OPINION | VILNIUS JEWISH LIFE | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS | HUMAN RIGHTS | CEMETERIES | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER PROJECT | PETITION
VILNIUS—During the fiascos of recent formal visits to Lithuania by the chairperson of the US taxpayer-funded “Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad” (known for short as “USCPAHA”), a ubiquitous feature was the seemingly unending stream of photo-ops with leaders of the “official” state-sponsored Jewish community which has quite naturally supported government plans for a convention center and annex to be situated in the heart of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery. What many foreign visitors do not understand is that this enterprise does not have democratically legitimate leadership. In the middle of the last leadership election, in spring 2017, the chairperson changed the rules to disenfranchise the three thousand Jewish citizens of Lithuania in favor of a “new system” whereby “associations alone” would vote, these being the chairperson’s own board of associates. When the Vilnius Jewish Community held a very public and democratic vote, the state-sponsored official community echoed antisemitic tropes that the current Jews are some kind of Russians who say they are Jews. In November of 2018, the courts ruled her election illegal, a remarkable public demonstration followed last spring, but then, after an array of legal ruses, some quite amusing, the appeals court last month legalized her election. But not-illlegal is not moral, and being “not illegal” is a rather poor standard for Jewish and democratic legitimacy in the small and fragile post-Holocaust space. More and more people are calling for a simple solution: new and fair elections under the aegis of an outside ombudsman or polling organization, in which every Lithuanian Jewish citizen has one vote.
Clearly, the Jewish people deserve the same “one vote for one person” standard of all other communities. These are not worthless people to be relegated to the dustbin while a dozen or two dozen “wannabe oligarchs” collude to enjoy the lavish financing of state-sponsored restitution. Indeed, the “restitution” for Jewish religious properties in Lithuania may well go down in history as one of the prime examples of state funding being abused to destroy legitimate Jewish communities that were morally so much better off before it and without it. By the will of a handful, a community was transformed into an “association” in which principal Jewish employees were fired and replaced by Lithuanians with no prior record of interest in things Jewish, usually people with close family or other connections to government officials or major political parties.
When it comes to democratic representation of Lithuania’s living Jewish people, it is, at present, only the Vilnius Jewish Community, and its associated small communities elsewhere that have democratic legitimacy. That legitimacy has been bestowed by democratic votes in which every Jewish person in the area covered by the election has an equal vote, not by the perversion of a restitution-funded power game that exists for the benefit of a few board members who represent “associations”. Some board members have two or three votes, one lives in Brussels, and most receive benefit from the same chairperson they unanimously elect. It has, in the view of some, reached the stage of distinct comedy, tinged by the tragic deprivation of democratic norms to the small remnant Jewish community of Lithuania which is incredibly vibrant, diverse, creative and active.
It is no coincidence that legitimately elected communities speak out in favor of their community’s interests, not the interests of builders or government officials.
It is therefore important, when considering the contentious question of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in today’s Snipiskes district), to ask: What does the democratically elected leadership of the Vilnius Jewish Community say about the fate of the old Jewish cemetery, which, along with the Vilner Shul Heyf (the Great Synagogue Court Square), was for centuries part of a pair of uniquely sacred symbols to Lithuanian and European Jewry?
Last March, in an interview with the New York Times, Simon Gurevich (Simonas Gurevicius), democratically elected chairperson of the Vilnius Jewish Community, made his position clear. The report, by veteran Times journalist Rod Nordland, relates:
Simonas Gurevicius, head of the Vilnius Jewish Community […], said the cemetery itself had enormous historical significance, with most of its remains intact, even if all the headstones were used for building materials.
“The Soviets didn’t build just coincidentally the Sports Palace there, they built it as part of an anti-Semitic campaign of destruction of Jewish sites,” he said. “Is this Soviet despotism a part of the heritage we would like to keep?”
Before that, in the summer of 2017, after twelve United States congressmen issued a statement protesting plans to situate a national convention center in the heart of the old Jewish cemetery, there were a number of robust radio and television debates on the subject in which Mr. Gurevich’s position was consistent and never lacking in moral clarity. Defending History provided the links to the originals along with English summaries or translations.
More recently, in 2018, with the immediate concern being a morally analogous cemetery dispute in Shavl (Siauliai), the heads of the Vilnius Jewish Community and its allied elected leaders throughout Lithuania, collectively representing the overwhelming majority of today’s living Jews in Lithuania, issued a powerful statement that had this to say about Piramónt:
“In Vilnius, they want to restore a Soviet monster — the Sports Palace — and to dress it up in the modern clothes of a Congress Center, as if there is no better place for a high-status building in Vilnius than the old Jewish cemetery.”