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US Hasidic Jews continue dispute with Russia over Schneerson collection

January 17, 2013, 16:13 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The dispute between US Hasidic Jews with the Russian state over a collection of books and documents commonly known as the Schneerson Library, which took rabbis in the Smolensk Region of Russia several hundred years to put together, has aggravated again in the wake of the latest decision by a US court. The litigation has long hindered the normal development of cultural ties between the two countries and is not supported by the US authorities by and large.

A District of Columbia court on Wednesday ruled the Russian government should pay a daily amount of 50,000 US dollars until the moment another court ruling has been fulfilled – in favor of the handover of the Schneerson Library to the religious group Chabad Lubavitch.

A US court in July 2010 ruled that Russia should give away the Schneerson book collection, currently being kept at the Russian State Library, to the Hasidic movement Chabad Lubavtich, of Brooklin (Agudas Chasidei Chabad). The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned this decision as running counter to international law, but refrained from taking any other steps. At the end of July 2011 a US court ordered launching a procedure of handing over about 12,000 books and 50,000 rare documents from the Schneerson collection to Chabad Lubavtich.

Those court decisions prevented Russian cultural organizations in Russia, in part, large museums, to participate in inter-cultural exchanges, because they enjoy no protection from complaints by third parties.

The US authorities were by no means happy over the dispute. The US Department of Justice said that the court was not in the position to impose such sanctions against Russia, and that these measures surely disagreed with the interests of the US foreign policy and even harmed it. However, the court ignored this opinion. The lawyers of the Hasidic movement said that they would be pressing for the arrest of Russian properties in the United States, if Russia continued to ignored court decisions.

In Thursday’s comments on the affair the Russian Foreign Ministry was very emphatic.

“We have repeatedly stated that this verdict is extra-territorial, runs counter to international law and is legally void,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The Schneerson collection was historically formed in the territory of our country. It is a national asset of Russia’s people and enjoys jurisdictional immunity as a state asset of the Russian Federation.”

“It is outrageous the Washington court dared take such a step, unprecedented and fraught with the most serious consequences, as the imposition of fines on a sovereign state,” the commentary runs. “We hope that the US authorities are aware that if Russian state assets not enjoying diplomatic immunity are subjected to arrest in the United States in conformity with Chabad Lubavtich demands, we shall be forced to take harsh retaliatory action.”

The collection of books on Judaism, put together in the Smolensk Region over several centuries by the family of the Schneersons (local rabbis and subjects of the Russian Empire) consists of 12,000 books and 50,000 manuscripts. The library was founded by the head of the community of Lubavitchi’s Hasidic Jews, Yitzchak Schneerson, on the basis of the collection formed since the 18th century. The Hasidic Jews consider the library as a religious shrine – it contains books on Hasidism starting from the early days of that movement, which emerged in Lubavitchi. Originally it belonged to 17th century rabbi Schneerson, whom the Hasidic Jews worship as a saint.

Part of the collection was nationalized by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and eventually deposited in the archive of the Lenin Library (currently the Russian State Library). Another part of the collection was taken out of the Soviet Union in the 1930s by Schneerson’s descendant, sixth rabbi in the family Joseph Schneerson. About 25,000 pages of manuscripts were seized by the Nazis. Later the Red Army transferred them to the Russian State Military Archive.

The Hasidic Jews have been demanding the library be handed over to them since the 1980s. USSR President Mikhail Gorbvachev received such a request from Mendel Schneerson, son-in-law and legal successor to Joseph Schneerson, who died in 1950. Some say Gorbachev had nothing against. However, bureaucratic delays lasted till the very breakup of the USSR in 1991. In 1992 Schneerson demanded that the leadership of sovereign Russia should give the collection to him. Boris Yeltsin voiced no great objections, either.

But the Hasidic Jews spoiled everything themselves. Several times they were about to storm the Russian State Library with the aim to get the manuscripts by force. Also, they fiercely beat up librarians and even police. A string of these and other scandals upset the handover of the Schneerson library to the Hasids.

In 1995 an inquiry found out that some manuscripts were missing. At the end of 1996, according to media reports, the missing manuscripts were found on the black market in Israel. In 2005 the Judaist religious movement Chabad addressed President Vladimir Putin with an official message to help secure the return of the Schneerson collection. There were no reports of a reply.

Then the Hasids decided to take the case to a US court.

As a result, exhibits from Russia’s museum fund stopped to be taken to the US for public display. For instance the exhibition Gaugin: Maker of Myth, held with a triumph in London in 2011, arrived at the National Gallery in Washington in a very contracted form – without the greatest hits from the Hermitage and the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum. Another high-profile exhibition, Canaletto and his Rivals, was harmed, too.

Problems with the legal status of artifacts and exhibits from Russian museums emerged more than once. Firstly, when displaced valuables – items taken by the Soviet troops from the museums of Germany and its allies after 1945 – began to be displayed to the general public. Secondly, when the legal heirs of collectors, whose collections were confiscated by the Soviet authorities in the territory of the USSR, began to file complaints. Thirdly, some works of art became central to litigations not connected with post-war restitution or claims by heirs, for instance, the arrest of masterpieces from the Pushkin Fine Arts museum collection on demands by the Swiss company Noga.