Leading US Rabbis Denounce Lithuanian Government’s ‘Contempt and Derision’ Over Jewish Heritage Coin
A Jewish heritage commemorative coin issued by the Lithuanian government to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of eastern Europe’s greatest rabbis continued to attract controversy on Thursday, as a group of US-based rabbis accused the government in Vilnius of showing “contempt and derision” toward Jewish history with its nationalistic branding of the coin.
The government of the Baltic state announced on Nov. 22 that the ten-euro coin had been minted to mark 2020 as the “Year of the Gaon of Vilna and Jewish Heritage.” The coin ostensibly pays tribute to arguably Lithuania’s best-known Jew, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman — revered as the Gaon of Vilna. But several commentators have pointed out that the coin features a menorah atop a local symbol known as the Columns of Gediminas — the seal of an illustrious 14th-century grand duke that has now been adopted by elements of the Lithuanian far-right.
According to the Vilnius-based Jewish scholar Dovid Katz, writing on Nov. 15, “the coin is a pudding of identity theft, disrespect for a culture largely annihilated in the Holocaust, and the total exclusion of the Yiddish language from the English/Israeli Hebrew text surrounding the far right’s recent prime symbol.”
In its statement on Thursday, a New York-based group of rabbis also highlighted the Lithuanian government’s continued commitment to building a sports complex on the grounds of the old Snipiskes Jewish cemetery, where thousands of Jewish graves, including that of the Gaon of Vilna, are located.
“Snipiskes is the cemetery where the Gaon once lay, and continues to house the remains of the
Gaon’s entire family, among other sages, scholars, and sacred people,” the statement — endorsed by Rabbis David Niederman, Lazar Stern and Zev Friedman, among other Jewish communal figures — asserted.
“After enabling the construction of two large apartment complexes in the cemetery, the Lithuanian government continues to refuse to divulge the location of the remains of thousands of Jews exhumed during construction,” the statement continued.
The statement noted that the “Gaon of Vilna was a fervent advocate of the Dignity of the Dead and defender of the sanctity of the Snipiskes cemetery.”
It concluded: “From this perspective, the Lithuanian government’s issuance of this coin has become an act of contempt and derision of all that is holy to Jewish teaching and culture.”
The representative body of the Jewish community in Lithuania has meanwhile expressed support for the commemorative coin, insisting that concerns about the nationalist symbol — which it calls the “Litvak Symbol” — were overblown.
“The Lithuanian Jewish community is strictly distancing itself from all such statements, which nurture unreasonably negative interpretations of the Litvak sign, which unites two of the most important Lithuanian Jewish symbols — Menorah and the Lithuanian state,” Faina Kukliansky, — the chairwoman of the Jewish community of Lithuania — said in a statement issued last Friday.