-IRAN’S LONG FINGERS: The Jews of Belarus

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING

“Things have changed dramatically since Belarus and Iran became [strategic] partners.”

OCTOBER 25, 2007 –  It is estimated that there are 55,000 Jews living in Belarus. (2005)  Over the past 20 years the community has increasingly come under attack and suspicion.  There is a growing tension within Belarusian society which Iran, it would now seem, is taking advantage of.  The state has been conspicuously tolerant of antisemitic activity, allowing open and uncontested presentations of antisemitic rhetoric.

The following report appeared in the Jewish Exponent.  

Despite anti-Semitic slurs against the city of Bobruisk and Israel uttered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the prevailing mood of the isolated European nation’s Jewish community is one of nearly surprising calm.

“We are not concerned by the statement,” said Dr. Yakov Basin, the first deputy chairman of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Organisations and Communities. “What worries us are other things — in 20 years not a single person has been punished for anti-Semitic vandalism to the cemetery, etc. The Holocaust is not recognised as a unique historical phenomenon as it is in other countries.”

Behind the scenes, Jewish community leaders in Belarus believe that Jews were not the speech’s intended recipients, but may have been used as a scapegoat.

During a live radio broadcast on Oct. 12, Lukashenko said of Bobruisk, a port city in the central part of the country: “This is a Jewish city, and the Jews are not concerned for the place they live in. They have turned Bobruisk into a pig sty. Look at Israel — I was there.”

Tehran-Minsk Connection
Community leaders believe the mention of Israel was a calculated message by Lukashenko to the leadership of Iran. Since its controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Minsk in May, the two countries reportedly cemented plans for a “strategic partnership,” and trade has dramatically increased between them.

A leading communal figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of business reprisals, confirmed that things have changed dramatically since Belarus and Iran became partners.

“Since Iran has linked up with Belarus, there’s been a distinct anti-Israel flavor in Belarus,” said the leader.

Indeed, even as Basin had expressed confidence that Lukashenko’s comments held no foreboding for his country’s Jews, he indicated deep dismay with the geopolitical implications of the speech.

“The problems with Israel could create complications on the Iran question,” he said. “Belarus and Russia are both involved with Iran in a way that’s almost like the Munich agreement of 1938.”

Despite the fact that the Belarusian Jewish community is downplaying the statement, neither its significance nor potential impact could be ignored.

Five days after Lukashenko spoke, 15 headstones were desecrated in an attack on the Jewish cemetery in Babruisk, according to the Belapan news agency.

“You know, we always talk about the difference between state anti-Semitism and popular anti-Semitism,” the communal figure said. “This, I think, is popular anti-Semitism. The only trouble is that it was the president expressing it, and it was picked up.”

The Union of Belarusian Jewish Organisations and Communities has called a leadership meeting for Monday to discuss a unified response to the statement.

Its president, Leonid Levin, declined to comment until after the meeting, which will include the chief rabbi of Bobruisk.

Still, some community leaders chose not to criticise the statements made by their autocratic president and continued to minimise their significance.

Maxim Yudin, the director of Hillel in Minsk, saw the comments as a verbal gaffe: “I’m 100 percent sure he didn’t realise what he was saying.”

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 14 years, is widely reviled in the West for his perceived abuses of power, including the crushing of free speech and political opposition. Belarus is often referred to “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

Yudin expressed concern about the Israeli ambassador being withdrawn, saying it was more likely to affect relations between Belarus and Israel than those between the Belarus government and the Jewish community. “No one can say he’s anti-Semitic,” said Yudin. “In his years as president, I’ve never heard him say such a thing.”

Indeed, Yukashenko’s lack of public anti-Semitism in the past — and the blunt nature of his current comments — points not to a new crusade against Belarusian Jews, but to a political calculation.

Six days after the broadcast, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni sharply rebuked Lukashenko in the press, though the Jewish state stopped short of recalling its Belarus ambassador for fear of deepening the crisis.

“It is the responsibility of world leaders to battle anti-Semitism, which rears its ugly head in various places around the world, not promote it,” she said. “Anti-Semitism reflects first and foremost on the community in which it appears, and on its leaders.”

The above article was first published in the October 25, 2007 issue of the Jewish Exponent. It can be read in its entirety at: http://www.jewishexponent.com/article/14393/

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