Antisemitism in Belarus

SPECIAL UCSJ REPORT: Overview of Antisemitism in Belarus by Yakov Basin, Director of UCSJ's Belarus Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law (November 12, 1999)

At present time Jews only make up 1% of the population of Belarus, but "the Jewish question" still remains a rather pressing one. The raising of national self-consciousness, which is characteristic to our days, has touched the Jewish population too, but this is taking place in conditions where the realization of its national expectations is difficult. This is because the state ideology has become Russian great-power chauvinism. Pan-Slavism has become an ideological basis of the integration between Belarus and Russia and of the attempts to attach Serbia to it. Regarding domestic policy, this has been expressed in frank discrimination against non-Russians in Belarus, including the titular ethnicity - Belarusians. In the most regrettable way this has also been directed at Jews, who do not have state support to preserve their cultural uniqueness. There are no Jewish schools or pre-school institutions in the country, those classes and groups which exist survive thanks to the support of the Ministry of Education of Israel. There are no Jewish newspapers, no broadcasting and television broadcasting hours for the Jewish national minority and speaking the native language, no Jewish theatres or concert groups financed by the budget. There are no Jewish cultural or charitable centers (besides those being built or existing on the account of foreign sponsors: the Israel cultural-information center, SOKHNUT youth centers, Khesed centers, which are funded by the JOINT and the Claims Conferen- ce). There is no publishing activity in Hebrew and according to Jewish subjects. Everything points to the fact that there is a policy of forced assimilation of Jews being an element of the total Russification policy in the republic. The attitude of the authorities towards the Jewish population comes from great-power chauvinism policy as well, which has overwhelmed Belarus. One of the components of this ideology is antisemitism. The absence of the most odious forms of state antisemitism of the recent past (bans on Jews in certain professions, quotas for Jews for admittance to educational institutions, refusal of the right to free choice of country of residence etc.) does not mean that antisemitism has ceased to be part of today's political realities as there are still quite often cases of blatant antisemitism on the part of government officials. State antisemitism is no longer one of the main elements of social policy, but still there are some cases of its manifestation. The most serious among them are when officials ignore the role of Jews in the state construction, the numerous cases of refusals by authorities to provide social protection for Jews, and the appearance of ideological antisemi- tism in the state media.

A. Everyday antisemitism

After the scandals connected with the explosion of antisemitism in Russia, the "Jewish question" instantly became a subject of public discussion, rather than being a "forbidden subject." A significant increase of everyday antisemitism immediately took place. Public discussions about the "negative" role of Jews in country's life have become common. Local conflicts started to take place in the state institutions because of ardent functiona- ries (for example, an attempt to close a Jewish Sunday school in the town of Borisov), a bureaucratic procrastination has appeared in connection with the functioning of Jewish Sunday schools and kindergartens, re-registration of Jewish public organizations, restoration of destroyed monuments at Jewish cemeteries, liquidation of anti-Jewish graffiti in towns' streets. On the whole, conflicts arising on an everyday basis do not have an aggressive character.

B. Criminal antisemitism

Absence of serious attention from the side of authorities to interethnic conflicts and the refusal of the police, prosecutors and the courts to qualify some crimes as crimes motivated by aggressive nationalism and antisemitism, have led to an escalati- on of such law breaking. Vandalism of Jewish cemeteries is the most common of such crimes. The mass destruction of cemetery monuments has become such an ordinary phenomenon that in many cases the authorities refuse not only to restore the gravestones, which is required by law, but even to react to these incidents. During the last year and a half there were cases of vandalism at two cemeteries in the town of Gomel, at the cemeteries in the towns of Rotchitsa, Berezino, Mogilev and others. "Beat Yids!" was written on one of the knocked down obelisks. During the last 10 years there has not been a single case when those guilty of such vandalism were punished. In August 1999, in the center of town of Brest, an obelisk dedicated to the memory of victims of the Holocaust was defiled. A swastika was written in indelible blue paint over the inscription made in Hebrew. The town authorities restored the obelisk but on May 31, 1999 the swastika was repainted on the obelisk. Antisemitic graffiti have become a rather ordinary phenomenon. More often these are inscriptions like "Belorus! Your enemy is the Yid!" But sometimes there are more serious inscriptions and pictures. For example, in the town of Brest for the last two years, a painted gallows with a hung Star of David appears on the walls. Similar graffiti has appeared in the town of Grodno in the last two years as well on the walls, and on the parapet of the embankment of the Neman river there is swastika followed by an equals sign (=) and a Star of David. The fact that this graffiti has not been cleaned off for two years means that nobody is fighting against such incidents. On the eve of Russian Orthodox Easter, an attempt was made to set fire to Minsk's main synagogue. An inscription appeared on synagogue's wall: "Beat the Yids - save Russia!" We know four cases of murder of Jews which could have been motivated by aggressive antisemi- tism. In one of them an antisemitic motive was proven- the July 3, 1997 murder of 18 year old student Evgeny Dobromyslin. However, police and the court avoid classifying these murders as being motivated by antisemitism. In the case of Dobromyslin, who was killed with the traces of ritual actions and evidently by a group of people, numerous violations of judicial procedure were committed during the investigation and the court proceedings, important material evidences disappeared, only one person was prosecuted, and possible accomplices were not made answerable for the crime.

