A Belarusian news outlet with ties to President Alexander Lukashenko accused the leaders of several Jewish communal organizations of supporting recent anti-government protests last week, intimating that they were in the pay of foreign actors.
More than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests broke out in the wake of Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was widely criticized as rigged.
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Cracking down on the protests, authorities have moved to shut down non-state media outlets and human right groups, and earlier this month, police searched offices of at least 14 rights groups, media, NGOs and charity groups, as well as the country's oldest political party.
The article, which ran on Belarus Today, a website directly controlled by Lukashenko’s Presidential Administration, asserted that the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities, an umbrella group, "exists mainly on foreign grants." It also called it "interesting" that member organization Hillel is headquartered in Washington and questioned Jewish groups’ ties with the European Union.
The site also published pictures taken from the social media profiles of several Belarusian Jews —such as Elena Kulevnich, director of Hillel Minsk— featuring the white-red-white of the flag of the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic, a color scheme adopted by anti-regime protesters. It was under this flag, the site averred, that these Jews’ “ancestors were exterminated."
Speaking through an intermediary, Kulevnich, who is also the deputy chair of the union, declined to comment on the article. So did a spokesman for Hillel in Washington, who sent Haaretz a link to a page on the organization’s website describing how it provides students in the former Soviet Union “the opportunity to explore and discover their Jewish roots for the first time.”
Belarus Today also appeared to accuse the umbrella group of using Holocaust memorials to push anti-regime messages, drawing attention to several monuments featuring a red and white color scheme erected in recent years.
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It cited Mordechai Reichenstein, one of two competing claimants to the title of chief rabbi, as stating that there was no basis for such a design decision in the Jewish tradition, and union chair Oleg Rogatnikovk, who called the design decision an “accident.”
“I don’t think it’s problematic,” Reichenstein told Haaretz when asked about the article, declaring that he and the Jewish community “don’t get involved in politics.”
Last December, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor in Belarus was convicted of an “unauthorized mass action” and fined nearly a month’s worth of her pension income for displaying the red-and-white flag on her balcony.
Defending herself in a Minsk court, Elizaveta Yakovlevna Bursova said that she “didn’t know [the flag] was banned,” adding that “the president walked under this flag for two years,” a reference to the fact that it was the country’s official flag early in Lukashenko’s tenure, which began in 1994.
According to Alexander Friedman, a historian at Humboldt University of Berlin, “the topic of Jews and the Holocaust was systematically used by state propaganda” after the outbreak of anti-regime protests late last year and Belarus Today “regularly publishes anti-Semitic articles.”
Prominent Jews like Hungarian philanthropist George Soros and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy were accused of organizing and sponsoring protests, and “supporters of the protest movement were declared the spiritual heirs of the Belarusian collaborators who, during the Second World War, participated, among other things, in the extermination of Jews,” he said.
“The purpose of the article is to intimidate the Jewish community, and possibly the preparation of purges in Jewish organizations in Belarus," Friedman said. "The Lukashenko regime wants to strengthen its control over Jewish organizations, which are especially suspicious because of their contacts and connections in the West.”
Emails to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry and its embassy in Israel were returned as undeliverable. The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
Earlier this month, Lukashenko made waves when he said that due to Jewish global power, "no one today would dare to raise a voice and deny the Holocaust." In contrast, Belarus has allowed the memory of the "holocaust of the Belarusian people" to be insulted, he claimed.
The remarks came only days after Reuven Rivlin, then Israel's president, sent him "good wishes" for his "personal well-being and for the ongoing progress and prosperity of your country and its people” on the occasion of his country’s Independence Day.
An Israeli government source told Haaretz at the time that "Israel shows sensitivity to the well-being of the Jewish community In Belarus and therefore prefers not to confront the Lukashenko administration," which is facing harsh sanctions from the United States and European Union after it diverted a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist in May.
Israeli digital intelligence company Cellebrite announced in March that it would stop selling its technology to Belarus after it was used to hack opposition forces and minorities in the country.
Reuters and JTA contributed to this report.