Belarus is a special case even against the background of some of the more troublesome members of the former Soviet Union. Its president Alexander Lukashenko, who had been dubbed "Europe's last dictator," is notorious for his anti-Western positions. He has sought to outlaw his political opposition and nationalize much of the media. Last week he delivered a long rambling rant in which he reminded anyone who may have forgotten that he also ranks among the world's most unabashed and brazen anti-Semites.
It wasn't a slip of the tongue that could be conveniently overlooked. In a live broadcast of a press conference he gave, Lukashenko addressed himself to the issue of shoddy conditions in the provincial city of Bobruisk. He had no doubt about where the guilt lay - with the Jews. And he kept hammering home that message. For several extraordinary minutes, the president of a European state in the 21st century took unimaginable pains to blame the city's former Jewish residents (it's now nearly empty of Jews) for its squalor, dilapidation and poor state of sanitation and repair.
Bobruisk, Lukashenko stressed to his listeners, "is a Jewish town and Jews don't look after places in which they live. It's a fact. Take Israel for example. I was there and saw it for myself." Bottom line, Lukashenko determined that "Jews had turned Bobruisk into a pig sty." Things began to look up, he contended, "only after the Jews departed." That said, he still urged those "Jews who have money" to return to Bobruisk.
This wasn't a one-off either. Lukashenko has a long and dishonorable history of anti-Semitic diatribes. His most noted outburst dates back to 1995, when he went to great lengths to praise Adolf Hitler, asserting that "the history of Germany is a copy of the history of Belarus. Germany was raised from ruins thanks to firm authority and not everything connected with that well-known figure Hitler was bad. German order evolved over the centuries and attained its peak under Hitler."
Belarus today is rife with anti-Semitic incidents, including cemetery desecrations, vandalism of Holocaust memorials and attacks against Jewish community sites. Lukashenko nevertheless dismisses these, insisting that "there's no anti-Semitism in Belarus." His country is officially home to sanctioned construction over Jewish cemeteries, overt activities of neo-Nazi parties, permission for anti-Jewish demonstrations and the publication of hate books.
Lukashenko has also bestowed the title of "Honored Figure of Culture" on his personal aide, Eduard Skobelev, who advocated using guns "to solve the Jewish problem." Lukashenko is much praised on neo-Nazi Web sites.
In response to Lukashenko's latest assault, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni summoned Belarus's ambassador, Igor Laschenya, to hear a condemnation, and Israel's ambassador to Minsk, Ze'ev Ben-Aryeh, currently on home leave, may delay his return as an expression of protest. He accused Lukashenko of dredging up anti-Semitic canards "which portray Jews as negligent, filthy and stinking. To hear Lukashenko, Bobruisk's affairs and budgets are in Jewish hands rather than in those of the authorities." Ben-Aryeh dryly expressed the hope that "one day Bobruisk particularly and Belarus's social services in general would begin to reach the level of those in Israel."
But this problem goes beyond Bobruisk, its long-gone Jews and Lukashenko's unquestioned bigotry. It transcends this specific calumny because such defamation is typical of what still festers in too many European minds, including in dark places like Belarus, whose population was virulently anti-Semitic for centuries and collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, helping to annihilate 90% of the country's Jewish population.
The tirade and its context ought not just concern Israel and Jews everywhere. As Livni correctly stated, "It's the responsibility of world leaders to battle anti-Semitism, which still rears its ugly head in many locations worldwide... [and] certainly not promote it," as Lukashenko avidly does.
She was also right to note that "anti-Semitism reflects first and foremost on the community in which it appears." More than angering Israelis, it ought to provoke fury in Belarus. Until ordinary Belarussians acknowledge and deplore their nation's bleak record and until they loudly, clearly and effectively dissociate themselves from the sort of hate-mongering in which their own president engages, the shame and ignominy will be theirs as well as his.