Right of Reply: There is no anti-Semitism in Belarus

Belarus envoy to Israel defends comments his President recently made.

By IGOR LESHCHENYA
October 27, 2007 19:56
3 minute read.
Lukashenko 88

Lukashenko 88. (photo credit: )

 
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For more than four years, I served as one of the assistants to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. I know his attitude toward the Jewish people. And I know this without mediators. I participated in a meeting with the president when he said we need to be as clever as Jews are to build a prosperous state. And I can say that his attitude is especially warm toward immigrants to Israel originating in Belarus, He has repeatedly said that these people are still dear and not strangers. As the president said in July, 2006: "We are not indifferent to their lives.... There is conflict there - it hurts." I understand that the tragic history of the Jewish people over thousands of years makes them sensitive to any mentioning of the word "Jew" by any politician. On the one hand there are words, and on the other hand, there are actions, which show the true and kind attitude toward Jews in Belarus. This might be confirmed by those who once lived in Belarus, those who remember Belarusians before World War II, and those who know them now. During the past five or six centuries, Jewish people felt safe and secure on Belarusian land, as they did nowhere else in the region. There were almost no pogroms of Jews in the present Belarusian territories. This is confirmed by the Belarus Museum of Jewish History and Culture. According to the census of 1926 in eastern Soviet Belarus, the Jewish community comprised 8.2 percent of the population. In the 1920s and '30s, Yiddish was together with Belarusian, Polish and Russian one of the state languages of Belarus. There were even Yiddish words inscribed in the state emblem of Belarus. SIXTY-FOUR years ago, fascists exterminated the Minsk Ghetto, one of the largest in Europe and the second largest in the USSR after the Lvov Ghetto. There were up to 100,000 prisoners on several streets encircled with barbed wire. Jews from seven countries in Europe were brought here to be killed. Only 3,500 people managed to break through the fence and survive, supported by Belarusians. At present, 567 Belarussians have been awarded the title, "Righteous Among the Nations." However, searches for these people started only in the 1990s, when not only most survivors, but also witnesses of their deeds had already passed away. I am confident that if a thorough search of citizens of the Republic of Belarus had begun in 1967, Belarus would have been the top country in the list of the Righteous Among the Nations. World War II represented a common tragedy both for Belarussians and Jews. During the war, every third Belarusian and every third Jew died; a total of about three million people, 850,000 of them Jews. In 2001, President Lukashenko participated in the opening ceremony of the Yama Memorial in the former Minsk Ghetto. Inside a preserved building, a historical workshop was opened that is now a center for studying the Holocaust. Minsk also has a street named in memory of Mikhail Gebelev, one of the leaders of the anti-fascist underground organization. And a memorial tablet is mounted where Isai Kozinetz, the hero of the Minsk underground organization, lost his life. Bobruisk, which was a city with with a large Jewish population, has inaugurated an alley for the Righteous Among the Nations. This summer I visited Bobruisk with other heads of Belarusian diplomatic missions abroad. At present, the Jewish community in Bobruisk is not so large. But the city is literally saturated by Jewish history. It is remembered and taken care of. It is the pride of the city. Visiting Bobruisk, as ambassador to the State of Israel, I was the most popular head of any Belarusian diplomatic mission. A Jerusalem Post reader from Canada reported that two years ago, he visited Bobruisk, and "the town itself is nothing to write home about." In fact, the city was renovated and has gotten prettier. And it is a tribute of respect and remembrance to numerous generations of Jews who were natives of the city. Belarus and anti-Semitism are incompatible notions. Even quite subjective international Jewish agencies acknowledge that in our country, Jewish people are treated better than in other countries of the region. Beginning in 2003, for every two citizens of Belarus leaving the country for permanent residence in Israel, we find one citizen of Israel granted permission for permanent residency in Belarus. Jews would never go back to an anti-Semitic country. And Israel's Ambassador in Minsk, Ze'ev Ben-Aryeh, has repeatedly said that there is no anti-Semitism in Belarus as a state phenomenon. The writer is the Belarus ambassador to Israel.

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