VILNIUS—Over 300 members of the Vilnius Jewish Community (VJC), representing all adult age groups, and constituting the numerically largest such conference this century, this evening elected a new VJC chairman at the Karolina Hotel in Vilnius. Professionally organized, members with voting rights had to present their membership cards and separate ID at conference tables organized by initial letters of surnames. The proceedings, started with a few sentences of Yiddish by Simon Gurevich (Simonas Gurevicius), were meticulously conducted bilingually, with all proceedings in both Lithuanian (first) and (then) Russian in an atmosphere of democratic catharsis of an East European Jewish community, many of whose members have felt sidelined by the interests of a handful of elites close to government circles in recent years. The assembly included virtually all of the known personalities of Vilnius Jewry who do not happen to have employment at Pylimo Street 4, the official community’s headquarters (but there were a few of those too, as well as some from the official synagogue minyan).
After the election of the new chairperson came elections for twenty-one members of the Vilnius Board. Also, a resolution was adopted cancelling the recent attempt to disenfranchise some two thousand Vilnius Jews by recounting their votes as a single vote (while the heads of various NGOs, including the not-yet-built Sheduva Lost Shtetl Museum, have two or more votes each).
The conference elected Mr. Gurevich chairman of the Vilnius Jewish Community by a vote of 240 to 17, the second remaining candidate being Simonas Ceitlinas (Simon Tseitlin). Arkadijus Vinokuras withdrew his eleventh-hour candidacy in a rambling ten minute speech. But the real sensation of the evening was the appearance at the start of the conference of Lithuanian Jewish Community chairperson, the eminent attorney Faina Kukliansky, whose four year term ran out last month. The chair invited her to speak at the start as she wished, and she declared the conference to be illegal and illegitimate. She was received politely and in silence, except when she began to taunt the remaining active Jewish community of Vilnius so much of which was assembled, for example with the question “Are you all happy being photographed and filmed here?” to which there were resounding and defiant shouts of yes.
By the time delegates got home this evening, they found on the Lithuanian [PDF] and English [PDF] sections of the official community website unsigned invective sheets in the spirit of the local current antisemitic nationalist parlance effectively equating today’s Vilnius Jews with Putin’s regime and Russian infiltration (see PDFs below). It starts, in a shock to many, with a reference to current Russian-Belarusian military exercises (!) and includes the incredible observation that participants were “mainly Russian speakers calling themselves Jews, with only a minority of people with Litvak blood. A Soviet mentality and style appeared to dominate the proceedings. The urgent matter at hand was seizing power, because now the Lithuanian language is dominant in the Lithuanian Jewish Community.” Ironically, it is the community website that is a Soviet-style paen to one Leader, giving credence to one view and trashing all others, while this evening’s conference gave expression to every nuance of opinion in dignified democratic debate. The references to Lithuanian and Russian seem to be in line with current far-right politics that pursues governance that is Soviet in form and ultranationalist in content.
UPDATE OF 26 MAY 2017:
Following this response in Defending History, a number of shocked journalists contacted the official offices of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Immediately thereafter, the page (captured below as PDF) was taken down and replaced by another. The replacement page, posted on 25 May is available here. While omitting the reference to pure Lithuanian “blood” it adds the charming sentence: “Those who did show up – by and large friends of the former executive director Simonas Gurevičius who was behind the coup attempt – looked as if they had emerged unchanged from the Soviet era, judging from their mannerisms and inability to speak Lithuanian.” It went on to call the new elected chairperson of the Vilnius Jewish Community “ringleader of the attempted power grab”. By midnight on the 25th, this version too had been taken down by the panicked webmasters, whose salaries are paid via Good Will Foundation allocations from funds deriving from the communal religious properties of the annihilated Jewish communities of Lithuania.
Although most of Vilnius’s Jews are indeed Litvaks, as were the vast majority of Jews at this evening’s event, the issue of “blood” is presumably as irrelevant to membership in the Jewish community as it is to Lithuanian citizenship which the nation’s democratic constitution grants equally to citizens of all kinds of “blood”. To exacerbate the new attempt (by an official Jewish community website financed by the “Good Will Foundation”) to call the Jewish community “Russians”, the website article carried a photograph of part of the audience in which only one face is clearly shown: that of Olga Ugriumova, a famous Jewish woman radio journalist who happens to be foreign born and has mastered Lithuanian to a very high standard, implying for some readers that people like her, deeply loyal Lithuanian citizens, who have lived and built successful lives in modern democratic Lithuania over decades, are somehow not welcome anymore in Lithuania’s “official Jewish community”. The Lithuanian language version of the website carried two photos of Ms. Kukliansky, but none of the evening’s electoral victor, Mr. Gurevich. [UPDATE of 25 May, 10 AM Vilnius time: A Russian report carrying a text completely different from the Lithuanian and English reports posted the previous night, appeared in the Russian section of the website, omitting the sections about Putin’s military exercises and Russian speakers pretending to be Jews, and stressing the speech of Mr. Vinokuras, without however mentioning his deep involvement in the current “Good Will Foundation scholarship scandal“]. The website, financed by the Good Will Foundation via funds deriving from the religious communal properties of the annihilated Jewish communities of Lithuania, is meant to fairly represent all segments of the community.
The following is the full text of the English website version of the text on the official Lithuanian Jewish Community website, followed by a PDF of the page, and of the Lithuanian page [update of 25 May: and the Russian page], for the historical record.
The Zapad 2017 military exercises are currently underway rehearsing the scenario of Lithuania and Poland under attack. And just as that’s going on, coincidentally, an out-of-order and illegitimate conference of the Vilnius Jewish Community attracted about 300 people to the conference hall of the Karolina Park Hotel in Vilnius, mainly Russian speakers calling themselves Jews, with only a minority of people with Litvak blood. A Soviet mentality and style appeared to dominate the proceedings. The urgent matter at hand was seizing power, because now the Lithuanian language is dominant in the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Western European-style projects are being conducted and staff now includes Lithuanians as well as Jews. Community life and activities have become more open, more interesting and are approaching the standards of European Jewry. With that in mind, it was very odd to hear the moderator’s words about bringing back the household spirit of the Community from 25 years ago.
Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky was allowed to speak and reiterated that under Lithuanian law and the bylaws of the Vilnius Jewish Community the meeting was out of order and illegitimate. Despite the warning, the members of the Vilnius Jewish Community who turned out decided to adopt illicit resolutions at the illegitimate conference.English PDF