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Russia slams US fine over disputed Jewish archive

  • Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in this file photo dated Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe, File)

MOSCOW: Russia on Thursday branded as a provocation a US judge's decision to slap a $50,000-a-day fine on Moscow for its failure to return an historic but disputed Jewish library to the United States.

A US District Court this week levied the penalty for Russia's failure to comply with a 2010 order to return the sacred texts to either embassy officials in Moscow or representatives of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish community in the Russian capital.

The dispute has frozen cultural exchange programmes between the two old Cold War rivals and meant that Americans have missed touring exhibitions of such great museums as the Hermitage and the Tretyakov.

The tone of the Russian foreign ministry and officials linked directly to the case indicated that Moscow was digging in for a hard fight over a dispute especially close to the heart of New York's Jewish community in Brooklyn.

The foreign ministry called the 2010 ruling an "abominable" decision that was made only worse by Tuesday's fine.

Russia "views this as a completely illegal and provocative ruling," the foreign ministry said in reference to Tuesday's order.

And President Vladimir Putin's international cultural cooperation representative Mikhail Shvydko said the ruling "doomed" the chances of the archive every being sent to the United States.

"I think that they will now forever remain in the Russian Federation -- and I think that this is just," he stressed.

"This is an inalienable part of Russia."

The archive -- referred to in Russia as the Schneersohn Library in honour of its original owner Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn -- was seized by the Soviets in Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.

Most of the 12,000 texts and 50,000 documents it contains have since been transferred to the Russian military archive and state library.

And officials there said they had no intention of parting with a collection gathered in the 18th century and regarded with veneration by Hasidic Jews who populated Eastern Europe and have since largely settled in New York.

"Every citizen of the world can come to Moscow, become a reader of the Russia State Library and read everything that he needs," Russian State Library Director Alexander Vislov told the ITAR-TASS news agency.

Russia first prohibited its art from being showcased in the United States in August 2010 -- just days after the Washington court issued its initial decision.

The US State Department has argued that court decisions of the kind issued by the District Court were complicating both the case and bilateral ties.

A Jewish community spokesman in Moscow said the library should be returned to New York from the moral standpoint because "the Chabad-Lubavitch community in New York is its legal heir.

"But the tactic it has chosen does not stand a chance," Federation of Jewish Communities spokesman Borukh Gorin added in reference to the US court system.

"These rulings can only help raise attention to our cause."

The archive has had an unsettled history that reflects the devastation that Jews in Europe have lived through in the past century.

The library was originally kept in the Smolensk region town of Lyubavichi in what was then -- and is again today -- far western Russia.

The collection was split up during World War I and partially nationalised by the Soviet Union in 1918.

The other part was slipped out of Russia in 1927. It was seized by Nazi troops in Poland after spending some time in Riga in 1939.

 
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