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As Lukashenko Ramps Up Antisemitism, Will Putin Save the Last Jews of Belarus?

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The recent antisemitic outbursts of 'Europe's last dictator' were no accident. President Alexander Lukashenko needs a new scapegoat and so he's turned against the remaining Jews of Belarus
The recent antisemitic outbursts of 'Europe's last dictator' were no accident. President Alexander Lukashenko needs a new scapegoat and so he's turned against the remaining Jews of BelarusCredit: AP

Belarus’ Independence Day is celebrated on July 3rd, commemorating the Soviet army's liberation of the city of Minsk from the Nazis in 1944. This year, the country’s dictatorial leader, Alexander Lukashenko, used the official ceremonies to platform antisemitism.

He declared that, in contrast to the "tolerant" and "kind" people of Belarus, which allows the world to "spit in their faces" regarding the "holocaust of Belurusians," no one today would "dare to raise a voice and deny the Holocaust" because "the Jews have succeeded in making the whole world bow down to them." 

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The Israeli Foreign Ministry denounced his "unacceptable" comments and summoned the Belarusian chargé d’affaires in Israel to discuss them. However, this did not stop Lukashenko’s regime from doubling down on the good old recipe of an international Jewish conspiracy.

Just weeks later, the government-controlled media Belarus Today accused Belarusian Jewish groups, and individual Jewish leaders, of deliberate attempts to destabilize the Belarusian state – aided by Jewish funders from abroad, including, inevitably, George Soros.

The trigger was an absurd accusation that the Jewish community was consciously, and nefariously, choosing red and white brickwork and concrete for the design of the paths leading up to Holocaust memorials. Those are the colors adopted by the opposition to Lukashenko, in reference to the original flag of independent Belarus. Even the briefest glimpse at the range of Holocaust memorials to the 800,000 murdered Jews of Belarus featured in the community's recent ceremonies shows the emptiness of the claim.

The article directly pointed at Jewish organizations existing "mainly on foreign grants," noted as "interesting" that one of the groups to which the Jewish community's umbrella organization is affiliated was "based in Washington," and listed the names of several Belarusian Jews who had added the white-red-white flag to their social media profile pictures.

Belarusian opposition supporters seen through an old Belarusian national flag, as they light their smartphones to signal solidarity against dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko in MinskCredit: AP

Given the history of Jews in the country, this recent antisemitic turn amidst sustained repression against all forms of political opposition warrants attention.                 

Before the Second World War, up to one million Jews lived on the territory of what now constitutes modern-day Belarus, out of a total population of nine million. Belarus was then one of the principal centers of Jewish life in Europe, if not the world, in the religious, cultural and political realms.

The 'father' of Yiddish literature, Mendele Mokher Sfarim, the artist Marc Chagall, historian Simon Dubnov as well as future Israeli leaders Chaim Weitzmann, Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir all called pre-war Belarus home, illustrating the depth and breadth of this community.

Between 1941 and 1944, up to 80 percent of the community's members were exterminated: 40 percent of them by the German Nazi Einsatzgruppen, while the other half were killed by local pogroms or died of starvation or disease in ghettos.

By 1944, only 9 Jews could recall what was Jewish life like before the war in Brest-Litovsk – a city that was once nearly 70 percent Jewish.          

After the physical annihilation came the war on memory, and in this battle, the perpetrators were not the Nazis but the Soviets. Public discussion of the "particularist" extermination of the Jews and the testimony of the survivors was rapidly silenced, becoming a taboo subject.  

Volunteers perform the final rites before burying the remains of more than 1,200 Holocaust victims found on a building site in the Nazi-era ghetto of the town formerly known as Brest-Litovsk, BelarusCredit: AP

The targeted death of millions of Jews as Jews did not fit in the official narrative revolving around the heroism of partisans and Soviet forces, the tremendous losses fighting fascism and the suffering of the population as a whole.

