As the demolition of synagogues and vandalism of cemeteries continue to flourish in Belarus, Iran becomes one of that country’s greatest aficionados.
By Alan Simons
MAY 3, 2009 – Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran first visited Minsk in May 2007, the two countries have cemented plans for a “strategic partnership,” and trade has dramatically increased between them.
As one member of the country’s Jewish community said at that time, “things have changed dramatically since Belarus and Iran became [strategic] partners.”
It is estimated that there are some 55,000 Jews still living in Belarus. Over the past 20 years the community has increasingly come under attack and suspicion and the state has been conspicuously tolerant of antisemitic activity, allowing open and uncontested presentations of antisemitic rhetoric.
The rhetoric starts at the very top. During a live radio broadcast on October 12, 2007, President 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.”
This past week Charter 97, a news service based in Minsk, (it was recently placed under suspicion by the Belarus department of Corruption and Economic Crimes, Criminal Investigation and Preliminary Investigation), reported that C. Yakov Gutman, the head of the World Association of Belarusian Jewry (WABJ), called upon President Lukashenko to immediately give a directive to stop work on demolishing a synagogue in the town of Lyuban (Luban), Minsk region.
Mr. Gutman said that demolishing the synagogue in Lyuban would be viewed as one further episode in the continuation of the destruction of Jewish synagogues and sites. He refered to “the demolished synagogues on Dzimitrau Street and Nyamiha Street in Minsk, of Jewish cemeteries in Hrodna and Mozyr (Homel region) and of the desecration of the memorial of self-immolation of Mozyr Jews during the World War II.” Gutman added, “We would like to believe that the situation in Lyuban is because of the result of the local authorities’ foolishness, and not the policy of the state.” The chairman of Lyuban district executive committee Vasil Akulich, so far hasn’t responded to Gutman’s plea.
Currently, two synagogues have been preserved in Lyuban. But not for long. They are regarded as unique examples of Jewish wooden religious buildings built at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Both synagogues are related to the activities of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who for many, is regarded as the de facto supreme rabbinic authority for Orthodox Jewry of North America. Rav Moshe was born in Uzda, near Minsk. Unfortunately, local authorities have decided to demolish the 20th century synagogue. However, the organisation for historical and cultural monuments has proposed the Lyuban district executive committee request that the Ministry of Culture at least grant a status of historical and cultural heritage to the 19th century synagogue.
Acts of vandalism continue
This past April 22, a swastika and antisemitic slogans were drawn on the facade of the Vitsebsk synagogue. According to Euroradio, passers-by noticed a black cross and the text ‘6 million – lies.’
According to Haim Maharshak, the head of Vitsebsk’s Jewish community, “it isn’t the first time the synagogue has been defaced with Nazi symbols. In 2007 law enforcement agencies said it was impossible to find the vandals.”
In Belarus, vandalism of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries is not new. A report published in 2007 said:
During 2007, vandalism of Jewish cemeteries took place in Brest, Babruisk and Barysau. According to the World Association of Belarusian Jewry, more than 30 Jewish memorials and headstones were damaged.
In Brest, the memorial sign on the place of Brest ghetto was smeared with black paint. Later vandals broke the memorial wreath and burned the flowers.
In Barysau, 16 cemetery headstones were broken. And in Babruisk, antisemitism is flourishing. Walls are drawn with the RNU (Russian National Unity) symbol. Stars of David on gallows are drawn. The inscriptions such as “Jews get away!” appear. “The authorities turn a blind eye to these facts,” Babruisk resident Ales Chyhir said.
In the Mahilou area, the cemeteries in Krychau, Shklou, Bykhau, and Chavusy are almost in ruin.
Which brings me now to the Iranian-Belarus alliance.
Iran is ready to help Belarus build nuclear power plant
On April 29, a delegation of influential Iranian movers and shakers arrived in Minsk. Iranian Justice Minister Gholam-Hossein Elham; Iran’s First-Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Sheikholislam; Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of the judicial system of Iran and Dr. Bagher Larijani, brother of Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani.
Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, is one of the most influential political figures in Iran. As the head of the judicial system of Iran, his influence is formidable. He is known in the West for his numerous comments of hate and intolerance, one being the praise he gave to people at an Iranian rally who were chanting “‘death to America” and “death to Israel.”
“The world arrogance and Zionism today are shivering from Muslim vigilance and are on the threshold of annihilation,” he said at the 2006 annual Quds Day celebration.
During his visit this past week to Belarus, the Ayatollah said, “Belarus and Iran should stand against the hegemony of some states together. We should give a new interpretation to such notions as human rights, rights of people, terrorism, fight against terrorism, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, discrimination.”
The Ayatollah’s interpretation of human rights and especially the rights of women, the Bahá’í, Sufi and homosexuals, to name a few, are quite well known.
Dr. Bagher Larijani’s brother, Ali Larijani, is one of the two representatives of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to the council, and was Iran’s top nuclear negotiator until his resignation in October 2007.
The reason for this high level delegation to Belarus at this time is by no means fortuitous.
In February 2008, the Iranian Ambassador to Belarus, Abdolhamid Fekri said Iran is ready to grant aid to Belarus in construction and operation of a nuclear power plant.
Fekri was reported as saying that assistance could be given in all spheres, including financial assistance, training of Belarusian professionals, exchange of experience, equipment installation and training to work with this equipment.
It is intriguing to note that the Iranian delegation arrived at a time Belarus has been attempting to establish relations with pro-Western nuclear-based companies. According to reports, the first bloc of the nuclear power station is to be launched in 2016, the second in 2018. It is planned to use water-moderated water-cooled reactors of the third generation. The main producer of this equipment, US-Japanese, French-German and Russian companies, have received offers from Belarus to consider possible participation in construction of the nuclear power station.
The organisation The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), has said Belarus maintains a developed civilian nuclear research program under the aegis of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences. Belarusian scientists are currently working with experts from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to convert a booster subcritical assembly, housed at the Sosny facility, near Minsk, from highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium.
Whether or not Belarus is now attempting to double-deal and play a dangerous political and nuclear game with Iran and the West is a contentious issue. Call it a love affair between two despot nations if you want. But one thing is for sure: Iran has already established a foothold in Belarus through its trade and economic projects. Iranian Commerce Minister Masoud Mir-Kazemi believes trade amounting to $1 billion between the two countries is attainable.
For Ahmadinejad, the possibility of establishing a nuclear relationship with a country that is tolerant of antisemitic activity, must seem like a dream come true. © Alan Simons
(Photo credits: ISNA, Charter ’97, daylife credit)
(Editorial sources: RUEBNA, Charter ’97, NTI, Steven Stalinsky-MEMRI)