VILNIUS—“There is nothing new under the sun,” as the Good Book says (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Sure, on occasion, Irish communities will feud in Boston, Italians in New York, Chinese in LA and Lithuanians in Chicago. It is part of the professional training, posture, and policy of diplomats to negotiate such inevitabilities by way of common sense, wisdom, and fairness. For years now, the widely admired German ambassador to Lithuania, HE Jutta Schmitz has kept her embassy’s diplomatic table open to people and organizations, governmental and non-governmental, from across the colorfully diverse spectrum of opinion in Lithuania. It is not known whether the recent completion of her Vilnius ambassadorship and departure from Lithuania, and the temporary vacancy, had anything to do with the embassy’s recent, and quite innocent, faux-pas.
There are, at the moment, two major competing Jewish community organizations in Lithuania. One is the Vilnius Jewish Community (VJC), representing the 2,200 Jews who reside in the nation’s capital (they constitute the vast majority of Jews in the country, whose total is nowadays under 3,000), and whose 21 Council members, and chairperson, the young veteran community leader Simon Gurevich (Simonas Gurevičius) were democratically elected by the largest ever Jewish community election assembly this century, on 24 May 2017. Then there is the official de-facto-state-sponsored Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC), whose election rules were, in a shock to the wider community, changed midway to disenfranchise the thousands of “living Jewish voters” in favor of a tiny circle of oligarchs, some of whose projects and positions may benefit from the largesse of the state restitution fund that provide millions to the LJC. Its chairperson is the eminent attorney Ms. Faina Kukliansky.
Against this backdrop, it was dismaying to find yet another Soviet style photographic paean to the leader (PDF) on the pages of the latter community’s website, co-featuring the President of Germany, and his wife, at Ponár, the Holocaust mass-murder site near Vilnius, unwittingly fulfilling the role of “legitimizer” of a community leader who clings to power months after the expiration of her democratic term in office. The article has no mention of members of the living Jewish community, including Holocaust survivors and their families, or any of the community members who have contributed so much to Holocaust commemoration, being included in the proceedings. Next time he visits Ponár, he could also be photographed with, for example, the Holocaust survivors (including flight survivors) Genrich Agranovski, Milan Chersonski, Pinchos Fridberg, Tuvia Jafet, Rachel Kostanian, Josif Parasonis, and Vilna Ghetto survivor and Jewish partisan hero Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky. For that matter, one would be hard pressed to find something in the photo-spread about the victims at Ponár (though there is allusion to the political and PR use of such sites).
This journal has suggested the solution of rapid new open and democratic elections for the chairpersonship of the LJC, under the aegis of an outside ombudsman or professional polling institution. Surely this is preferable to the vast ongoing waste of funds and energy in the current court case that has already resulted in a decision by the courts to allow challenge of the “election’s” results. Not to mention the “benefits” to the local neo-Nazis and racists.
Be all that as it may, what is the German Embassy to do, what is any embassy to do, when foreign heads of state come to visit in Lithuania and wish for a Jewish-themed event, and a nice photo-op with Jewish leaders? “Elementary, Watson.” Any embassy’s local staff can easily arrange for both Mr. Gurevich and Ms. Kukliansky to be there together, perhaps together with the city’s resident rabbis, other community leaders, and Holocaust survivors as noted above. (Both Mr. Gurevich and Ms. Kukliansky have shown their eminent ability to stand next to each other with dignity at public events; no need for any to fear a wrestling match.) Otherwise, the foreign country’s good will, and their embassy’s good will, is abused for a PR campaign of legitimization of bogus elections that are an insult to the memory of generations of Vilna Jews whose meticulous leadership elections predate even the introduction of broad-franchise democracy in the great Western powers.
It is sad to report that the Israeli Embassy has under its present ambassador, HE Amir Maimon, allowed itself to become a PR tool of a self-coronated, bogus-election leadership clinging to power in an unsavory way, including seemingly constant photo-ops that wholly exclude other Jewish leaders, and even, to the extent (if the LJC website report [PDF] is correct) of having “presented a specially minted coin as a keepsake” to guests at a triumphant victory celebration (the winner of the democratically held Vilnius Jewish Community election received no such congratulations). The specially minted coin will no doubt become a collector’s item in short order. [UPDATE/CORRECTION OF 28 AUG: The LJC report was apparently misleading, and the embassy has no doubt been in touch with their webmaster to correct it. In response to this article, Ana Maizel of the Israeli Embassy in Lithuania informed DH that the commemoration coin was in fact “dedicated to the 25 years of the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Lithuania,” providing the link to its full online description.] See more on Defending History’s Israel page.
Vilnius Jews continue to hold in awe and to remember with love and gratitude the late ambassador to Lithuania and Latvia, HE Chen Ivri Apter, who built the best Israeli-Lithuanian relations, without any exclusive partnering with one local oligarch, without ever betraying Holocaust survivors, and without fearing to mention publicly the Israeli citizens (Yitzhak Arad, Joseph Melamed and the late Rachel Margolis) defamed for history, for whom apologies from the Lithuanian government have still not been forthcoming.
But, there is, at the end of the day, a very serious issue at stake: the democratic, humanistic and Jewish integrity — and genuine spiritual freedom — of small, vulnerable, remnant Jewish communities on ground zero of the Holocaust.