On monuments erected to the memory of generalized victims of fascism, Jews fell under the overarching label of "peaceful inhabitants" or "Soviet citizens," while the last vestiges of Jewish life were erased. In Brest-Litovsk, a stadium was built over an old Jewish cemetery and the city’s main synagogue was turned into a cinema.

It is only after Belarus won independence in 1991 of that Belarusian Jews were able to engage with the memory of the Shoah. With the help of private Jewish funds, they began erecting the first monuments to the memory of Belarussian Jews as victims of the Final Solution. The relative opening of Belarus to the West, starting in the 2010s, and the gradual easing of entry regulations in the country, also facilitated the emergence of memorial and heritage tourism to Belarus by Israeli and American Jews.

This memorial tourism came to a halt in summer 2020 – and the Covid-19 pandemic was not to blame. Public discontent and protests had intensified in the wake of the August presidential election, widely considered rigged, notably because of Lukashenko’s dismissive response to the coronavirus, which he initially dismissed as a "mass psychosis" and then recommended treating by "drinking vodka," playing hockey or driving tractors.

Belarusian police in Minsk block a street during an opposition rally to protest presidential election results giving Alexander Lukashenko, president since 1994, 80 percent of the voteCredit: AP

But the pandemic was later useful as an excuse to unleash brutal repression. This year, he effectively closed the country's borders, and shut down internet access, leading to the departure of firms such as the Israeli-founded Viber from Minsk's high-tech park. The strongman accused, variously, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania or NATO of posing an existential threat to the Belarusian nation to legitimate the escalation of his authoritarianism.

When Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair flight be coerced into landing in Minsk, in order to arrest a prominent dissident, he was sending a clear threat to critics of the regime: Both inside and outside of Belarus, they were not safe.

The fear wrought by Lukashenko's violent campaign of intimidation has been keenly felt by the Jewish community. Some members of the Jewish community were already wary of engaging in pro-democracy protests for fear that the regime would single them out as yet another 'foreign' threat.  

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in World War II at the Brest Fortress memorial this yearCredit: Maxim Guchek via AP

Sam Kliger, head of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, notes the weight of this fear: "It is better for the [well-being of the] Jews of Belarus to remain loyal to the authorities." 

The denunciation of Lukashenko's "repeated" antisemitic language by exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, after a meeting with Kliger, may establish a clear red line between the regime and the opposition, but it's unlikely to cushion Belarus' Jews from retaliation and further accusations of being fifth columnists.

The same concern about the well-being of Belarus' Jews seems to be motivating, and modifying, Israel's official behavior. According to an Israeli government official justifying the decision of then-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to congratulate Lukashenko on Belarus’ Independence Day, "Israel shows sensitivity to the well-being of the Jewish community in Belarus and therefore prefers not to confront the Lukashenko administration."                

Despite Israel adopting this pragmatic stance, it may be that Lukashenko will not respond to such prudence, just as he has batted away Western sanctions. His regime is in need of yet more domestic and external enemies to legitimize his hard-handed rule, having effectively suppressed all the country's independent media and NGOs - and Jews fit the bill.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pose for a photo on a boat during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi this yearCredit: Sergei Ilyin,AP

Strangely enough, the most powerful potential brakes on Lukashenko unleashing antisemitism as a weapon could be his ultra-supportive neighbor and fellow authoritarian, Vladimir Putin.

Despite his instrumentalization of what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War to assert moral superiority over the West, since the 2000s, Putin has largely has adopted a positive stance towards Russian Jews, leading to a certain, controlled revival of the country’s Jewish life – as long as they don't dissent.

The leaders of Russia and Belarus have serially learned from one another strategies and tactics to repress criticism of their rule. It is a painful irony that the safety of the Belarusian Jewish community, numbering barely 10,000 people, and the continued activity of the organizations that have tried over the years to keep alive the historical memory of the country’s once vigorous Jewish presence, may lie in the leverage Putin has over Lukashenko.

Milàn Czerny is a graduate student in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Oxford. Twitter: @milanczerny

Boris Czerny is a professor at the University of Caen, Normandy, and a specialist in Jewish culture in the states of the former USSR

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