MINELRES: JTA: Jews get by in Belarus, but they feel the authorities watchful eyes

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Wed Mar 21 18:08:09 2007

Original sender: Ionas Aurelian Rus <rus@polisci.rutgers.edu> 


Jews get by in Belarus, but they feel the authorities’ watchful eyes
Lev Krichevsky

A Russian Jewish student lights memorial candles during a ceremony at
the site of a Holocaust-era Jewish massacre in Minsk on April 14.
By Lev Krichevsky  

MINSK, Belarus, June 10 (JTA) — 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

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
every conversation about life in Belarus revolves around the word

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

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

“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

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 the only Jewish-related
topic allowed these days on state-run

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