Tuesday, September 17, 2013

No negotiations on Schneerson collection possible until suit against Russia withdrawn from U.S. court - presidential envoy 

No negotiations on the future of the so-called Schneerson Library, i.e., a collection of old Jewish books and manuscripts built by Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson in the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century, are possible until a New York-based Hasidic organization withdraws its lawsuit against the Russian Federation, says Mikhail Shvydkoi, a Russian presidential envoy for international cultural cooperation.

"There can be no talk at all until the withdrawal of this lawsuit, which I see as unlawful and absolutely legally void in relation to the Russian Federation," Shvydkoi said at a press conference at the Interfax main office on Tuesday.

"And then, if the lawsuit is withdrawn, there are always opportunities for any negotiations," he said.

Shvydkoi suggested, however, that the Schneerson collection dispute may actually be considered closed.

"I believe the Schneerson collection issue has been closed. The library has been handed over to the Tolerance Center, which is in fact a cultural center of the large Hasidic community in Russia. These books are sacred to the Hasidim. They are kept by people for whom they are sacred. The books have never left the Russian Federation. I believe the problem has been settled," Shvydkoi said.

"It is a different matter how to treat the lawsuit by the U.S. Hasidim. It seems to me that a solution should be judicial. But this is not our issue. This might be an issue for the U.S. administration and its citizens even more than it is an issue for the Russian administration," he said.

Part of the Schneerson book collection was nationalized by 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 later seized by the Nazis, then were regained by the Red Army and handed over to the Russian State Military Archive.

The New York-based Chabad-Lubavitch religious community has been seeking the Schneerson collection's handover since the end of the 1980s.

On August 6, 2010, a federal judge in Washington, Royce Lamberth, ruled that the Hasidim proved the legitimacy of their claims to the ancient Jewish books and manuscripts, which, in his definition, are kept at the Russian State Library and the Russian Military Archive illegally.

The Russian Foreign Ministry challenged the judgment.

It was reported on January 17, 2013 that a U.S. district court in Washington had ruled to oblige Russia to pay $50,000 a day as a fine until the Schneerson collection is returned to Chabad-Lubavitch based on the 2010 court order.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the library's handover to the U.S. was impossible and proposed placing it with the Jewish Tolerance Center in Moscow to make it available to anyone.

Boruh Gorin, the head of the public relations department of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation (RJCF), told Interfax earlier that all the 4,500 books from the library would be moved to the Jewish Tolerance Center before the end of the year. The books from the Schneerson Library located in the Russian State Library are now being inventoried and scanned as part of the preparations for their transfer to the center. There are plans to scan 500-700 books a month, Gorin said.

A judge in Washington ruled on June 20 that Russia's refusal to give the Schneerson collection to the U.S. Hasidic community was inappropriate and unlawful.

The Russian Culture Ministry and the Russian State Library filed a suit with the Moscow Court of Arbitration, seeking to oblige the U.S. Library of Congress to return seven books from the Schneerson collection, which had been stored at the Russian State Library and were lent to it in 1994 for temporary use under the international library exchange system. The nonprofit organization Agudas Chassidei Chabad, to which the Library of Congress lent the books, is also party to the litigation.


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