Russia ends probe into claims of incitement in Jewish text
Decision follows meeting between Olmert, Russian PM; probe into Jewish group also dropped.
Russia's state prosecutor announced Tuesday afternoon that he is canceling an investigation into claims that a 19th century abridged code of Jewish law (halakha) contains incitement against non-Jews.
The preliminary investigation of the Jewish umbrella organization for distributing a Russian translation of the text has also been dropped. The lawyer for Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar was informed of the decision.
"There's no reason to persecute a whole sector of society because of religious texts held sacred to them. The decision to launch an investigation was a mistake," said a source at the attorney general's office.
The report of the investigations, first revealed Monday in Haaretz, sparked widespread expressions of concern from Israel as well as Jewish and human rights groups worldwide.
The decision to cancel the probe came following a meeting Tuesday morning between Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.
Olmert, who is on an official state visit to Russia, told Fradkov that Israel expects Moscow to take substantial steps to combat anti-Semitism in the country, and not suffice with verbal condemnations.
In a personal letter to Putin, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, wrote Tuesday that the probe evoked the anti-Semitic persecution of the Stalin era.
Israeli and Jewish officials, human rights activists and Russian journalists have spent the last few days trying to understand what has caused the prosecutor to order the preliminary investigation of the Jewish umbrella organization for distributing a Russian translation of the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh.
They want to know whether it is an expression of anti-Semitism in the Russian prosecution or an investigation ordered by the Kremlin.
The Shulhan Arukh was compiled by Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid-16th century and is considered to be the authoritative text on Jewish law.
On Thursday, attorneys from the Moscow prosecutor's office questioned Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, the chairman of the Congress of Jewish Organizations. The prosecution, which is subordinate to Russia's state prosecution, said it summoned him to discuss the text, and the meeting was described as a preliminary investigation of the congress and its leaders, who are suspected of racist incitement, a criminal violation.
Prosecution officials asked Kogan questions regarding the identities of those responsible for translating, printing and distributing the book in Russia. They also asked him about his editing considerations.
Jewish groups in Russia were angered and shocked by Kogan's interrogation.
"We're trying to clarify what is behind the decision," Rabbi Lazar said.
Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinhas Goldschmidt said he was "astonished" by the prosecution's actions.
Israeli government officials believe that Kogan's interrogation cannot pass unquestioned. They said that for state officials to question a Jewish religious leader on the content of religious writings is "an event the likes of which have not occurred for decades, not in Russia and not in other countries with which Israel has diplomatic ties."
What makes the case even worse in Israel's view is that the Russian Foreign Ministry has until now ignored requests for an explanation of the interrogation. Political officials in Israel said Monday they think "the Kremlin expects gestures from Israel in exchange for the elimination of the affair."
Some Russian analysts support this interpretation. Anton Nosik, a well-known independent Russian journalist, said the current situation is comfortable for the Kremlin. He expects Russian President Vladimir Putin to increase the price he plans to extract from Israel the worse the problem is depicted.
"When you ask the Kremlin for a favor, it can be assumed that the Kremlin will ask favors in return," said Nosik. However, he thinks that in this case the investigation does not come from the top. "The assumption that the prosecution got instructions from above cannot be reconciled with the inconsistent behavior it has shown throughout the affair," he said.
In January, the Russian state prosecution was asked in a petition to open an investigation into the Jewish organizations in Russia suspected of spreading hate via their sacred texts. Some 500 people signed the petition, about 20 of whom are members of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.
Those who submitted the petition retracted it and submitted a second one about a month later, this time with 5,000 signatures. On June 10, the prosecution said the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh is injurious to the feelings of non-Jews, but that there was no reason to open a criminal investigation against the Jewish group that distributed the book. But Wednesday the chief prosecutor of Moscow called for a renewed assessment of the case.