26 February 2013, 20:47

Russia stands firm in Schneerson Library dispute

Russia stands firm in Schneerson Library dispute

Russia has solid legal reasons to keep the Schneerson Library on its territory, the country’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said. The U.S.-based Hasidic movement has rejected President Putin’s initiative to place the collection of books and religious documents in the European Tolerance Center in Moscow.

The situation has only deteriorated since the dispute over the Schneerson Library first broke out in the late 1980s. The Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the umbrella organization for the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has rejected Moscow’s compromise on offering free access to the books and manuscripts comprising the Schneerson collection. Actually, they are already available at the Russian State Library. The Hasidic movement wants the entire collection back. 

In January, the US District of Columbia Court ruled that Russia should pay $50,000 per day in fine unless it returns the collection. In response, President Putin suggested placing the archive in the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow. He also expressed his regret over the dispute reaching the point of confrontation, adding that the library does not belong to a particular Jewish community.

“If we agree that this national asset goes to anyone, we will open Pandora`s Box. If we start meeting their demands, we will see such kind of lawsuits streaming in”, Mr. Putin said.

The Schneerson Library is a collection of old Jewish books and manuscripts put together by Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson in the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century. Part of the collection was nationalized by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and eventually joined the Russian State Library collection. Schneerson managed to take the other part of the collection out of the Soviet Union while emigrating in the 1930s. About 25,000 pages of manuscripts from the collection were seized by the Nazis in 1939, then were regained by the Red Army and handed over to the Russian State Military Archive. Rabbi Schneerson died in 1950 leaving no instructions on what should be done to the library after his death. 

The issue came to the forefront again when in August of 2010 federal judge in the US District Court of Columbia, Royce Lamberth, ruled that the Schneerson archive should be handed back to the U.S.-based Hasidic movement. Two years later the District Court of Columbia issued a ruling saying that Russia should be fined for not returning the library. 

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has rejected all claims by Hasidic Jews, describing the decision of the US court ‘legally ungrounded’. The ministry also recommended the Russian State Library to fine the Library of Congress for not returning seven books from the Schneerson collection that had been given to Washington in 1994.

Meanwhile, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has cancelled plans to send 35 works by the early 20th century designer Paul Poiret to an exhibition in the Moscow Kremlin. Russia is not going to organize any exhibitions in the United States, either. No progress has been achieved in the talks over the Schneerson library but a scandalous battle in courts is already under way.

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