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Russia Drops Its Probe of Group, Sparking Both Relief and Concern

June 30, 2005
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Following a storm of protest from Jewish groups and Israeli politicians, Russian officials have dropped a probe into a Russian Jewish group for publishing a religious Jewish book. But Russian and U.S. Jewish officials warn that those interested in human rights should remain vigilant to prevent similar incidents in the future.

“The fact that the prosecutors have been seriously considering that case for a long time, isn’t that a reason for us to be concerned?” said Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia, the group that was the subject of the probe. “The prosecutors should not make any legal judgments on religious texts. If someone is unhappy with what some of the traditional texts say, this can be a matter of a voluntary discussion between faiths.”

The probe was opened after an anti-Semitic letter was circulated earlier this year attacking the text of the Shulchan Aruch legal code as extremist and anti-Christian. The congress has published a short version of the medieval Jewish text.

The probe astonished Israeli officials and heads of international Jewish groups, who said it reminded them of religious persecution under the czar and of religious disputations foisted on Jews by the Catholic church in medieval times.

Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia, said it’s still unknown what prompted the incident.

“We’re all pleased that the investigation was dropped, but it doesn’t answer the question of why the investigation was started in the first place,” he said. “This is the type of issue that shouldn’t occur in a society that is trying to promote tolerance and pluralism.”

Levin said his group will emphasize in its meetings with Russian government officials that these types of probes are unacceptable.

Direct pressure on Russia from Israel, local and foreign Jewish groups led to the decision to drop the case, observers in Moscow suggested.

Israeli and Russian media also noted that the news on dropping the probe was released during a visit to Moscow by Israel’s trade minister, Ehud Olmert. Olmert was in Moscow for talks on economic relations between the two countries.

Kogan, who was editor of the Russian edition of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, was questioned by legal officials several times this year.

During questioning last week at the prosecutor’s office, Kogan said he had to make a statement that Jews and Judaism do not have any claims against Christianity. He told JTA that he was surprised to find, among materials in the case, testimony by an academic expert claiming that Judaism regards Christians as idol worshipers.

“If we do not expose such myths, the attacks on us will continue,” Kogan said, recalling the first time a case against the Congress and the Shulchan Aruch was opened by the prosecutor’s office of the Basmanny district of Moscow in 2002, when a complaint was filed with authorities claiming the Shulchan Aruch was a “fascist” book.

JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.

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