Lithuanian Jewish Community Shutters Capital’s Only Synagogue Over Antisemitic Threats

The Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu (C) speaks as he visits the the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius on August 26, 2018. (Photo by Petras Malukas / AFP) (Photo credit should read PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images)
PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty

TEL AVIV – The Lithuanian Jewish community on Tuesday announced that it was shutting its doors and those of Vilnius’s only synagogue in the face of antisemitic threats and incitement by right-wing nationalists. 

“In order to ensure the safety of members of the community and worshipers and without any indication that the proponents of this escalating provocation will be called to discipline or account publicly, in cases where the law provides for this, the LJC has been forced to make the painful but unavoidable decision to close the LJC building and the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius for an indeterminate period,” a statement by the chairwoman of the LJC, Faina Kukliansky, said.

The move came in the wake of nationwide protests over the removal of a plaque of Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika and the renaming of a street named after Kazys Škirpa, another Nazi ally, both revered as national heroes.

“In this atmosphere of rising tension and incitement to more tension, neither the LJC nor the synagogue in Vilnius have the means to ensure the safety of visitors, including Holocaust survivors and their families,” she noted.

Kukliansky also requested that additional security be put in place for the capital’s Jewish cemetery.

Decisions about reopening the synagogue and Jewish center would be “based on the general atmosphere and the positions adopted and expressed by Lithuanian political leaders regarding these issues,” she said.

“We would like to hear the opinion of the leaders of Lithuania and to hear a firm position on whether public propaganda in favor of honoring Holocaust perpetrators will continue to be tolerated in Lithuania,” she added.

The synagogue’s shuttering prompted the European Jewish Congress to call “on the authorities to take all necessary measures to protect the Jewish community, including taking a tougher line against those that threaten it like neo-Nazis.”

However, the move wasn’t welcomed by everyone in the Jewish community.

Simon Gurevicius, the chairman of the Jewish Community of Vilnius, which is a member of Kukliansky’s umbrella group, and leaders of five other Lithuanian Jewish communities published a statement on Wednesday condemning the decision.

“We regret that, due to her authoritarianism,” Kukliansky “makes inaccurate statements on behalf of all Lithuanian Jews and thus potentially defames other Jews in other parts of Lithuanian society without consulting the Jewish communities in Lithuania,” the statement said.

Gurevicius told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that threatening phone calls or letters are “not a reason to close the synagogue or the community.”

He noted that “Jews are safe in Vilnius,” and that despite a spike in antisemitic rhetoric, antisemitic violence is still rare in the Baltic nation.

“We need Lithuanian political leaders to take seriously the rise in antisemitism around the collaborators issue, and the Jewish community’s opposition to glorifying them. But this needs to come in constructive dialogue. Shutting down the Jewish community is not constructive,” Gurevicius said.

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