Among Lithuania’s Jews, a fight for communal control takes a nasty ethnic turn

By CNAAN LIPHSHIZ

(JTA) — Dan Sofer and his wife considered it a great honor when they became the first couple since the Holocaust to be wed in Lithuania by a chief rabbi of that country.

Sofer, a Ukraine-born businessman from Israel, said his wedding in 2004 was a chance to play a small part in the revival of a community that had been nearly wiped out by the Nazis.

“We care deeply about this community. We’re invested in it,” said Sofer, 44, who immigrated to Lithuania shortly before his marriage.

Which is why Sofer was shocked and offended on Wednesday when he read a statement on the official website of the LZB umbrella group of Lithuanian Jewish communities flagging him and other Russian speakers as foreign agents who are merely claiming to be Jewish.

The statement, by one group of Jews directed at another, was later pulled offline amid concerns that it reinforces anti-Semitic and anti-Russian sentiments. But it nonetheless marked a nadir in an acrimonious election in one of Europe’s most fractious Jewish
communities, where incumbent leaders control millions of dollars’ worth of restitution money and critics frequently accuse them of corruption.

The statement came after a 35-year-old critic of the  administration, Simonas Gurevicius, was voted the new head of the  affiliated Jewish Community of Vilnius.

Instead of accepting the results of Wednesday’s election, the LZB declared its results void. Its statement then went on to single out  Jews with Russian and Ukrainian roots from those with “Litvak blood.”

“An out-of-order and illegitimate conference of the Vilnius Jewish Community attracted about 300 people to the conference hall of the Karolina Park Hotel in Vilnius, mainly Russian speakers calling themselves Jews, with only a minority of people with Litvak blood,” is how the statement described the vote.

It also alluded to a wider debate in Lithuania, where people and politicians resent Russia’s expansionist tendencies. The statement said the vote took place while “military exercises are currently underway rehearsing the scenario of Lithuania and Poland under attack” — a clear appeal to Lithuanian nationalism.

Currently headed by Faina Kukliansky, a lawyer and former police officer during communism, the Vilnius community is one of several groups comprising LZB, which Kukliansky also chairs. The elections for LZB leadership are scheduled for Sunday. She also co-chairs a third group that allocates restitution money.

The scrapping of a democratic election angered many in Vilnius, where Kukliansky for years has faced criticism over alleged corruption and an authoritarian style. She has denied the claims.

But by airing divisive ethnic rhetoric that is usually the trademark of far-right nationalists, LZB provoked an especially angry pushback by rank-and-file members who fear the organization is playing into the hands of anti-Semites and deepening internal divisions.

“I was horrified to see that LZB is now using the same anti-Semitic rhetoric and propaganda that is going on in far-right forums,” saID Ruta Bloshtein, another member both of LZB and its Vilnius community. “This is unacceptable.”

Bloshtein was referencing one of the Lithuanian far-right’s favorite canards: That the country’s Jews are interlopers brought over by Russian authorities to colonize Lithuania and dilute its local population during Russia’s domination of Lithuania from 1940 to 1991.

The LZB statement “is dangerous because it reinforces the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the far right in Lithuania, that Jews are Russian stooges,” according to Efraim Zuroff, who is in charge of the Israel and Eastern Europe operations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Only a few thousand Jews from Lithuania survived the Holocaust; 95 percent its Jewish population of 220,000 was murdered by Nazis and local collaborators. Under the Russian domination that followed World War II, expressions of Lithuanian nationalism were discouraged and the dominant language was Russian. No hard data exist on the proportion of
ethnic Russians among Lithuanian Jews, and the issue is the subject of some debate.

According to Zuroff, “Survivors identified more with the Russian who liberated them than with Lithuanians who murdered their families.” As a result, many Lithuanian Jews, and the vast majority of those older than 30 today, speak Russian as a mother tongue and have Russian roots, he said.

But Dovid Katz, a Yiddish scholar and member of the community, insists that the vast majority of Lithuania’s Jews are Litvaks and that “very, very few are from Russia — unlike Latvia and Estonia,” the other two Baltic states.

In any case, the community today does not appear to be divided along ethnic lines, with Jews of all origins convening, praying together and marrying one another.

Singling out Jews with roots in Russia is considered a particularly grave practice in a country which, alone among its neighbors, officially defines the Russian domination of their soil as a form of genocide.

Bloshtein, whose mother tongue is Lithuanian, insisted the people who showed up with her to vote Wednesday were card-carrying members of the Jewish Community of Vilnius.

The reference to “Litvak blood” is “so shameful,” Gurevicius said. “We are so few, we need to treat each other respectfully and find unity instead of looking for what sets us apart, but this is what happens when people don’t know how to lose.”

Kukliansky, whose mandate to run the Vilnius community and LZB expired last month, did not seek re-election in Vilnius but is running for re-election within LZB.

Although Gurevicius was voted in as head of the Vilnius community, he may not enter the community’s offices, since Kukliansky does not recognize his election. No new date for an election was announced. Kukliansky was not reachable by phone Thursday and Friday, and her
office did not reply to queries sent by JTA.

Katz, who is critical of Kukliansky, has accused her administration of cronyism in giving out scholarships paid for with communal funds. Kukliansky has denied the charge. LZB has not offered aggregated reporting on its expenses, leading to complaints of lacking transparency.

Gurevicius, who worked as LZB’s top professional before quitting in 2015, said he had not seen evidence of corruption by Kukliansky or others during his years in the community’s service. However, he said, “there is lack of transparency in unspecified budgets and unexplained expenditures, which led some observers to conclude there is corruption.”

Kukliansky, who never received a salary for her work as chairwoman of either LZB or the Vilnius community, has used her “amazing contacts with government” to the community’s benefit, Gurevicius added, including in negotiating the terms of the restitution plan, which
international observers deemed fair.

The current controversy is the latest in a string of vicious disputes that distinguishes Lithuanian Jewry from other fractious Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

Simmering for years amid allegations of corruption by and against communal leaders, these disputes repeatedly have led to litigation, threats and abrupt dismissals – including of the country’s previous chief rabbi.

There have even been physical altercations between congregants at a shul in Vilnius, a beautiful university city where most of the Country’s approximately 3,000 Jews live. Its medieval center features several historic store facades in Yiddish from before the Holocaust.

One of the worst disputes, which is ongoing, has been over how to preserve the heritage of a community that gave the Jewish world luminaries such as the Vilna Gaon, an 18th-century sage. Kukliansky has faced considerable criticism for approving a government-led plan
to build a conference center atop a former Jewish cemetery, where the Gaon had been buried along with other sages, though his body had been moved from there.

Gurevicius attributes the propensity for infighting to “complications connected to the distribution of restitution money in a small community.” The government allocated $41 million in restitution money to be used on cultural activities and commemoration projects.

But in addition to those conflicts, Gurevicius said he also sees a generational tension between people who are used to “practices during communism and a younger generation that is committed to European values of transparency.” Despite the fights, he added, “I think this
is the direction that this community is heading.”

But Zuroff, who has written extensively about Lithuania, said the ethnic baiting represents something new and troubling.

He said the statement released by Kukliansky’s administration meant to signal to authorities that a changing of the guard in the Jewish community would lead to its leadership falling into the hands of Russian sympathizers.

“This statement was for external consumption by the government, signaling them to ignore protests over the hijacked elections,” Zuroff said. “And that’s deeply troubling.”

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