This past Sunday, nearly 600 people gathered in Battery Park under red and white banners, chanting for democracy in Belarus. They sang popular protest songs, collected donations for the legal defense of political prisoners, and heard Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speak as part of her first visit to America.
“Thank you, my dear Belarusians of New York! You fully participate in building a better future of Belarus despite the distance,” she wrote. “We must continue supporting those who struggle for freedom in our country and keeping Belarus on the international agenda.”
I attended this rally with my wife and children in solidarity with her family members and friends who voted last August to remove incumbent Alexander Lukashenko in favor of the democratic opposition led by Tsikhanouskaya. Since his election in 1994, he has maintained a tight grip on the country that limited economic and political opportunities. For many years, the public accepted his rule as a form of stability in contrast to the lawlessness and civil wars in other former Soviet republics. But his casual dismissal of the pandemic last year contributed to the public dissatisfaction of his 26-year reign.
Among the former Soviet states, Belarus appears more nostalgic for the Soviet period. Its cities have streets named for Marx and Lenin; its highest point is named for Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police. The flag was designed during the Soviet period, and its security force is still officially the KGB. Rather than the native language, most Belarusians speak Russian as a result of communism and Lukashenko’s pro-Russian policies.
Making their point of contrast, many speakers at the rally delivered their remarks in Belarusian, asserting the rebirth of their culture, a personal declaration of independence by a captive people. My mother-in-law watched the rally on Skype using my phone. In her country, merely wearing the red-and-white colors of the opposition can be grounds for arrest and imprisonment.
Standing next to us at the rally were three participants wearing kipot: Baruch Parizh, Asher Samusenka, and Israel Derr. We’ve known these landsmen from their time as students at Lander College for Men, when we hosted them as Shabbos guests. They attended the rally to speak for friends and family members in Belarus who voted for democracy but cannot express it in public.
Another visible Jewish voice at the rally was musician Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, who played the clarinet and sang a Yiddish translation of a protest song. “I don’t know if my performance contributed anything feasible to the cause; I hope it did, in some unbeknownst-to-me ways,” he tweeted. “The sense of (comm)unity there was truly inspiring.” Before the Holocaust, Belarus had a sizable Jewish population whose historical legacy is recognized as part of the country’s heritage.
I thought of a people who lost their language and are struggling to learn it, the wife of an imprisoned political activist knocking on the doors of western leaders for support, an iron curtain separating Belarus from its democratic neighbors, and a fight between a dictatorship and a nonviolent movement for democracy. The events in Belarus are a parallel of recent Jewish history, from only a generation ago.
Samuel Kliger, the Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, met with Tsikhanouskaya this week. They spoke of her plan to transition the country to a democracy and maintaining international attention on political prisoners. At the same time, Kliger noted that post-Soviet authoritarians such as Lukashenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin oppose antisemitism, support the reopening of synagogues and schools, and constructing Holocaust memorials.
“Lukashenko is not persecuting people as Jews, he is only concerned with preserving his power,” Kliger said. “The Jewish community in Belarus is safe.” He added that the paradox of democracy is that it allows for antisemitism as a form of free speech. “You can wear a kippa in Moscow, but you would hide it in a western capital.”
Most former Soviet Jews had emigrated following the collapse of communism in 1991, but they continue to keep ties with friends in the old country, supporting Jewish institutions, maintaining cemeteries, and hoping that the freedoms that we enjoy here will soon be experienced by their former compatriots.
By Sergey Kadinsky