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Russia-US spar over 'seized' Jewish documents

Published time: January 17, 2013 10:39
Edited time: February 08, 2013 14:38
Rabbis from the Jewish orthodox Chabad Lubavitch of New York in Mumbai, India (AFP Photo / Indranil Mukherjee)

Rabbis from the Jewish orthodox Chabad Lubavitch of New York in Mumbai, India (AFP Photo / Indranil Mukherjee)

The Foreign Ministry has expressed outrage after a US court imposes a fine on Russia for its refusal to comply with a 2010 court order to return a collection of religious documents to a prominent US-based Jewish organization.

­The move comes shortly after the Magnitsky Act, which saw US legislators attempting to exert pressure on Russia’s judicial system. A court in Washington is now attempting to penalize Russia for its possession of a collection of books, manuscripts and other Judaic documents.

According to the ruling, Russia would be required to pay $50,000 a day to Chabad Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish movement headquartered in New York City, until it releases the Schneerson Library, of which the Jewish group claims rightful ownership.

"It is outrageous that a Washington court has taken this unprecedented step fraught with most serious consequences as the imposition of a fine on a sovereign state," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

The ministry statement slammed the US ruling as “exterritorial in nature,” and a violation of international law. Russia considers the ruling to be legally null and void, the statement added.

Meanwhile, the US Justice Department also spoke out against the decision, arguing the court cannot introduce sanctions of this type against Russia, and that such a move would further damage US-Russian relations.

Chabad Lubavitch claimed the Schneerson collection – which includes 12,000 books and 50,000 rare documents gathered since the 18th century by Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn and his descendants in the Russian city of Smolensk – was illegally seized during a wave of Soviet nationalization projects.

"The Schneerson Library has never belonged to the Chabad; it never left Russia, and was nationalized because there were no legal heirs in the Schneerson family,” the ministry said. “The 'return' of these books to the US is therefore not an issue in principle."

Due to the controversial question regarding the ownership rights of the Schneerson Collection, Russian museums are hesitant to travel to the United States with any exhibitions for fear of them being held hostage in the court standoff.

Meanwhile, the head of Russia's Jewish Congress has said that Russia should be compensated by the Americans “50,000 dollars plus one dollar a day” for saving the collection from the Nazis and handing the massive collection of documents over to the National Library, where “they are kept carefully and remain available to the general public,” Zinovy Kogan told Itar-Tass in an interview on Thursday.

We should be grateful (to Russia) for the rescued books, he added.

The rabbi also challenged claims on the collection by the Chabad Lubavitch movement, reminding that the books were written “long before the emergence of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.”

Why should the books be given away to them, he asked.

"It does not matter where the books are kept. What is really important is they are available to the public. The books that are kept at the Eastern Section of the Russian State Library are available. Everyone is free to order and have a copy. No problem. Books are not to be treated as idols. Books will be books. They are not to be kissed and worshiped, they are to be read and studied," Kogan said.

The Russian State Library in the 1990s agreed to give 70 books from the Schneerson archive to the Federation of the Jewish Communities of Russia. They are now stored at the library of the Moscow Jewish Community Center in the Maryina Roshcha neighborhood.

Yitzhak Schneerson died in 1950. He left behind no instructions regarding the future of his vast library.

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