Sunday, June 24, 2012

Anti-Semitic fog around Latvia's Jewish restitution issues may hide other agendas

That most Latvian of all holidays, the Midsummer Līgo celebration is over (technically, today, June 24, as I write, is still Jānis Day, from which the holiday derives its name of Jāņi). Normally this signals the start of a respite from active politics, since the Saeima (lovingly called the “Monkey House” by some journalists) is in recess. This year, on the eve of Jāņi, a moderate political earthquake hit as Minister of Justice Gaidis Bērziņš of the National Alliance resigned in protest over what he said was a dispute over government plans to deal with the issue of restitution of property seized after 1940 to some Jewish organizations.
By some accounts, the value of this property – buildings and land in Riga and other places around Latvia – is around LVL 30 million.  That is not some cash payment the organizations want (as sometimes misinterpreted), but the estimated value of the properties, some of which may be unusable and unmarketable and would have to be compensated in cash should the plan go through.
The National Alliance objects to the government’s plans to reopen the restitution process (begun more than 20 years ago) for the sake of one interest/religious/ethnic group. This is not in and of itself an unreasonable position. Even Jewish community spokesmen have said that they would welcome the government allowing other ethnic, religious or social organizations to recover property that they are entitled to, but have not managed to claim to date.
However, the debate has stimulated a very ugly torrent of hateful, anti-Semitic comments in Latvian news portals. To what extent this reflects the views of society or just of a small core of crazies using different pseudonyms is unclear. But the stuff they are writing is pretty deranged:

Damned Jews!  Those (obscenity censored by the portal’s bot) sent money from the USA to Hitler to run his war machine. That’s how they got their state. Asking compensation from Latvia which belonged to the Urals or Germany. Wrecked banks! And now they ask for their property? Adolf, where are you?

If you are a Jew, it is best if you immediately shoot yourself.  Jews are the bloodsuckers of other nations.


Not without reason this nation was hated during Czarist times and they were deprived of all rights. The Soviet system allowed them to awaken and rename themselves with Russian last names and make up the name Hebrews, because the name Jews(žīdi, neutral in Latvian, but reminiscent of the abusive “zhid” in Russian)sounded derogatory to them. The Jews throughout history have done more harm to the world than all wars taken together. If someone were to add up all the owners of capital in the world, a not very pleasant scene would be revealed – we are all dependent on their greed.

While these rantings rarely get translated and presented outside of Latvia, anyone reading the portals uncritically could get the impression that Latvia is a profoundly anti-Semitic country, distorting the debate over restitution to Jewish organizations as a purely “anti-Semites against the Jews”  issue, which it is not.
The issue is one of making an exception for organizations that have some break in their historical continuity to recover property after established deadlines. In the case of Latvia’s Jews, with much of the community destroyed in the Holocaust, it is no surprise that some Jewish organizations had no direct “heirs”,  even if they were reconstituted in the years since Latvia regained its independence in 1991. It is also claimed that the Jewish organizations seeking to regain properties mainly have Russian Jewish immigrants as their members, and have little or no continuity with the Latvian Jewish organizations that were expropriated in 1940.
One analogy that could be drawn (hypothetically) is that of an Irish Catholic congregation in the US that has some of its property taken illegally in, say, 1970, and drags the case through the courts and other institutions for more than four decades. In the mean time, the Irish Catholics are replaced by Latin Americans, who are no less Catholic, but of a different ethnic background.
This will not really work in Latvia, because when it comes to “ethnicity”, the current Jewish community is seen as “Russian” and representing the “occupation” (even if many moved to Latvia during the Soviet era because it was seen as one of the least anti-Semitic areas of the USSR). A few persons associated with “anti-Latvian” causes, such as Vladimirs Lindermans, one of the instigators of the referendum to make Russian a second state language, is understood to be Jewish. So is Aleksandrs Giļmans, an ex- politician who has cast doubt on the historical condemnation of the June 14, 1941 deportation of thousands of Latvian citizens (including a disproportionate number of Jews). That, for many Latvians, is the equivalent of Holocaust denial for Jews.
By creating a medium intensity political crisis (not quite toppling the government), the resignation of Bērziņš comes as a confluence of the worst possible factors – perceived and real anti-Semitism in Latvia, issues of restitution for the Soviet and Nazi eras (it was actually the Soviet occupation that confiscated Jewish property, the Germans didn’t get their chance) and suspicions that the whole thing actually is a symptom of bigger (?) political sharks fighting under the murky waters.
The National Alliance seems to be shrugging off the anti-Jewish tempests in several internet teacups that its move has set off. The party alliance itself cannot be labeled as anti-Semitic, even though one of its former(?) spokesmen, Jānis Iesalnieks, triggered a discussion of the possibility of “intelligent anti-Semitism” – whatever than means? Is it criticizing Israel’s policies (a legitimate issue, but Israel is a state, not some hazy entity called “the Jews”). Or what?
What the National Alliance may be hoping to gain is threefold – to have the government retreat on the Jewish restitution issue or open the matter to “all” ethnic and religious organizations, to replace Bērziņš with its new candidate for Justice Minister (keeping that post) and to perhaps unseat Daniels Pavļuts of the Reform Party as Minister of Economics. The Harvard-trained minister’s party, according to the latest voter polls, would get 1.8% in an election held today, putting it well below the  5% threshold for being seated in the Saeima and making the party political “ dead meat” waiting topple over when the next Saeima elections come.
Who else may be behind the scenes? There have been guesses that the beleaguered Ventspils mayor and oligarch Aivars Lembergs could be pulling the strings. His main benefit would be political instability and bringing international attention to “anti-Semitic Latvia” rather that to his case. A Latvian court said it would enforce a British court ruling freezing some USD 135 million in Lembergs assets. It could be the beginning of the end, and he is using his waning political influence to pull down as much of the house around him as possible.
As for the Jewish properties, the picture is not clear. Conflicting lists exist of what is in question – some properties have already been returned (Bikur Holim hospital), while others look abandoned, in bad shape or in the hands of “owners”  who seem to have obtained title to them from the Latvian state by murky means. What this may actually expose – whether that was the purpose of the Jewish community’s requests or not—is the mess or “bardaks”  that still exists concerning unclaimed and “difficult” properties 21 years after Latvia regained its independence.