On Representation and Morality: Thoughts on Recent TV Interview with Nominal “Chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community”


by Josif Parasonis (Vilnius)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a working translation, approved by Prof. Parasonis, of his  27 Feb. 2020 article in Lithuanian that appeared on the website of LRT (Lithuanian Radio and Television network), in response to LRT’s 24 January television interview with the chairperson of the (state-sponsored) Lithuanian Jewish Community (translation of the interview; reference in the article to an earlier program is to a 2018 broadcast, online here, at 22 min. mark). Shortly after the appearance of Prof. Parasonis’s article, the democratically elected Vilnius Jewish Community  (VJC) confirmed on its Facebook page that he represents the position of the VJC. A Russian version also appears on the VJC’s page.  In the event of any matter arising in the text, Prof. Parasonis’s Lithuanian original alone is authoritative. 

The trailer for the 24 January 2020 show on the “Lietuvos Rytas” TV channel was quite intriguing: “Faina Kukliansky on the still resilient discrimination against Jews.” In the course of the program, speaking to its mass audience, the official chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Faina Kukliansky, made a series of dubious statements, some of which are incompatible with moral norms, and some of which may be incompatible with the laws of our country. In my opinion, the public space continues to pretend that the program “never took place.” I have therefore found it necessary to share my thoughts with the public.

The discussion on the program was about Lithuanian Jews, their relations to Lithuanians, the guest’s career and her personal life. When it came to Lithuanian Jews, Ms. Kukliansky talked about them in the past tense, as if she were not one of them, in a dismissive manner: “They are no longer here, they were murdered, it’s not worth harassing the remaining ones. […] Perhaps we could say that there would have been many Einsteins among those who were killed.”

Without an ounce of hesitation, the chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community suggested we should just draw a line and finally stop talking about the Holocaust: “It’s a fact that the Jews are no longer here, they were murdered […] The pain, you see — you can’t fix every person’s heart. I can be hurt by the fact that my parents died, I can be hurt by someone who offended me, or someone who crossed the street in the wrong spot, or had my car wrecked, there has always been pain and there always will be […] You see, sometimes it seems to me that there’s obviously the fact that the Jews are no longer here, it’s an obvious fact that they were murdered. They’re not here anymore. So we recognize the fact that they were murdered for the simple reason that they’re not here anymore. But we can’t or don’t want to talk about it. or it’s just not done. So I think that we need to finally draw that line, once and for all, and stop even discussing this topic.”

Ms. Kukliansky is talking about the genocide of the people whose interests she supposedly represents. Talking, with no compassion and with obvious cynicism. She makes an analogy between mass murder of innocent people for the sole reason that they were Jewish and someone “crossing the street in the wrong spot.” Never mind, she says, those would-be Einsteins, we have a replacement for them: “Can you see how many young people are engaged in startups? […] It’s Lithuanians who do that, ethnic Lithuanians, not Jews.”

These are the words of the chairperson of the (official) Lithuanian Jewish Community at the time when the Fifth World Holocaust Forum was taking place in Israel and the world was commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

When asked for her take on the Lithuanian parliament’s decision to designate 2020 as the Year of the Vilna Gaon and Lithuanian Jews, the guest responded: “We weren’t too amused by the Year of the Jews. Must be because I still remember, in Soviet times, there used to be one day a week that would be the Day of Fish. So that’s one of the associations for me, that this year is dedicated to Jews.” What a way for an official person to express her “respect” to the parliament, the state of Lithuania, and its citizens.

I was simply shocked by what I heard on that show. I felt vicarious shame on behalf of our entire community, and a wish to immediately distance myself from the unreasonable and amoral statements of this nominal representative of the Jewish community. Having asked the host if she can talk honestly, she went on to say: “The Jews hate the Lithuanians more than the Lithuanians hate the Jews. Yes. That’s just how it is.”

Content-wise, the statement is inherently absurd, as hatred has no unit of measurement. A single individual may of course express her hatred towards someone, but it does not apply to an ethnicity in general. It seems like this statement of Ms. Kukliansky could fall under the scope of the law against the incitement of hatred between ethnic groups. To this day I receive questions from my friends, both here in Lithuania and from abroad, about this infamous part of the show, as well as constant urging that I express my own opinion about it.

The roots of this mindset of the chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community gradually started to show themselves as the show went along. Already in the second grade she had been dreaming of becoming a police interrogator. She eventually became a police interrogator. She was a captain and the head of the interrogation department in the Soviet militsiya, dealing with rape and murder cases. “Those were very hard times for me, there was a lot of work, two little kids, but it was all very interesting.”

Later on, she would become a prosecutor in the Soviet justice system. Having these confessions in mind, her militant and arrogant mentality, her intolerance to the opinion of others, her vengefulness and authoritarian methods of governance are perhaps no longer so much of a mystery.

