Lithuanian PM: Netanyahu OK with construction on old Jewish cemetery

Cnaan Liphshiz

MOSCOW (JTA) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his blessing to controversial construction planned atop a former Jewish cemetery in Lithuania, that country’s leader said.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius spoke of Netanyahu’s consent for the planned renovation at the Concert and Sports Palace in central Vilnius in an interview Wednesday with the Baltic News Service.

“He was clear – this is very good,” Butkevicius told BNS during his visit to Israel this week. “He gave no critical remarks whatsoever – the prime minister said he had recently received the information and was fully familiar with it.”

The planned renovation at the sports palace is hotly opposed by local rabbis, who argue it would violate Jewish laws on graves, which are not to be disturbed. The graves are underground because Soviet authorities leveled them and built on the cemetery in Shnipiskes, also known as the Piramont cemetery, in the 1950s.

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READ: It’s Jew vs. Jew (and rabbi vs. rabbi) in fight over Lithuanian site

The Jewish Community of Lithuania supports the government’s plan, citing the assertions of a London-based rabbinical association, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, which determined the proposed works would not disturb any graves.

Last month, the community discontinued the contract of Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, an outspoken opponent of the construction plan and the country’s former chief rabbi. The community’s president, Faina Kukliansky, told local media he had spread lies about the planned project.

Butkevicius and other Lithuanian officials have pledged that any construction would be conducted under the London committee’s supervision and in accordance with the Jewish community’s wishes. They also vowed the renovation of the complex, which is to become a conference center, would feature various elements commemorating the hundreds of Jews buried at the former cemetery.

The Baltic nations and other Eastern European countries are among Israel’s staunchest advocates in the European Union when the Jewish state is criticized on its treatment of Palestinians. Observers of these relationships, including Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have argued in the past that Israel often opts for non-interference on Jewish issues to preserve its Eastern European alliances.

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