On Sunday 10 April at 23:00 hrs. an anti-Semitic slogan was daubed on the wall of Minsk's Main synagogue, Beth Israel, and a minor fire started. Two unidentified youths were quickly apprehended and are now in custody. The Government of the Republic of Belarus responded rapidly and constructively to this incident with a pro-active four point plan to prevent the spread of anti-Semitism from Russia.
Yuri Dorn, President of the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations of the Republic of Belarus, which owns the synagogue complex which houses a wide range of Jewish organizations including Lech Lecha, Aish HaTorah, the East European Jewish Heritage Project, and the Jewish Agency plus a canteen for indigent Jews, viewed the occurrence as a one time event. "In the six years the synagogue has been here this is the only incident of any kind which we have had. It was probably teenagers."
Late Sunday evening, the night guard, Marks Swartzberg, heard a dull thud against the front door of the synagogue. Shortly afterwards he smelled smoke and open the inner door of the front vestibule. He saw smoke and flames. He extinguished the small blaze with a bucket of water. On opening the street door, he saw that the outdoor carpet on the landing was also on fire and doused it with water. Swartzberg then called the fire brigade. The police arrived three our four minutes after the call and the firemen shortly afterwards. The fire was out by the time the brigade arrived. Damage, which may total up to $1,200, included the carpet, the charred door and the outdoor plaque with the synagogue's name as well as the damage to the building's facade caused by the graffiti.
Swartzberg praised the police for
their efficiency and sympathy. "They spent hours at the scene gathering
evidence and investigating." The graffiti, which read "Kill Yids
[Jidov], Save Russia," was photographed and then painted over by the police.
Later that day two youths were taken into custody.
The government responded swiftly
to the outrage convening a meeting of the State Committee on Religious and National
Affairs of the Republic of Belarus on Friday 16 April. Following the lead
and proposals of the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations of the Republic
of Belarus, the Committee adopted a four point plan for the prevention of anti-Semitism:
A. Gathering of information about the conditions and requirements of Jews in Belarus including: 1. Culture 2. Education 3. General Information B. Creation of a web presence on the internet, based on the acquired data, to disseminate information about Belarussian Jews C. An in-depth interview about Jewish affairs with the head of the Committee D. Publication and Distribution of a brochure about inter-religious and international activity in Belarus
A. Review of laws of other countries' practices in regulating intolerance B. Modification and additions to the legal code of Belarus if necessary.
A. Regulation of all publications to prevent anti-Semitic material B. Closure of publications on the first instance of any anti-Semitic material C. Meeting of all Jewish Organizations in Belarus in June with Yuri Dorn as one of the prime convenors. D. Organization of a meeting for the study of Holocaust education in Belarus. Conference to be under the auspices of the Ministry of Education.
Yuri Dorn stated his confidence in the government measure: "The government has always been co-operative and helpful to us. They have adopted many of the measures which we have urged." Over two months ago, Lawyers for the Union petitioned the government to ban the inflammatory Slavyanskaya Gazeta, an anti-Semitic paper with a Belarussian edition. Thanks exclusively to the Union's efforts, the paper has now been banned.
Franklin J. Swartz, Executive Director of the East European Jewish Heritage Project, said, "Many people have tried to exploit this unfortunate incident by exaggerating it and using it to paint a black picture of Jewish relations in Belarus. This is untrue and unfair. Belarus is the only former republic of the Soviet Union which does not have ethnic or religious conflicts. I found more anti-Semitism in Oxford than I have here. It is true that there are anti-Semitic publications and occasionally anti-Semitic statements. This is part of the opening up and freeing of a society which allows freedom of expression, no matter how distasteful. My experience is a positive one."
Yuri Dorn adds, "we are pleased with government response and the outraged reaction of the whole Belarussian community to this stupid act by teenage buffoons. I am confident that Jews have a secure home in Belarus. "
Mr. Swartz points out, "In the past
year, since the opening of the EEJHP's office, we have been able to build solid
bridges to the West. It would be a pity if this process were to be disrupted
by exaggeration, misinformation and exploitative use of the incident. There
is a stong and resourceful community here. We will take a positive approach
to this incident and use it as a stepping stone on the path to renewal and understanding."
Statement by Yeshiva University in New York:
[Note: Lech Lecha provides invaluable and inspiring youth leadership programmes in Belarus. It is organized by dedicated student volunteers from Yeshiva University who direct a broad range of activities year round, including educational projects and camps]
I am writing today regarding the unpleasant incident which took place late Sunday night at the Synagogue. As you are aware, YUSSR's Lauder Lech Lecha Youth Center is located on the top two floors of the building. I know that you have seen the work that we do and certainly, as one who values the precious remnants of prewar Europe, you can appreciate the value of our programs benefitting the Jewish Youth of Belarus. I, therefore, would like to state, that in all of the programs that we ran last week, in seven different cities throughout Belarus, there was not one significant anti-Semitic incident. On the contrary, of the twenty-five volunteers that participated in the Pesach Project, they all had inspiring, productive and safe trips. As you can imagine, parents of our volunteers are concerned prior to their children's departure and YUSSR does its best to keep parents informed of their children's whereabouts throughout the course of their trip. In addition, families are kept informed as to when, where and how they can be reached, as best as possible.
Without the assurance from abroad that the programs which we run are safe, and well supervised, we would have a difficult time recruiting the large number of skilled and educated volunteers that we do. Until this latest incident, I was free to tell parents, that in all of my travels to the FSU, I have never felt any anti-Semitism, a claim I cannot make for such places as London or Paris.
It is truly my deepest wishes, that what we have learnt about this crime is accurate. That the incident which took place was an isolated act of vandalism, carried out by a small group of fascist anti-Semites, who have already been detained by the authorities, and will be disciplined appropriately.
YUSSR, Lech Lecha
Feel Free to use this information
and to pass it on
For more information and photographs please contact:
Franklin J. Swartz
East European Jewish Heritage Project (Reg'd UK)
Jewish Revival Charitable Mission (Reg'd Republic of Belarus)
13b Dauman Street
Tel/fax +375 17 234 5612/234 3360
International Survey of Jewish Monuments
c/o Jewish Heritage Research Center
Box 210, 118 Julian Pl.
Syracuse, New York 13210-3419, USA
tel: (315) 474-2350
fax: (315) 474-2347