When the host listed issues concerning the Lithuanian Jewish Community, the guest responded: “Chairing the Jewish Community is hard work. First of all, it’s the never-ending problems and tension. Of course, the most terrible tension is the one inside the community. The ugliest and… But there’s nothing you can do about it. What can you do? Somebody started it all, it wasn’t my own initiative for sure, but now I have to deal with it somehow. […] I can always quit, but I think that my choice to keep working is the right one, because there are unfinished tasks that I want to see to. […] We have around a thousand and a half people in the social center, we have children with illnesses whom we have to integrate into society, people are getting very low wages, very low pensions, and we have to help them. After all, we have political tasks, too. But our relationship with the authorities of Lithuania is very good. Very good. I really have nothing to complain about.”

The Lithuanian public could see the way the Lithuanian Jewish Community “takes care” of the people in need in another (2018) show on “Lietuvos Rytas” TV, in which several socially vulnerable women told their stories with tears in their eyes. Well, socially vulnerable and retired people hardly fall under the “unfinished tasks” category, so the chairperson must have had the finite tasks of ensuring state funding and her political agenda in mind.

The relationship with the authorities of Lithuania stays “very good,” so it seems, exactly because the political issues are being solved “appropriately,” disregarding the dissenting opinions of Jews — and, quite often, not only Jews — from Lithuania and all over the world. A clear example here is the case of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, in Šnipiškės.

What about the tensions inside the Lithuanian Jewish Community? “Somebody started it all, it wasn’t my own initiative for sure…” Who is that “somebody”? Already back in 2013 Ms. Kukliansky reorganized the community of people into an association of individual representatives of supposed enterprises (including some brand new ones).

Back in early 2017, as the end of the Lithuanian Jewish Community chairperson’s first term was nearing, and elections loomed, Ms. Kukliansky, in the middle of the campaign changed the statute on the rules for the election. Previously, representatives elected by actual people at regional communal conferences, would take part in the general conference in numbers proportional to the total number of members in their respective communities. This way, members of the Jewish community from all over Lithuania would take part in the election as voters by way of an established representational system. This was abruptly changed to a new system where her own board members, most or all of whom benefit from the budget, would themselves elect the chairperson. The end of democracy in one fell swoop.

When the largest actual Jewish community, that of Vilnius, with over two thousand members, resisted the new “election” procedure in a demonstration of participatory democracy, the Lithuanian Jewish Community started ignoring its existence. Instead, a newly established “community” of only a handful of members, called “Vilnius, the Jerusalem of Lithuania” took its place in the “association” and receives large subsidies from the state restitution sponsored budget to pretend to the role.

Already during her first term (2013-2017), the chairperson would choose the members of the LJC board only from the pool of organizations whose leaders were personally subservient to her. This is how Ms. Kukliansky ensured her “democratic re-election” in 2017. During the election conference, three (!) hired security crews guarded the Community headquarters from unwanted observers (i.e. members of the actual Jewish community).

Around twenty people in the “board,” some of whom cast two or three votes each in the 2017 “elections” took part in the “conference.” Later, in 2018, the Jews of Lithuania produced a statement of no-confidence in Ms. Kukliansky, which was rapidly signed by some five hundred members of the community.

By receiving funding from the state, solving the “political tasks” in an appropriate manner, ignoring the needs of the community members, and, at the same time, eradicating Jewish life in Lithuania, the reorganized Lithuanian Jewish Community became a simple tool in politicians’ hands. According to its chairperson, there are no longer any Jews in Lithuania, hence, no need for their community, and, when it comes to political tasks, they can be solved by a single “official representative of the Jews.”

Personally, I could not remain indifferent to these events, since I find the discussed issues to be genuinely important. Jewish identity is one of the fundamental spiritual values for me. Due to the Holocaust, I grew up without a father. I have experienced discrimination because of my ethnicity, especially during Soviet times. I do not complain: some people wanted to hurt me and others stood up for me. I learned how to defend myself, it toughened me up, and I managed to achieve some things in life. I am against making generalizations based on ethnicity. There are all kinds of people everywhere. I am trying to be critical, first and foremost, of my own attitudes.

I roundly disagree with Ms. Kukliansky’s opinion that there are no longer any Jews in Lithuania, that the community has no future, and that there is hatred between Jews and Lithuanians. I am sure that ethnic hatred was not ubiquitous even during the Holocaust: otherwise, there would have been no rescuers of neighboring Jews. The chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, speaking from the point of view of hatred and spreading it further, has herself now become a shame-worthy and destructive problem for the Jewish community. We, Jews living here, need to solve it immediately. Our community must not be led by a person who cares neither for our cultural heritage, nor historical memory, nor the future of the Jewish community, and whose main priority is her own personal status.

Why am I writing this? Because I find it absolutely unacceptable that I, as a Jew, am represented by a person of such moral norms and behavior. I cannot agree to Ms. Kukliansky’s statements, emphatically made “in the name of the Lithuanian Jewish Community,” to be understood as the opinion of the majority of the community’s members. Things are not as they should be.

Josif Parisonis was born in Kaunas. He completed  a  degree in building engineering (1962), a doctorate (1973), and habilitation (1992). For twenty-four years he has been professor and head of the Department of Architectural Engineering at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU). From 2000 to 2005 he was deputy chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, and is currently a leading member of the Vilnius Jewish Community.

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