OPINION | VILNIUS JEWISH LIFE | LITVAK AFFAIRS | DEMOCRACY | GOOD WILL FOUNDATION | HUMAN RIGHTS
VILNIUS—Arkadijus Vinokuras, the highly talented and successful Lithuanian Jewish author, journalist, and comedian, has today jumped into the fray of the official Jewish Community’s elections for the post of chairperson of the Vilnius Jewish Community. In contrast to Simon Gurevich (Simonas Gurevičius), who declared his candidacy at the start of the election season and whose candidacy has (as of the time of this posting) not even been reported on the official community website, Mr. Vinokuras’s effort comes one week before the scheduled May 24th Vilnius Jewish Community conference, and has been announced with respect and a fine photograph on the website today (the same moment it came out on his own Facebook page). But that is not the main reason his candidacy is thought by many in the community, on first reaction, to be in the service of chairperson Faina Kukliansky, whose democratic terms as chief of both the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) and the Vilnius Jewish Community (VJC) ran out last month.
The main reason for community anger has been Mr. Vinokuras’s acceptance of an allegedly “secret scholarship” allocation by the “Good Will Foundation” (that allocates funds from the forty million dollar fund deriving from partial state restitution of the value of prewar religious communal properties of the annihilated Jewish population). The reported “secret scholarship” of a still unknown amount was allegedly for his son to study in the United States, some surmised (without evidence) in return for his self-silencing after serving for many years as an independent voice that often spoke up against less-than-democratic practices in the Jewish community and its restitution process; many of the battles of earlier years can readily be googled. Nobody has suggested that the scholarship’s educational support per se was improperly used or that his highly talented and universally admired son did not deserve the utmost support. The controversy involves secrecy, GWF allocation policy and its transparency, and relevance to current electoral positioning.
There is perhaps above all a fundamental question of fairness and natural justice, one properly posed not to Mr. Vinokuras, but to the Community’s decision-makers involved and their Good Will Foundation enablers: Was there a publicly advertised competition in which less illustrious “everyday” members of the community could put forward their children’s names for scholarships for study abroad? Or was this only a trick-a-treat for a tiny club of inner-circle elites who are in the nature of things in any case not among the most needy members of the community?
Defending History had the opportunity to interview Mr. Vinokuras (in Yiddish) on 30 April 2017. He said: “Just because I accepted a scholarship for my son to go to America does not make me a farkéyfte neshóme,” using the Lithuanian Yiddish rendition of an old phrase for “somebody who has been bought” (literally “a soul that was sold out”). He went on to tell Defending History: “I will never run for anything, I am not interested in community positions, I am now dedicated to my writing and my books, but I will always continue personally to speak out for democracy as I have done all my life.” At that point in the conversation, we asked what he thought of the sudden change in rules, in the middle of a campaign, disenfranchising 2,000 Vilnius Jews by recounting their votes from around 20 (via the old formula of one vote for each hundred people) to just one collective vote, effectively ensuring the current chairperson hangs on to power indefinitely. He replied that “I speak to her personally about these things insisting upon democracy, and you may now know it, but I succeeded in keeping things more democratic within the Vilnius Jewish Community by standing up to her.” But that was before the community website took to announcing with moving headlines in all three site languages that the meeting of 24 May 2017 at 6 PM at the Karolina Hotel in Vilnius would “not take place”.
The democratic question now is whether Mr. Vinokuras, who has every right to announce his candidacy at the last minute for the Vilnius chairpersonship, and indeed every legal right to serve the larger interests of Ms. Kukliansky, the chairperson now of both communities, will respectfully participate in the 24 May meeting which has been called by a clear majority of members of the Vilnius Jewish Community board. It is also unclear whether his attention to democratic practice will now include a public call for the Lithuanian Jewish Community website to offer all candidates equal time and equal democratic tools for reaching the electorate with their message. At present it fails to inform readers of the existence of the major challenger for the chairpersonship of the national official Jewish Community. Mr. Vinokuras will need to counter head-on suspicions that he is serving as the chairperson’s stalking horse to harm Mr. Gurevičius’s candidacy rather than to work to benefit the current community of living Jews in Lithuania. Such suspicions were fueled by his decision to write about alleged “fraud investigations” of Mr. Gurevičius in his very declaration of candidacy, quickly lapped up with glee by the official Community website.
