Estonian Jews stone faced in statue fray

Local Jews are trying to stay out of what has become an international melee.

estonian statue 88 (photo credit: )
estonian statue 88
(photo credit: )
Partisans on both sides are trying to draw this country's tiny Jewish population into the bitter fray over the Estonian government's decision to relocate a Soviet war memorial. The "Bronze Soldier," a statue representing a World War II-era Red Army fighter, was moved from its central downtown location to a military cemetery on the outskirts of town, sparking violent riots and retaliation from the Russian government. One rioter was killed, 150 were wounded and more than 1,000 were detained in the worst street violence to hit the Estonian capital since it left the Soviet orbit in 1991. Local Jews are trying to stay out of what has become an international melee. "We don't want to be small soldiers in a big war," said Alexander Dusman, chairman of the small Jewish community of Ida-Virumaa in northern Estonia. "It's very difficult to be in the middle." Ethnic Russians, who comprise one-quarter of Estonia's 1.3 million people, consider the statue's removal this spring as an insult to the Soviet Army, which liberated Estonia from Nazi occupation in 1944. Many ethnic Estonians, a majority of the country's population, view the 6-foot, 5-inch statue as a chafing reminder of the Soviet Union's 47-year postwar occupation of their country. "For Russians it's a symbol of liberation," Dusman said. "For Estonians it's a symbol of oppression." Proponents of the ethnics' position ostensibly seek Jewish support as a seal of approval to counter Russian charges that Estonian nationalism smacks of fascist revisionism. Pro-Russian opponents of the statue's removal believe Estonian Jews should be outraged at the lack of respect for the army that freed their country from the Nazis. No major Estonian Jewish organization has issued a formal position on the matter, opting to deal with the matter internally. Estonia's Jewish population numbers no more than 3,500. Dusman's community came to a consensus in a board meeting that the government's decision was ill advised, but has not gone public with it. "Maybe it's better for the Jewish community now to be more neutral," he said. One Israeli resident of the city described the scenes of smashed Estonian shop windows in the rioting as eerily reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany in November 1938. "It was like walking on a minefield," said Ronnie Vinnikov, senior advisor on Global FSU Jewry for the Jewish Agency for Israel. The rioting was followed by protests at Estonian embassies in Moscow and Kiev, the disruption of rail and trucking service between the two countries, and most recently what seems to be an orchestrated attack on Estonian government, banking and media Web sites. Estonian officials blame the Russian government. The leaders of both countries have spoken out harshly. At last month's dedication of the first postwar synagogue in Tallinn, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves talked about the "need for independence in the light of history." Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Estonia of reverting to fascism. "They're all playing the Jew card," said Yosef Kats, editor of the Jewish monthly Ha-Shahar. "It's between Russia and Estonia -- please leave us out of it." Kats' opinion is echoed by the chief rabbi of Estonia, Shmuel Kot, a Chabad-Lubavitcher. "This isn't a Jewish problem," he said. "The synagogue should be above all this." Estonian Jews are in a particularly difficult situation, bound not only by their mixed ethnic background but also their history and the increasingly hostile world of post-Soviet politics. "We have Estonians, Ukrainians and Russians," Dusman said. "Unfortunately the majority of them are under big propaganda from Russia." Most Estonian Jews are of Russian background, brought in by the Soviets to work skilled professions, or arriving of their own accord seeking jobs and university positions in what by Soviet standards was a more liberal environment for Jews. Many share the viewpoint of the Russian government that removing the statue is a desecration. For the older generation in particular, this argument strikes a strong chord. One 25-year-old interpreter, who wished to remain anonymous, recalls the war stories told by his great-grandfather, a highly decorated commander in the Red Army who fought from Moscow to Berlin. The young man, who grew up in an independent Estonia, has mixed feelings about the relocation. "The riot was a crime," he said, adding that it was the Estonian government's fault. He said also that the Russian government "could use the criminals," or rioters, to bolster its anti-Estonian position. While the Jewish community in Estonia has chosen to keep silent on the matter, some foreign Jews are speaking out. The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center called the memorial's removal an insult to the victims of Nazism. "It must never be forgotten that it was the Red Army which effectively stopped the mass murder conducted by the Nazis and their local collaborators on Estonian soil," the center's chief Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, told The Associated Press. Berel Lazar, one of Russia's two chief rabbis and a key Putin ally, has been especially vocal, suggesting in a recent statement to Interfax that the Estonian government is involved in an attempt to revive Nazism. "We know that extremist forces are raising their heads in some European countries, nursing plans to rehabilitate the Nazi ideology," he said. If Estonia -- better known for its mix of high-tech lifestyle and medieval architecture than for radical politics -- is indeed fostering dreams of rehabilitating the Reich, one would not get that impression from speaking to Jews living in the tiny member-state of the European Union. "Show me another country where the president and the prime minister come to the opening of a new synagogue and treat it as if it was their own holiday," Kot said. Although Kot was reticent to criticize comments made by Lazar, a spiritual leader for whom he says he has great respect, he seemed aware of the difficulties such comments can cause. "They are looking at the problem from a very narrow point of view," he said. "I don't think it helps the situation." Further complicating matters is the fact that many elderly Estonian Jews, struggling to make ends meet, draw both Estonian and Russian pensions. This makes them additionally disinclined to speak out on either side for fear of losing what is for many of them a key lifeline. Still, some Estonian Jewish leaders are willing to voice their opinions, albeit not in the name of their community. Dusman views the crisis as a manifestation of Russia's desire to restore its waning political and economic influence over its former satellites. "As for myself," he said, "I am sure that Russia is behind this."