'We don't want to politicize the synagogues'

In Belarus, ‘Europe’s last dictatorship,’ Jews fear police but not anti-Semitism

As mass protests build against Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, Jewish communal organizations maintain careful policy of political neutrality

Illustrative: Belarusian opposition supporters rally in the center of Minsk, Belarus, on August 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Illustrative: Belarusian opposition supporters rally in the center of Minsk, Belarus, on August 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

As security services and protesters clashed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk last week, riot policemen grabbed Alexander Fruman off the street, bundling him off to a police station where, he says, he was beaten with a rubber truncheon and showered with anti-Semitic insults.

Fruman, who has since been released, was visiting his native Belarus to connect with extended family on a roots tour, but currently resides in the central Israeli city of Modiin. He said that police forced him, under threat of violence, to sing patriotic songs proclaiming longtime strongman Alexander Lukashenko “the best president in the world.”

After finding out that he was Israeli (he does not have Belarus citizenship), officers told him that “it was time for me to have another circumcision,” Fruman told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation.

Fruman’s experience is certainly harrowing. However, it appears to be an outlier in a rapidly escalating conflict in which local Jews say that they have experienced no anti-Semitism despite the increasingly violent government crackdown. (At least two other Israelis were detained and subsequently released, according to the Foreign Ministry.)

Alexander Fruman. (Facebook)

Following a disputed election on August 9, in which Lukashenko claimed to have won about 80 percent of the vote, hundreds of thousands of citizens — angered by decades of political repression, economic stagnation and a lackluster response to the COVID-19 pandemic — took to the streets of Minsk and other cities across the country to demand his resignation.

Alexander Fruman, displaying some of his injuries, and his Israeli passport. (courtesy)

Known as “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, coming out on top in repeated elections criticized by Western governments and human rights organizations as blatantly rigged.

Responding to one of the worst threats to his hold on power in years, Lukashenko has unleashed his security services on protesters, detaining thousands across the country and reportedly calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene to shore up his regime.

There are at least two confirmed cases of protesters being killed in the cities of Minsk and Gomel, and human rights activists have accused police of torturing detained protesters. According to Human Rights Watch, as of last week, at least 7,000 people had been taken into custody.

Some members of the 20,000-strong Jewish community have also been caught up in the sweeps. Last week, Artur Raisky and Albert Kengerli, both former leaders of the local Reform Zionist youth movement Netzer, were picked up by police as tensions rose the evening before the election.

Artur Raisky. (Union for Reform Judaism)

“We were just walking on the street downtown going to McDonalds and suddenly riot police came to up us and took us to a police bus,” Raisky told The Times of Israel during a telephone interview from Minsk. Raisky, 25, is an employee of Russian internet giant Yandex and currently lives in Moscow. He was in Minsk visiting family.

Raisky said he was incarcerated for three days, during which time he was held at three different facilities, often in overcrowded and uncomfortable conditions. Unlike Fruman, he denied being treated any differently from other detainees because he was Jewish.

According to Ilya Bezruchko, a representative of the Washington-based National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry in Ukraine, Raisky and Kengerli, both of whom have since been released, were picked up as part of a pre-election sweep by authorities to remove people who looked likely to protest from the streets.

“I don’t think they differentiate between people,” Bezruchko said. “For them it’s not important if we are Belarusian or Jewish.”

While Raisky said that he supports the protests and that a number of his Jewish friends have taken to the streets, local communal organizations have taken pains to emphasize that whatever individuals may do, the country’s Jews as a whole do not hold any one political position.

Repressive but not anti-Semitic

In a series of interviews, Belarusian Jewish leaders firmly denied increased anti-Semitism during the election and protests.

“Our Jewish community is not a political organization, so we do not make any statements on the political situation,” Victoria Brumina, the executive director of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities, one of the primary organizations representing the country’s Jews, told The Times of Israel. “The only thing I can say is that we have no information about anti-Semitic allegations or anti-Semitism during this election.”

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko after voting at a polling station with a Belarusian national flag on the left, during the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, August 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

“People in the community aren’t being targeted,” agreed Mark Levin, the Executive Vice-Chairman of the NCSEJ.

And while Lukashenko has made “some outrageous statements” about the community over the years, anti-Semitic incidents are rare, he said, referring to a 2007 statement in which the president accused local Jews of turning the city of “Bobruisk into a pig sty,” and a 2015 comment regarding the failure of a Jewish official “to take all the Jews of Belarus under control.”

Despite the government’s many faults, Belarus has seen little of the ethnically tinged politics common in other Central and Eastern European nations in recent years.

Ukraine’s 2014 revolution saw a string of violent attacks against members of the local Jewish community and during the subsequent Russo-Ukrainian war, both sides weaponized allegations of anti-Semitism as part of their respective propaganda campaigns.

In the run-up to this year’s Polish presidential election, the government-dominated state television network warned that if opposition candidate Rafal Trzaskowski won, he would betray Polish interests by paying Holocaust restitution money to satisfy Jewish claims.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly blamed his country’s problems on Jewish financier George Soros, drawing harsh criticism from the local community, and Lithuanian Jews have expressed concern over their safety due to nationalist backlash over their opposition to the government’s rehabilitation of Holocaust collaborators.

Apolitical volunteers

According to Raisky’s rabbi, Grisha Abramovich, who is affiliated with the Religious Union for Progressive Judaism, at least one other member of the community has been arrested, leading him to close his downtown Minsk synagogue on Friday evening to prevent congregants from being accidentally caught up in the police dragnet as they passed near the protests.

Speaking with The Times of Israel, Abramovich expressed an ambivalence toward the protests that highlighted the constraints under which local religious leaders have to operate under Lukashenko’s regime.

“In my personal opinion as a rabbi, I suggest that people not risk their lives or violate the law, but on the other hand I can’t tell them what to do or where to go or not go,” he said.

He added that while his community is apolitical, a number of its members have been volunteering to provide aid to detainees and their families on a purely humanitarian basis, and he personally objects to the use of violence against demonstrators.

“I don’t want to politicize the synagogue. When asked which side I’m on, I don’t answer, and if asked if I’m happy to help those beaten or taken to prison, my answer is yes — but it has nothing to do the politics, it has to do with taking care of each other,” Abramovich explained, adding that his efforts were not an official community project.

“We ask people what help is needed after they are released, if they need support, food, water, clothes or maybe financial support for a number of days,” Abramovich said.

Police use truncheons on protesters during a mass protest following presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 10, 2020 (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Medical student Eva Fradkina is one of the young Jews who went out of her way to help those affected by the violence. Speaking to The Times of Israel from her hometown of Vitebsk, she described bringing medical supplies to a local protest in an effort to assist the injured.

“I tried to stop the bleeding and tried to help people with wounds but the police tried to stop me from helping people,” she recalled. “I ran away because the police took out their batons and told me to go home and not to interfere. I tried to explain to the police that I didn’t want to fight, I wanted to help but they didn’t understand me and they tried to threaten me.”

But despite the growing violence against all protesters, there appears to be little fear that the violence could lead to the Jewish community itself being specifically targeted.

“There is no anti-Semitism that I am aware of,” Sholom Malinkin, chairman of the Chabad-linked Association of Jewish Communities of Belarus, told The Times of Israel, stressing that the demonstrations in Belarus were fundamentally different from the ones that brought down Ukraine’s president six years ago.

“We’re not afraid about the situation,” Malinkin said.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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