OPINION | VILNIUS JEWISH LIFE | LITVAK AFFAIRS | DEMOCRACY | HUMAN RIGHTS
VILNIUS—Coming hard on the heels of the mid-campaign rule-change of 19 April that effectively disenfranchised over 2,000 Vilnius Jews, by “recounting” their collective vote as one vote instead of over 20 (via the long-established formula of 100 persons = one vote), the chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, eminent attorney Faina Kukliansky, on 4 May placed an announcement on the Lithuanian-language page of the official community website (followed by the Russian section), Lzb.lt, cancelling the widely announced 24 May 2017 conference of the Vilnius Jewish Community decided upon by a clear majority vote of its Council (15 of 21 active members), for which the large hall of Hotel Karolina had already been booked. This was followed on 5 May by an English language version complete with “Red-Ink Warnings from the Leader” which seems to inaccurately report that the planned 24 May conference was an “arbitrary” act of “one” Council of the Vilnius Jewish Community member, presumably referring to her opponent in the race, Simonas Gurevičius.
UPDATES TO 12 MAY 2017:
8 May 2017: Vilnius Jewish Community board member Simon Ceitlin posts a notice on his Facebook page confirming that the 24 May event at Hotel Karolina will proceed as announced.
10 May 2017: Simonas Gurevičius posts refutation of official Community website notice and confirms that the 24 May meeting, decided by all present at the most recent Vilnius Jewish Community board meeting, will proceed.
12 May 2017: Faina Kukliansky reposts announcement on community website assuring readers that the meeting will not occur.
Mr. Gurevičius’s candidacy has not even been announced on the website, which is financed by restitution funds allocated by the Good Will Foundation and which is supposed to serve the interests of the entire Jewish community, not only its lay leader, whose legal four-year terms as head of the Lithuanian and the Vilnius Jewish communities both expired in April, leaving her open to the appearance of clinging to power bereft of democratic legitimacy.
Foreign specialists in community democracy are being drawn to the Vilnius saga to study the potentially negative impact of restitution settlements with governments that result in the destruction, rather than the construction, of inclusive, democratic and representative institutions for smaller, demographically challenged communities. Around 96% of Lithuanian Jewry was annihilated in the Holocaust, the highest percentage in Europe. Today’s small but vibrant and internally diverse community numbers around three thousand and exhibits culturally creative forces, and its corollary, fragmentation, perhaps out of proportion to the community’s size.
English notice featured atop the The Good Will Foundation financed website’s English-language section on 5 May:
Vilnius Jewish Community Conference WILL NOT TAKE PLACE May 24 – Lithuanian Jewish Community
In recent weeks there has been spillover of the Jewish community’s election campaign into wider Lithuanian society. Several days ago, a television comedy show good-naturedly pointed out that Jewish politics is quite similar to Lithuanian politics. But a dead-serious BNS (Baltic News Service) report of 1 May reporting on Mr. Gurevičius’s petition circulating to reverse the rule-change that disenfranchised thousands of Jewish people (while giving “super votes” to just-included new NGOs like the “Sheduva Lost Shtetl Museum”) was carried by numerous outlets, including 15min.lt and Bernardinai.lt. Several days earlier, a number of them, including 15min.lt, Kaunodiena.lt, and Klaipeda.diena.lt, covered the press conference of the Good Will Foundation (GWF) held on 27 April. The coverage included pointed questions about the role allegedly intended for Ms. Kukliansky’s daughter in a new kindergarten project, for which the GWF board, unusually, postponed a request earlier that morning at the behest of some of its foreign members.
Do Lithuanian Jews deserve real democracy?
Anger seems to be growing at the Good Will Foundation, which despite putting the brakes on one controversial kindergarten project, continues to finance the use (or abuse) of the generous administrative budget for unchecked power of one leader to use allegedly to dismantle democratic institutions in the interests of maintaining power. At present the same person is chair of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, the Vilnius Jewish Community and co-chair, along with Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, of the Good Will Foundation.
There is growing consensus that a constructive first step would be rapid appointment of an Election Ombudsman who would ensure a constitutionally and morally valid election process, fair and equal access to the website, mailing lists, and other run-of-the-mill tools of free and transparent elections.
The remnant Jewish community of Lithuania deserves no less.