C. Religious antisemitism

During the last two years there were no attacks against Jews in a single religious periodical. We do not know of any anti-Jewish propaganda by the Russian Orthodox church. Instead, the incite- ment of antisemitism comes from the state broadcasting media. During the program Sublimity and Utilitarism, which focuses on Christian issues, infamous antisemitic myths are repeatedly used (the "blood libel", the myth that Tsar Nicholas II was killed by Jews, the Jewish role in the crucifixion of Christ, the myth of the world Jewish conspiracy, etc.). In addition, excerpts of the infamous Protocols of Elders of Zion were broadcast.

D. Political antisemitism

As there is practically no active party life of political opposition in Belarus, we have not noted any cases of the use of antisemitic stereotypes in the activity of political parties. However, the party press quite often pays attention to the "Jewish question". There were no cases of antisemitic agitation, but the existence of antisemitism is completely denied in the articles of the newspaper of the Communist Party of Belarus, in a manner reminiscent of the Soviet period.

E. Ideological antisemitism

After the magazine Political Interlocutor (Politicheski Sobesed- nik) and the newspaper Slavonic Gazette (Slavyanskie Vedomosti) were abolished in 1992, there were practically no cases antisemi- tism in the mass media. But in late 1997, blatantly pro-fascist editions Slavonic Newspaper, Slavonic Alarm (Slavyanski Nabat) and Personality (Litchnost) appeared and grew widely in 1998. These publications spread the ideology of great-power chauvinism and aggressive antisemitism. In addition, it is possible to buy antisemitic literature in Minsk and other cities from private businessmen who bring it from Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Petersburg. This literature includes newspapers (Limonka, Shturmovik, Duel, Zavtra, etc.), and books (Debate About Zion by Douglas Reed, Trial Of the Academician by V. Korchagin, The International Jew by Henry Ford, Notes About Ritual Murders by V. Dal, and Protocols of the Soviet Elders by G. Klimov). In March 1998 the Belarusian Human Rights Convention adopted a declaration regarding antisemitism in Belarus which has not been published in a single Belarusian newspaper. In 1998 the Belarusi- an Helsinki Committee sent to the State Prosecutor's Office an extensive analysis, prepared by us, of antisemitism in Belarus. In reaction to the declaration of the Belarusian Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, in November 1998 the State Committee on the Press issued a warning to Slavyanskaya Gazeta for inflaming ethnic discord, but in the following issues this newspaper continued to publish anti-Jewish articles and poems, in which it is easy to detect the idea that "the best Jew is a dead Jew". 13 months after the Helsinki Committee issued its declaration, the Prosecutor's Office made the conclusion that "some of the mentioned publications promote the formation of bad relations towards persons of Jewish nationality which could cause ethnic, religious and racial intolerance and discord. The mentioned actions, which abuse the right to freedom of informati- on, contradict the requirements of legislation on the press." The State Committee on the Press issued a warning to the newspapers Slavyanski Nabat and Lichnost. Slavyanskaya Gazeta was deprived of its registration and is no longer distributed in Belarus. The newspapers have toned down their antisemitic content.

F. Possibility of Fascism in Belarus

NOVAK - a leading sociological service in Belarus - conducted a public opinion poll on this problem. Here are the answers of respondents: Do you consider the threat of fascism real for Belarus - YES 30.4%. With what political force do you connect "fascism?" - Russian National Unity (RNU) 22.6% (the highest rate). The Ministry of Justice of Belarus refused to re-register the RNU. submitted October 18, 1999