23 October 2007

Lukašenka in hot water over anti-Semitic comments

Belarus and Israel are in the middle of a diplomatic spat over controversial comments made recently by Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukašenka (Lukashenka) about Belarusian and Israeli Jews.

Speaking to Russian journalists in Minsk on 12 October, Lukašenka declared,

If you have been to Babrujsk [Babruysk], did you see what state the city is in? It was scary to walk into it, it was a pigsty. It was largely a Jewish city; you know how Jews act towards the place they live in. Take a look at Israel; I have been there, for one.... Under no circumstances do I want to hurt them, but they do not really make sure that the grass is mowed like in Moscow, among the Russians, or Belarusians. What a city it was.... We fixed it up, and we say to Israeli Jews: Come back, guys. I told them: Come back with money.

Five days later, the Israeli ambassador to Belarus, Zeev Ben-Arie, protested in no uncertain terms, saying that "in these comments, one can hear echoes of a myth that I had hoped had long been buried by the history of enlightened mankind, about poorly dressed, dirty, foul smelling Jews, an anti-Semitic myth." Ben-Arie also said he hoped that "Belarusian cities would reach the level of Israel's municipal services and social services in general."

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni accused Lukašenka of anti-Semitism, saying

It is the responsibility of world leaders to battle anti-Semitism, which rears its ugly head in various places around the world, not promote it. Anti-Semitism reflects first and foremost on the community in which it appears, and on its leaders.

On 18 October, the Belarusian ambassador to Israel, Ihar Lia
ščenia (Liashchenia), issued a statement reminding Israelis that "during the last five or six centuries, Jews in our region did not feel as protected and safe anywhere as they did in the Belarusian lands.... This good attitude towards Jews, which has become traditional, persists in modern Belarus as well."

Regarding Babrujsk, Liaščenia remarked that the residents of the city,

with the help of the state, were trying to host the republic-wide harvest festival in a decent manner. The renewed, rebuilt city of Babrujsk is, among other things, a homage to many generations of members of the Jewish community whose native city this was.

"Belarus and anti-Semitism are mutually exclusive ideas," Liaščenia concluded (Белорусские новости).

One can't envy poor Liaščenia his duty of restoring calm after Lukašenka's gaffe. After all, Lukašenka managed to squeeze three typical anti-Semitic stereotypes into one statement: that Jews are allegedly dirty, that they allegedly have no attachment to the place they live in, and that they are simultaneously rich. That Liaščenia managed to turn Lukašenka's words around and portray the restoration of parts of Babrujsk as a homage to Jews is a credit to his quick thinking, or that of others in his embassy or the Belarusian foreign ministry.

Liaščenia is right on one thing. Belarus has historically been a highly tolerant place towards minorities (for instance, there were mosques in operation in Belarus centuries ago, while even in modern-day Greece and Slovenia, the very existence of mosques is a controversial issue). It remains tolerant to this day. However, as Lukašenka's words show, we Belarusians (yes, I am one) have some way to go towards living up to the image of tolerance we always congratulate ourselves with.

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