OPINION | VILNIUS JEWISH LIFE | LITVAK AFFAIRS | DEMOCRACY | HUMAN RIGHTS
VILNIUS—Interviews by several Defending History staffers with several dozen members of Vilnius’s Jewish community over the past several days have turned up what seems to be a widespread sense of (citing terms that recurred frequently in the conversations) “disappointment” or “shock” at the “unbelievable changing of the rules of an election in the middle of the campaign.” (Such mini-surveys are not scientific, and a professional survey of today’s Jewish community on a number of issues is a critical desideratum here.)
The change seems to be in the cause of in effect disenfranchising the actual living Jews of Lithuania by suddenly decoupling the numbers of living, resident Jews from votes cast for the leadership of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, for which elections are scheduled, as of today, for May 28th (for recent developments see the DH section on Vilnius Jewish Life). A number of those interviewed mentioned the role of the “Good Will Foundation” that allocates funding for the community’s administration, including elections, from the government finance provided as restitution for prewar communal religious Jewish property. Some of its allocations have been highly controversial.
For around a decade, the agreed rules for elections have allocated one vote for each “constituent association / organization” of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, a list that includes for example a sports organization and various commemorative funds. To preserve the franchise for actual, living, resident Jewish people in Lithuania, the rules, never challenged, have stipulated that in the case of the actual Jewish Communities, there would be one vote for every one hundred members, ensuring that there would be representation of the actual community, not just of a handful of powerful individuals with access to funds for projects and commemorations.
The critical case in point is Vilnius. According to sources in the official Jewish Community of Lithuania, there are about 2,200 registered members. That means that according to established practice there would be 22 votes from the Vilnius Jewish Community for the upcoming elections of national chairperson of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, the post held for four years by the eminent attorney Faina Kukliansky, whose four-year term ended on April 3rd. Ms. Kukliansky is also chairperson of the Vilnius Jewish Community, as well as the co-chair for Lithuania (in partnership with Andrew Baker of the US) at the Good Will Foundation that controls restitution payments and allocations. According to reports, she has also appointed the head of the Vilnius Religious Community.
With great expectations and optimism for a “small but beautiful” Jewish future here, the few thousand Jews left in Vilnius have been looking forward to the upcoming elections with a sense of excitement and renewed vigor.
But this past Wednesday, 19 April, the thunderbolt struck.
A meeting of the Board of the Lithuanian Jewish Community abruptly changed the rules, in the middle of the campaign, to a new system that would allocate one vote for each association or organization, including the actual Jewish communities. That means that the Vilnius Jewish Community will have one vote, instead of around 22 votes.
The same meeting accepted as a new voting member the project for a new Jewish museum (financed by anonymous sources) in Šeduva, a town in northern Lithuania, led by the same person who chairs the NGO “Maceva” which is also a member. If confirmed that means that one very important person might well have, in practical terms, two votes, while 2,200 Jews resident in Vilnius will collectively have one vote. Naturally, the board members of both the “Maceva” board and the Šeduva museum (“Lost Shtetl”) board (and its related Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund) will wish to know how their director votes on vital maters affecting the very existence of the living Jewish community. According to reports, the mid-campaign rule-change was passed by just a few votes, or indeed just one vote depending on interpretation of other irregularities on the day (for example, the ballot sent in absentia by Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, dismissed by the chairperson as chief rabbi in 2015 for standing up for the old Jewish cemetery, was declared invalid and not counted; one by someone who quit the board years ago and now turned up, was duly counted).
Is commandeering what it left of Lithuania’s actual Jewish community for one or another’s personal political ambitions a reflection of the ethos, goals, means and resources of “Maceva” the new “Lost Shtetl” Museum in Šeduva? Some community members, noting that 2,200 people have been disenfranchised, joked with dark Litvak humor, that the door was open for more new Dead Jew Business (DJB) projects to “make sure” that living Jews don’t count much for anything in these parts, not even in the Jewish Community…
The widespread fear is that the election is being irretrievably rigged against the challenger. There is also growing concern that certain government circles for whom “Jewish projects” are a source of PR, income, tourism and Holocaust history revisionism, are keen to ensure that the 2011 restitution legislation works in effect to delegitimize Lithuania’s small but vibrant living Jewish community by diverting resources and authority alike to projects the state favors with a small number of “court Jews” recognized as “the last Litvaks” and the wider operation legitimized by foreign Jewish dignitaries partial to honors, junkets and favors.
Next week, the international board of the Good Will Foundation meets in Vilnius. Local Jews are waiting to see if the Board will rectify the breaches of democratic spirit that appear to be carried out with the lavish funding the Board has allocated for the community’s administration. There is also grave concern that the website has been used for the sole benefit of the incumbent, with no semblance of equal space for both candidates or encouragement of transparent and fair elections in a spirit of dignified free debate.