The issue of the “secret scholarships” became an international scandal last February 9th in U.S. journalist Paul Berger’s article in the New York based Forward. The following is an excerpt from Mr. Berger’s article:
Although the [Good Will] foundation itemizes funding for the special projects on its website, it does not show how the Lithuanian Jewish community spends about $1.3 million annually. [Rabbi Sholom Ber] Krinsky claims that some of this money is being used to pay out “secret scholarships.”
Kukliansky says that is incorrect. She said that all the projects funded with the restitution money are accounted for in the community’s budget, which is available online as well as in a government audit. She said the scholarships are displayed on the community’s website.
“There are no secrets,” Kukliansky said.
But after a reporter was unable to locate the budget on the community’s website, Kukliansky said she was mistaken. A community official subsequently sent a link to a document, in Lithuanian, showing the budget for 2016, as well as a hard copy of the budget for 2017, in English, that included last year’s spending.
The English-language budget provides details on the amount of Good Will funding assigned to each community project, from social welfare services to educational, cultural and religious programs. As detailed as the budget is, some programs, such as the scholarships Krinsky is skeptical about, are folded into a broad range of activities, including “media,” “education” and “participation in international Jewish events,” leaving it unclear how much money is spent on the scholarships and how many people receive the money.
Mr. Vinokur’s candidacy for the Vilnius chairpersonship may enable a rapid answer to the imbroglio: Was there a Good Will Foundation scholarship for his son to study in America, or not? If there was, why was it kept secret and not listed, and indeed, denied to an American journalist last February when raised by a Vilnius rabbi of 22 years’ standing? If there was, and it is still not announced, does it compromise the strange, last minute candidacy by a gentleman who less than a month ago assured this journal he would never run for anything in the Jewish community? Another question. Will Mr. Vinokuras now come to next Wednesday evening’s democratically voted-upon conference to participate as a candidate with full respect for his opponent in the spirit of bona fide community democracy?
Over the years, Mr. Vinokuras, once the Lithuanian prime minister’s “adviser on genocide” has been close to high political figures and has on occasion towed the government line on issues of Holocaust history and published ad hominem attacks on government critics in mainstream Lithuanian media, making him, in some views, one of the handful of powerful sell-out “Court Jews” in the country. On one occasion, he called an interview by the editor of Defending History “Goebbels-worthy”. On another he trashed this journal’s annual monitoring of neo-Nazi marches that proceed in major cities on hallowed independence days with local municipality connivance, while trying to sanitize the marchers. For years he delighted the nationalist far right by publicly attacking in national media the late and beloved Dr. Shimon Alperovich, longtime head of the Jewish community. By contrast, he has on occasion also spoken up forcefully in national media against certain forms of local antisemitism.
Back in 2010, when Mr. Vinokuras was upset by a choice of words in a translation into English (by G. Vasil) on these pages, we hastened to make the correction he wanted and to publish his letter to the editor. Is he today really comfortable that the official website of the Lithuanian Jewish Community carries real-time announcements of his candidacy with fine photos while failing to mention his opponent’s existence? With the “cancellation” of next week’s Vilnius Jewish Community election conference by the official community though it was decided by the democratic majority of the VJC’s board members? He may also reflect on a question many of the “everyday Jewish people” in town he has never spoken to are now asking: If he succeeds in preserving the current national chairperson’s power over the community and the restitution by muddying or sabotaging the election, after having benefited from a “secret scholarship” for a close family member, would she then really have any more use for him?