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WASHINGTON, June 21 (Itar-Tass) - The leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement say that their dispute with Russia over the so-called Schneerson collection is not over following its transfer to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow.
They said through their lawyers in a U.S. court in Washington D.C. on Thursday, June 20, that they are dissatisfied with Russia’s decision. The hearing brought together Chassid leaders from New York, California and Israel.
Attorney Nathan Lewin said, however, that the issue is being discussed at the inter-governmental talks between the United States and Russia and asked the court for another postponement until August 20 pending their conclusion.
He expressed hope that the issue would be settled amicably in accordance with Chabad’s legitimate rights through negotiations that involve the U.S. Department of State.
Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court did not object. He had earlier fined Russia 50,000 U.S. dollars a day for refusing to comply with an earlier 2010 decision ordering the return of tens of thousands of religious books and manuscripts to the Jewish Group Chabad-Lubavitch. Up to date, the fine has amounted to 8 million U.S. dollars.
The judge said his ruling was fair and made several strong remarks with regard to Russia, calling it “scofflaw and outlaw”. He claimed that the library had become the property of Russia in a discriminatory manner, not for public needs and without fair compensation.
The complainants said they might demand that Russian property in the U.S. be seized as compensation. The Russian authorities have replied by saying that Russia would take “strong countermeasures” against attempts to seize its property in the United States.
“The situation concerning the American federal court's ruling on the ‘Schneerson Collection’ is unacceptable,” the ministry said.
It described it as “legally null and void” and “contrary to international law”.
Lewin’s daughter and partner Eliza Lewin told ITAR-TASS that the issue of collecting fines from Russia has not even started to be discussed yet. When asked who can initiate the discussion, she gave a nod in the direction of the Chassid leaders, who, however, referred all questions to their lawyers.
Russia is not participating in the hearings as it questioned the jurisdiction of the American court in this case from the very beginning. However the Lewins stressed that Russian officials are aware of the developments and maintain contact with them.
According to the rabbis who attended the court hearing, the new Jewish centre in Moscow has only about 10 percent of the collection, which in their words consists of some 12,000 books and manuscripts, and about 30,000 pages are kept separately.
Rabbi Levin, who heads Chabad’s library in New York, said he had travelled to Moscow about 13 years ago and personally identified nearly 4,500 items from the collection by special marks.
In 2010, the Russian Foreign Ministry recalled that the Chassids had received seven books from the Schneerson collection in 1994 through the Library of U.S. Congress and have been holding them since then. The ministry even considered initiating legal action against them. However Eliza Lewin told ITAR-TASS that no such lawsuit has been filed so far, to the best of her knowledge.
President Vladimir Putin said earlier this month that the transfer of the Schneerson collection to the Jewish Museum and the Tolerance Centre in Moscow will put an end to disputes over this issue.
“I hope that the transfer to the Jewish Museum and the Tolerance Centre of the ‘Schneerson library’, which is undoubtedly not only of interest but also of value to Russian Jews, will close this question once and for all,” Putin said when visiting the Museum on June 13.
He noted that any person, no matter where he lives, can come to the Museum and study the manuscripts and books from the collection.
Documents from the “Schneerson Stock” are open to the general public and any person can read them if he knows Yiddish or Hebrew. The documents can be read only in the reading room and are well protected.
Legally, the collection will remain the property of the State Library, but will actually be kept in the premises owed by the Jewish Museum.
The Schneerson library is a collection of ancient Jewish books and manuscripts collected by Hasidic Rabbis. They led the Chabad movement in Lubavitchi, Belarus, in the territory of Russia’s modern Smolensk Region, which movement was the centre of one of the braches of Hasidism.
The library was founded in the early 20th century by Lubavitcher Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson on the basis of the collection put together since 1772. It now holds 12,000 books and 50,000 rare documents, including 381 manuscripts.
During World War I, Schneerson moved to Rostov on Don and sent a part of his library to Moscow for safekeeping. This part is now kept at the Russian State Library, and the other part was taken out of the country by Schneerson in 1927. Eventually it fell into the hands of the Nazi. Schneerson himself moved to New York.
He died in 1950, leaving no instructions concerning the library.