Russia Slams US Fine Over Disputed Chabad Archive

Russia criticized a ruling by a US judge to fine Moscow $50,000 a day for failing to return a historic Jewish library to Chabad-Lubavitch

Rachel Hirshfeld ,

ancient documents (illustrative)
ancient documents (illustrative)
Flash 90

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has criticized a ruling by a United States judge to fine Moscow $50,000 a day for its failure to return a historic but disputed Jewish library to the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish group.

Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court ruled Wednesday that Russia should pay the fine until it complies with the 2010 order to return the collection of tens of thousands of religious books and manuscripts, some hundreds of years old, to the Chabad-Lubavitch group based in Brooklyn, New York.

The documents are being held by Russia's State Library and the Russian military archive.

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday called the ruling "an absolutely unlawful and provocative decision" and threatened a "tough response" if U.S authorities try to seize any Russian property.

"We are outraged that the Washington court took this unprecedented step, which is fraught with the most serious of consequences," said the ministry.

The archive, which is referred to in Russia as the Schneersohn Library in honor of its original owner Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, was seized by the Soviets in Nazi Germany at the end of World War II, AFP reported.

Most of the 12,000 texts and 50,000 documents it contains have since been transferred to the Russian state archive and library system.

Officials said they had no intention of parting with a collection gathered in the 18th century and regarded with veneration by Hasidic Jews who populated Eastern Europe and have since largely settled in New York.

"Every citizen of the world can come to Moscow, become a reader of the Russia State Library and read everything that he needs," Russian State Library Director Alexander Vislov told the ITAR-TASS news agency.

The U.S. State Department has argued that court decisions of the kind issued by the District Court were complicating both the case and bilateral ties, according to AFP.

Russia's deputy culture minister said on Thursday that the fine could actually harm Americans' future access to the Jewish archive.

"The US court decision first and foremost will have negative consequences on the access to Russian cultural assets by American citizens," Grigory Ivliyev told the RIA Novosti news agency.

"In Russia, only the Russian courts have jurisdiction."

A spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia said that from a moral point of view the library should be returned to its former Jewish owners but using the courts was the wrong course of action.

"The Chabad-Lubavitch community in New York is the legal heir to the library," Borukh Gorin said by telephone.

"But the tactic it has chosen does not stand a chance," Gorin conceded. "These rulings can only help raise attention to our cause."

The archive, which reflects the devastating history of European Jewry in the last century, was originally kept in the Smolensk region town of Lyubavichi, located in western Russia.

The collection was split up during World War I and partially nationalized by the Soviet Union in 1918.  The other part was slipped out of Russia in 1927 and was seized by Nazi troops in Poland after spending some time in Riga in 1939, according to AFP.