Volf RUBINCHYK: “Authorities ignores Jewish problems”
Volf RUBINCHYK: "The authorities ignore the Jewish problems”
The symbiosis of the religious and public role is a characteristic feature of the Jewish organizations in Belarus today. Our legislation unambiguously differentiates the status of the organizations of both types and thereby slows down the development of either.
The Jewish societies started to operate in Belarus in 1988. Under the aegis of the Soviet Foundation of Culture (Belarusian branch), the first Association of Jewish Culture was set up in Minsk. In independent Belarus, the “Jewish movement" continues to develop. However, the development dynamics is negative. Problems are numerous. The major ones include passiveness, emigration and demographics, the last being the wost one today.
Organizationally, there are two large societies in Belarus today: The Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities (established in 1991) and the Judaic Religious Association (JRA, established in 1993). The Union traditionally represents the “Jewish community” to the authorities. JRA places emphasis on the revival of the spiritual and material legacy of the Jewish national community.
"The promising line of activity could be dialog between Jews and Belarusians, however, so far the parties are not quite ready for such dialog: most of the Jews do not speak Belarusians, and most of the Belarusians are little interested in the problems of the national minorities", believes the political scientist Volf Rubinchyk. He says that the activity of the religious communities today most contributes to the formation of the "Jewish awareness" within the community. Without denying the "secular" values, such as education, history of Jews of Belarus and Israel, charity activities, the synagogues attach importance to providing more information about Judaism. “The Jewish religious communities are more open for contact and less bureaucratized than non-religious organizations”, says the political scientist.
In his Belarusian-Jewish bulletin “We are still here!”, he analyzes the situation and tries to suggest an alternative. The bulletin is published in Belarusians and targets, as the publisher says, the socially active people who can change something in the Belarusian “Jewish street”. “This periodical is also for those who sympathize with our goals. On my part this is an attempt to awaken the awareness. The Jews are very passive. I do not exclude myself. And we are also few”. The below questions are answered by the political scientist and translator Volf RUBINCHYK:
- How many and which Jewish organizations operate in Belarus today?
- Public and religious organizations. All of them are Jewish. Of the public organizations, the largest one, that acts as a kind of umbrella for the others, is the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities. It comprises several dozens of charity and culture-oriented organizations from all over the country. Simultaneously to the Union, there are Jewish charity foundations operating. The Union has been under leadership of Leanid Levin since 1991. Of the religious organizations, the largest one is the Judaic Religious Association headed by Iury Dorn since 1996.
In my opinion, the leadership of the Union should more closely cooperate with the public organizations representing other national communities and attach more emphasis to the shared problems of Belarus, including political ones. Through my small circulation bulletin I repeatedly called on the people to support at the parliamentary and local elections the political forces that care (in the positive sense of the word) about the presence of Jews here. Because it turns out that obnoxious persons such as Mr. Kastsian and others take seats in Parliament. A position should be voiced in this problem, there should be more interaction between the Belarusian cultural activists and societies. The basis for such interaction is quite substantial – we have a large layer of shared culture that remains little investigated. I attempt to raise these issues in my bulletin but this is not enough.
Undoubtedly, the Jewish public communities work to create national awareness. For example, in 2002 Minsk Jewish Community House opened a Museum of History and Culture of the Jews in Belarus. But the fact remains is that the Jewish organizations are more oriented toward cultural and voluntary activity. This line of activity remains the main one. We would like to see more activity and not to cut ourselves off from the others. Because today Belarus has a lot of problems that need solving – destruction of the graves, non-recovery of synagogues, no Jewish schools…
Still another problem is that Belarus does not have a normal scholarly basis and the state is little interested in having one. The proof is that the International Humanities Institute was closed in 2004. Scholarls work in various towns and cities, who investigate individual problems. However, so far there has been no philosophical and historical evaluation of our 600 year long presence here. There are attempts to make a handbook on the history of Jews in Belarus. My dream is to be involved with such a book.
- How are things outside Minsk?
- There are regional communities in Mahilou, Vitsebsk, Pinsk, Lida and Homel. There are a total of 20 towns and cities, where the Jewish organizations operate more or less actively. What I especially like is the way Jews live in Pinsk - they have their own school, newspaper and they do not quarrel there much. The problem of our societies is that the fewer Jews (since the 1990s the number has reduced four times in Belarus) the more conflicts.
