Belarus: Local community approved construction atop former Jewish cemetery–Statement

September 4, 2017

(JTA) — Authorities in Belarus defended a court’s authorization of controversial construction atop what used to be a Jewish cemetery.

The Belarus foreign ministry on Sunday said the local Jewish community of Gomel in southeastern Belarus approved of the plan because it is impossible to pinpoint where the bones are buried, in defense against criticism in international media over the planned construction in Gomel.

The consent which led to the court’s authorization was granted by the Beit Ya’akov Orthodox congregation led by Rabbi David Kantarovich, the foreign ministry said.

A judge of the Tsentralny District Court on Aug. 21 ruled not to intervene in plans for the construction of two luxury apartment buildings on the grounds of a former cemetery on Sozhskaya Street in the eastern city. The court was responding to a motion for an injunction submitted by Yakov Goodman, a Jewish-American activist for the preservation of Jewish heritage sites in his native Belarus who is outspoken in his criticism of the treatment of Jewish heritage sites in Belarus.

The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress and the Union of Public Associations and Jewish Communities criticized the ruling, urging authorities to hold off on any construction.

But Kantarovich’s community determined that there is no reason to fear that the planned construction would disturb human remains – a prospect that is considered a desecration by followers of halacha, or Orthodox Jewish law, the Belarusian foreign ministry said in a statement sent to JTA Sunday.

Sampling for human remains was conducted in the rabbi’s presence in March, demonstrated “absence of human remains in the land,” the statement by the ministry said. The ministry added that it takes the preservation of Jewish heritage and its sites very seriously.

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        Yesterday I posted a link to the video of a talk last year at Oxford University by Chabad Rabbi David Eliezrie, “The Incredible Jewish Renaissance in Russia : The untold story of the secret Chabad underground in the former Soviet Union” at http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/3240323/jewish/The-Incredible-Jewish-Renaissance-in-Russia.htm.  Rabbi Eliezrie mentioned Yoram Dinstein, the American representative of Israel’s Soviet Jewry office, the Lishka, 29 minutes into the video, and incorrectly intimated that the Lishka propelled the grassroots American Soviet Jewry movement (he makes an exception of SSSJ).  He reviewed the Chabad argument that overt Soviet Jewry demonstrations hurt rather than helped. 

        I emailed Rabbi Eliezrie (rabbi@ocjewish.com) , and said, in part —

        As the national coordinator of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry from 1964 – 1991, may I offer a few remarks —

        1) We became aware of Chabad’s work in the USSR, and although we were pained that Chabad didn’t utilize its power for demonstrations and rallies, we understood why and thus withheld the type of criticism we aimed at the Jewish Establishment before it became really involved in 1971 and Agudah in the early 1980s.  We were happy to have the tourists whom we briefed bring in material from Chamah because it advanced the goal of Jewish awareness in the Soviet Union.
        2) Jewish emigration shot up in 1973, apparently as a result of the intense public lobbying for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, before its passage and again in 1979 when the Kremlin attempted to have J-V reversed. On the other hand, my own feeling is that the Rebbe’s prescience in 1985 of future vast Jewish emigration in a year that Grobachev allowed out less than 900 Jews is utterly amazing.
        3) The role of Israel’s Lishka and the grassroots Soviet Jewry movement is more complicated than you presented it (about 30 minutes into your talk).  Yoram Dinstein’s relationship with SSSJ was more hate than love because we and other independent groups such as the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews would not accept their dictat.  The key to understanding the Lishka’s attitude is that those who ran it — Shaul Avigur (rather than Avigdor), then Nechemia Levanon — had worked on Aliyah Bet, then in the Israeli embassy in Moscow as Mossad agents, and were used to operating in a top-to-down fashion without questions asked.  In 1970, when my wife and I visited Nechemia in his Tel Aviv office, he told us, “Your problem is that you don’t take orders”.   Yoram had much more influence getting local Jewish federations to establish Soviet Jewry committees.
        4) I absolutely agree with you that had it not been for the persistence of the Chabad network in the USSR, the renaissance of Jewish life in the Former Soviet Union would be far less than it is today.  My wife, who’s friendly with Chabadniks both here in New York and Florida, Omaha and Salt Lake City, has often remarked on the lifetime devotion shluchim give to their adopted cities.
        Rabbi Eliezrie kindly responded swiftly, saying, in part —

            I included a section in my book-“The Secret of Chabad”-  about the Soviet Jewry Movement. My intention was to spark a conversation about the issue. For that reason I deeply appreciate  your email.  As I am sure you are aware there was a difference of opinion between the Soviet Jewry Activists and the Rebbe of the benefits of public confrontation with the Russians. His view that in many cases the demonstrations-while having a wonderful impact on Jewish identity in the US-were not necessarily actually helpful and at times could have the opposite effect.

            In my book I document a case from 1969 when the Rebbe asked both Yoram Dinstein and Nehemia Levanson to urge the Israeli prime minister to cancel the planned demonstrations. Eshkol refused, the Rebbe asked them to go back a  second time, a week or so later Eshkol passed away, Golda was much less receptive to the Rebbe’s request. A year and half later the Rebbe spoke publically about the issue without mentioning names. As a young Yeshiva student I was deeply impacted by the passion and angst in the  Rebbe’s words, in particular when he described a large number of Jews who were slated to leave Russia were prevented in the wake of the demonstration.

