Chabad Seeks Congress’ Help in Book Dispute

Posted April 11, 2005 at 4:54pm

The books are overdue, and 100 Senators want them back.

For more than a decade, government officials, including Members of Congress, have been working to secure the return of the Schneerson Collection, a set of books and manuscripts being held in Russia, to the New York-based Chabad Lubavitch Jewish community.

Members of the Chabad made an impassioned appeal to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, in a hearing last Wednesday to encourage the Russian Federation to return the books.

The group hopes to have the books returned to them before the May 9 anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.

In February, all 100 Senators signed a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, authored by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), urging the Russians to return the collection to the Chabad community as an example of Russia’s “commitment to justice, human rights and religious freedom.”

The entire Senate signed a previous letter to then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin urging him to return the books, and the most recent letter said only eight volumes in the collection had been released.

“I don’t know of another issue where all 100 Members of the Senate, every one, have signed the letter,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, adding that the support speaks to “the clarity of this issue.”

Coleman echoed that sentiment in a statement released when the letter was sent in February.

“To have every single Senator sign on to a letter like this is very rare. To have it happen twice on the same issue is virtually unheard of,” Coleman said. “It’s not often a cause gains enduring support across the political spectrum, but we all agree that Russia’s withholding of these sacred texts represents a clear injustice.”

In addition to the members of the Chabad community who discussed the issue with the commission, actor Jon Voight testified for the Chabad.

“These books are the voices of the ancestors of the Hebrew Nation,” Voight said. “For anyone else to claim them as their own is a reminder of all the anti-Semitic pollution through years of genocide and destruction of human life. They do not serve you since you are not putting them to use, as they are meant to be.”

The collection consists of a library that was maintained by the first five Chabad rabbis as far back as 1772.

The books contain writings from a succession of the Chabad’s “rebbes” (rabbis), or spiritual leaders. The books and manuscripts contain Chabad philosophy on Jewish religious law and tradition.

Chabad’s statement to the committee called the books “priceless under any measure.”

The Russian government claims the collection was created in Russia and nationalized, but Russian courts have denied the collection is state property.

The Russian government seized possession of the volumes after the fifth rabbi sent them to Moscow for safekeeping during World War I. Today, the collection is housed in the Russian State Library in Moscow.

The archives of manuscripts contain more than 25,000 handwritten pages, most of which are held at the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow. The Soviet Army seized many of the documents after capturing Warsaw, and today they are also stored in the Russian State Military Archive.

Poland transferred the rest of the documents it had possessed to the Chabad in the 1970s.

After the Russian Supreme Arbitration Court found in the Chabad’s favor, the U.S. government reached an agreement that the Russians would maintain the collection and make it available to Chabad members, while a selection was loaned to the Library of Congress.

Both sides claim the other is not living up to the agreement, and the Russian government claims the documents are national treasures.

In a statement provided to the Helsinki Commission, the Russian embassy said that the documents were “of great importance to the Russian nation” and that they are part of “Russian cultural heritage.”

The statement accused the Chabad of abandoning judicial options in favor of political pressure from the U.S. government, calling it “inappropriate and unnecessary under the circumstances.”

Through all the setbacks, this issue has found staying power on Capitol Hill.

“They were taken wrongfully — that is without question,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, who, along with his brother and father, has spearheaded the effort. “So there’s a moral clarity that’s attached to this issue that I think many people on the Hill gravitated toward it.”

Cunin’s father, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, said his sons have “picked up the torch of freedom” and will continue the cause until the books are returned.