Lithuanian chief rabbi accuses government of deportation threat

The rabbi theorized that the government was attempting to deport him was due to his opposition concerning the destruction of an old Jewish cemetery.

August 6, 2015 18:07
2 minute read.
Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania. (photo credit: JEFF BARAK)

Lithuanian government officials threatened Chief Rabbi Chaim Burshtein with deportation, the Israeli cleric claimed in a Facebook post on Thursday.

According to a translation of Burshtein’s Russian language remarks posted on the Defending History website, the rabbi said that he underwent “an attempt at deportation” while passing through passport control prior to a flight.

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He claimed that an official told him that if he boarded his flight, he would no longer be allowed to enter the Lithuania.

The official allegedly stated that he was “just doing his job” and that there were “reasons for the decision,” according to Defending History.

“The only reason for this attempt to deport me that I can discern is the rabbinic opposition, and that of many of the Jews in the country, to the destruction of the old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius for the construction of a congress and convention center complex,” the rabbi theorized.

While Burshtein, who lives in Israel and regularly commutes to Vilnius, has come out in opposition to the plan, which is backed by the Lithuanian government, the official leadership of the local Jewish community supports it.

Burshtein and other rabbis, including senior Israeli haredi leaders such as Shmuel Auerbach, Meir Soloveitchik, Israel Isaac Kalmanovitz and Tzvi Rotberg, believe that the construction would lead to the “desecration of graves.”

Other rabbis, affiliated with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, however, have endorsed the plan.

The issue of cemetery has caused significant friction between Lithuania and world Jewry, Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told The Jerusalem Post by phone from Lithuania, adding that his organization is firmly in the opposition camp.

While he was not aware of the circumstances of the incident described by Burshtein, Zuroff said that such a thing was not outside of the realm of possibility.

“There were certain criticisms of his performance as a rabbi before this started, but this apparently upgraded the opposition to his continuing as rabbi of the community. The community itself is in favor [of the project] but there are many Jewish organizations, ourselves included, who are against it,” he said.

“As long as some rabbis gave the okay, the community did not see a problem,” he added, asserting that since the local community is small, its “ability to withstand government pressure is limited.”

The Post was unable to reach community head Faina Kukliansky, who is currently on vacation. The Lithuanian government did not reply to a request for comment.

Lithuanian Jews and the Simon Wiesenthal Center entered into a public dispute earlier this year when Zuroff critiqued the community for inviting a historian accused of distorting the Holocaust to a commemoration.

After Zuroff accused Kukliansky of having caused her nation’s Jewish community to “forfeit its role as custodian and guardian of Shoah memory,” the community leader told the Post that she was consulting with legal counsel.

JTA contributed to this report.

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