            At the time I thought the Rebbe was talking about his communications to groups like SSSJ. In recently it emerged that it was his lobbying Dinstien and Levanson. We only know this from them, they wrote about this, and were interviewed in detail on their interactions with the Rebbe. The Rebbe’s passion for absolutely secrecy was well known. Most of what he did was in four eyes conversations, he secretaries  were not privy to much of the activities for Soviet Jewry.

            The real source of the what was behind the decisions of the Soviet Union I believe are buried in the Kremlin in the records of the cabinet of the Soviet Union  and leadership.  It would be intriguing to gain access to these historical materials and to explore how the demonstrations impacted their decision making process.       

                

            This may interest you.
http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/livingtorah/player_cdo/aid/925453/jewish/Lone-Voice.htm

            See below for reaction to your email

            1)    We became aware of Chabad’s work in the USSR, and although we were pained that Chabad didn’t utilize its power for demonstrations and rallies, we understood why and thus withheld the type of criticism we aimed at the Jewish Establishment before it became really involved in 1971 and Agudah in the early 1980s.  We were happy to have the tourists whom we briefed bring in material from Chamah because it advanced the goal of Jewish awareness in the Soviet Union.

Chabad’s network started from the first days of communism-as I am sure you are aware and continued to the last days of the Soviet Union. Large numbers of Chassidim were jailed and many lost their lives operating the Jewish underground in Russia. The issue was not being active for Soviet Jews. Rather the question of which activities were truly beneficial and if public confrontation-something effective in democracies,  was a way to influence a communist  state.

2)    Jewish emigration shot up in 1973, apparently as a result of the intense public lobbying for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, before its passage and again in 1979 when the Kremlin attempted to have J-V reversed. On the other hand, my own feeling is that the Rebbe’s prescience in 1985 of future vast Jewish emigration in a year that Grobachev allowed out less than 900 Jews is utterly amazing.

When I went to Moscow come 3 ½ years ago I attempted to see Gorbachev, he was too ill at the time, however Rabbi Berel Lazar told me that he had asked  him at an earlier meeting about his decisions to lift restrictions on emigration. He told Rabbi Lazar that the demonstrations were not the reason  on his decision.

AS for the Rebbe’s “prescience”, as a Chossid I would call it “Ruach Hakodesh” a “Divine Insight”. For the record, in my  book in the footnotes there is documentation from two individual who discussed this with Gorbachev after the fall of the Soviet Union. He told  one of them, Peter Kalms, “how did he know when I didn’t know”. In other words in 1985 Gorbochev had not yet decided to change policy. He told Kalms  that at the time he had not yet made the decision to implement glasnost and free Soviet Jews.

3)    The role of Israel’s Lishka and the grassroots Soviet Jewry movement is more complicated than you presented it (about 30 minutes into your talk).  Yoram Dinstein’s relationship with SSSJ was more hate than love because we and other independent groups such as the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews would not accept their dictat.  The key to understanding the Lishka’s attitude is that those who ran it — Shaul Avigur (rather than Avigdor), then Nechemia Levanon — had worked on Aliyah Bet, then in the Israeli embassy in Moscow as Mossad agents, and were used to operating in a top-to-down fashion without questions asked.  In 1970, when my wife and I visited Nechemia in his Tel Aviv office, he told us, “Your problem is that you don’t take orders”.   Yoram had much more influence getting local Jewish federations to establish Soviet Jewry committees.

I fully agree, I documented this fact  in the footnotes in my book, the chapter is called “Dancing with the KGB”

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Today I wrote back to Rabbi Eliezrie —

Many thanks for your swift response.  I watched the video you linked to the remarks of Dr. David Luchins.

            With all due respect to Dr. Luchins, whom we’ve known since he and my wife had differing opinions on Soviet Jewry activism when he was at YU and my wife at Stern College, we’ve continued to disagree on the efficacy of demonstrations.  Our position is that public pressure caused the loss of vital trade credits to the USSR such as through the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, creating the atmosphere in which the Kremlin felt that increased Jewish emigration might shut down J-V.  But by the time the gates were really opening in 1989-1991, it was too late and the Soviet Union collapsed.
            The issue of Rav Soloveitchik’s position is clearer to me.  Back around 1965, some of his talmidim as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who were involved with SSSJ, asked his opinion.  His response was to ask experts in the field.  They did, and that answer was to speak out.
            In 1968, my wife Lenore and I had the chance occurrence to drive the Rav back to Brookline, MA.  The bus we were all on broke down in Connecticut on a Friday in February (there was an air controllers’ strike, so planes weren’t flying).  When we touched on the Soviet Jewry movement, the Rav said he always felt guilty for not speaking out more strongly during the Shoah.  That remark gave us a clue about his response 3 years earlier to his talmidim.
            It is correct that for two years — 1988 and 1989 — the annual huge Solidarity Day march and rally organized by the Jewish Establishment was canceled.  I have heard Dr. Luchins before credit this to the Rebbe’s pressure.  
            There is another touchy issue of who knew what was best for Soviet Jews.  Those of us who were independent activists, notably in the US, SSSJ and the UCSJ, were in constant contact with refusenik leaders and felt we were reflecting their wishes.  This matter came to a head in late March 1987 when Morris Abram, then chair of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the World Jewish Congress’ president Edgar Bronfman flew to Moscow to negotiate with Kremlin officials for concessions on Jewish emigration and Jewish life in the USSR. 
            The refusenik leaders blew up, accusing the two of toying with their lives, bargaining away economic, political and public relations pressure on the Soviets for relatively little in return — without even consulting them, the very persons affected. 
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