy in July.

Israel also shuttered 12 other diplomatic missions around the world in across-the-board budget cuts due to Israel’s sagging economy.

However Belarus is unlike the other countries where embassies were shut, Jewish leaders here note. It is square in the historic Pale of Settlement, was ravaged by the Holocaust and boasts tens of thousands of Jews in a region undergoing the instability wrought by communism’s collapse.

Moreover, with Belarus isolated from the West, Lukashenko is deepening relations with the Islamic world. For several years, Belarus reportedly supplied arms and technical expertise to countries like Syria and Iran.

A Palestinian mission to Minsk opened a year ago. Growing numbers of Arab students are said to be studying in the country, some of whom were active in the pro-Saddam Hussein, anti-Israeli demonstrations in Minsk last year.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, media reported that several top Iraqi officials were found with Belarussian passports issued in Damascus.

And this past December, Belarus state television was filled with stories about Lukashenko’s visit with Syrian leader Bashar Assad, touting a new deal for tractors sales to Syria.

Belarus Jews had looked to diplomats at their Israeli Embassy as defenders of Jewish interests, advocates who could approach top Belarussian officials on equal, diplomatic footing.

Nowadays, the Israeli Embassy in Moscow handles relations with Belarus. But that pales to an in-country presence, says Leonid Levin, an architect and chairman of the secular umbrella group known as the Union of Belarussian Jewish Public Associations and Communities.

“If there are any anti-Semitic acts, the embassy was the first place we went to for support,” says Levin from the bowels of his huge, subterranean architectural studio in Minsk. “But without them here, there’s a feeling of nakedness.”

Levin says he’s in regular contact with Israeli officials in Jerusalem, exhorting them to reopen the embassy.

“We tell them: This is your mistake, you haven’t thought this through,” says Levin. “The Belarussian Jewish community has great roots here and strong connections to Israel. We now live in a difficult situation, and they’ve left us to face it alone.”

An Israeli official says the decision was entirely economic. He noted that Israeli diplomatic missions remain in 93 countries.

“The closures were solely related to economic factors and have no political or diplomatic ramifications,” says Ido Aharoni, a spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in New York. “It’s definitely a hard decision to close an embassy, and not something that’s taken lightly.”

But Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to address Levin’s criticisms.

As for the new law on religion, it’s unclear what, if any, long-term repercussions may arise for Belarus’ Jews.

The bill allows the restitution of houses of worship confiscated during the Soviet era but with a caveat: as long as they are not currently used as cultural or sports facilities. Many are. Since 1989, only four of 105 synagogues in Belarus have been returned to the community, Basin says.

The new law also adds reams of bureaucratic red tape to the registration of religious groups, the sanctioning of activities, and the importation of religious books and materials.

Nevertheless, the chief rabbi of Belarus says he has no qualms with any aspect of Lukashenko’s rule.

“Democracy is not our business,” says Rabbi Sender Uritsky in his spartan office a floor above his shul, Synagogue Beth Israel. “I don’t care what kind of government structure they have here, only that there are normal conditions for Jews to live their Jewish lives.”

The situation with the Jewish university has upset many, however.

The International Institute for the Humanities opened in 1999 “to give a Jewish education to those who want it,” according to its current director, Zelik Pinkhasik.

Supported by the JDC and others, the 500-student institution has developed strong academic ties with Hebrew University in Jerusalem and several schools in the United States and Western Europe.

But now the university has lost its independence.

The trouble, some say, is Lukashenko’s predilection for rejecting all things independent and Western. And now because of Israel’s diplomatic snub, the institute seems to have landed in the president’s doghouse.

“It’s because the school is Jewish — we’ve gone over all the possibilities, and we can’t think of any other reason,” Pinkhasik says. “It’s just very sad. Normally when they take such actions, they come up with some grounds for it. But in our case, there hasn’t been any explanation.”

The institute now is becoming part of the government-controlled Belarus State University, despite protests from 150 top academics.

Russian-produced print and electronic media are freely accessible in Belarus, so Basin frets over the potential for anti-Semitic hate speech stoking Belarussian society.

“From the rise of Russian chauvinism, a great wave may flow into Belarus,” he warns.

However, Basin says, Jews ultimately are leaving Belarus because of the dismal economic situation, not due to the political climate.

But Basin has more battles to wage. In October, literature produced under the aegis of the Russian Orthodox Church was distributed at a congress of Belarussian Cossacks. Basin says he filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office to press charges for ethnic incitement. “But I haven’t heard back yet,” he says.

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