- How do the religious association operate? What are their relations with the state? Are they registered?
- Of course. They act like their “younger brothers” because all know which denomination now gets most attention. Nonetheless, the “Law on the Freedom of Conscience" says that Judaism is "a religion traditional to Belarus". The authorities use this to attract tourists, pilgrimages are organized for Jews from the USA, Israel, but I see no particular benefit in that. In my opinion, the state harms rather than helps. There were a lot of promises regarding the restoration of the buildings of the Judaic higher schools in Valozhyn, Mir, synagogues in Stolin, Slonim, however, it does not, as a rule, go beyond words.
The religious Judaic organizations often perform the functions of public ones. This means that people often come there not only to pray and celebrate, but also realize themselves in private relations – for example, find themselves bridegroom or bride. The community life of the Jews has been integrated with religion for many centuries. Separating holidays, rites and culture is a difficult thing to do. Many of those who attend the religious communities are members of the public organizations and the other way round. For example, Iakau Basin heads the Association of Communities of Progressive Judaism registered as a religious one, and simultaneously is a member of the leadership of the Union of Jewish Public Associations and Communities.
- What are the relations between the Jewish public organizations and the state?
- The organizations are controlled – both public and religious ones. Because of this changing anything is very difficult. Mr. Levin almost always acts as a representative of the Jewish community to the state. Today there are no Jewish organizations that do not recognize his authority to some extent. I believe that the quality of this representation leaves a lot to be desired. Though historically, this role is justified. Traditionally, the Jews have a representative before the state.
- And what are the relations with the local authorities?
- It happens so that “Jewish" events are attended by representatives of local executive committees, who say correct words and sometimes help monuments to be opened. However, I was indignant at the incident in Mazyr. At the end of 2003 there was a monument put up to the victims of World War II – a stone with a shield on where those who lived in ghetto burned themselves so that the Nazis did not get them. The monument was put up without the executive committee’s permission, on the initiative of Iakau Hutman, the Chair of the World’s Association of Belarusian Jews. At the beginning, a stone was put up, then a memorial tablet was added to it. The monument stood there for several weeks. The local executive committee pulled the stone down.
The self-immolation place in Mazyr in 2001 was officially recognized by the Ministry of Culture and put on the List of Historic and Cultural Values. The most cynical part of the situation is that the executive committee ruled that Iakau Hutman reimburse the demolition-related expenses.
- What is the development dynamics of the Jewish community in Belarus? Do the Jews leave as before?
- The process has not stopped. It’s quite another matter that earlier thousands of people left the country each year, now – several hundreds. They leave not only for Israel but also for Germany, though they do not receive emigrants as cordially as in the USA.
The Jewish population is old, its average age exceeds the average Belarusian age, according to some information, there is one birth to four deaths. I think that the greatest threat to the presence of the Jewish community in Belarus is demographics rather than emigration. The numbers are not favorable. The Brest scholars Ia.Rasenblat and I.Ialenskaia concluded that the demographic changes effected by the Holocaust and mass emigration are irreversible. So, unfortunately, we cannot hope that the Jewish community in Belarus will be able to be fully restored in Belarus.
Three years ago I conducted a poll on “What awaits the Belarusian Jews in 2020?". Almost all of the people I questioned said that there would not be more than ten thousand Jews here, most of whom would be people of old age. This is not what we should be working toward. However, the Jewish activity matches such sentiment. The Jewish activists work without an impetus, mechanically.
I believe that if our fate is to leave this world, we should leave it in a decent way. For example, all of the absurd requirements of the officials, which are often not based the law, do not have to be always satisfied. What some Belarusian Jews say in support of the President do not make a pleasant impression. This is true that it is in our tradition being loyal to the authorities. We are a minority and so we must respect the authorities, which, by the away, agrees with the Judaic tradition. Because if there were no authorities, it would be still worse. However, the attitude of the Belarusian authorities to the Jews has not been changing for the better. When anti-Semitic movies appear, when synagogues become destroyed, as in 2001 in Dzimitrava, or a shopping center is being built in Niamiha, Minsk, on what was earlier the “Cold” synagogue...
I would not say that the authorities' actions always contain planned, goal-oriented Anti-Semitism. This more looks like "Asemitism" – indifference typical of the attitude to other national and ethno-denominational communities. Briefly, today they simply ignore us and our problems. I would like to believe that when new authorities come to power, the situation will change for the better.