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Olmert demands answers to 'Shulchan Aruch' prob

Noga Martin and JPost staff

Jerusalem Post
June 27, 2005

A complaint by Russian nationalists that the 500-year-old Shulchan Aruch, a central codex of Jewish law, was racist will be a main topic of discussion between Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov at their meeting in Moscow Tuesday.

In response to the complaint, Russian district prosecutors have launched an investigation into whether a Russian translation of the text incites national and religious hatred.

Olmert said he would demand explanations from Fradkov or he will tell the prime minister "harsh things."

"We're not tolerating and we're not going to tolerate this," he told Israel Radio. "Our relations with Russia are very important to us, the economic relations, the political relations. But there are things which are beyond any such considerations and calculations. On these things we won't compromise, and we'll say them in the clearest and most direct way."

On Monday, Deputy Minister of Education Michael Melchior characterized the Russian nationalists' complaint as "One of the most scandalous attacks in the history of anti-Semitism," was how.

Melchior, responsible for Diaspora affairs, said that his office was urgently tracking the Russian response to a recent translation of the text. If the reports are true, he says, the incident is "horrific".

The same passages cited by the Russian nationalists, among them references forbidding Jews to teach gentiles certain professions, and even go to gentile barbers or assist a gentile who is drowning, have been exploited repeatedly throughout history to "justify" institutionalized anti-Semitism, Melchior explained.

Melchior's late grandfather, a Danish Jew, published a book in the 1930s called Omrim She Ha'Yehudim (They Say that Jews ) that refutes these same claims.

"Everyone bases their statements on everyone else's", Melchior continued, "and the same misunderstandings are perpetuated."

Melchior credits Russian President Vladimir Putin with having "done a great deal for the Jewish community."

According to Melchior, "Putin has opposed anti-Semitism. He has maintained good relations with large parts of the community." However, Melchior explained, "anti-Semitism in Russia is on the rise; the situation is difficult."

Melchior said that he was certain that authorities in Russia would act immediately to stop the highly publicized reaction.

Knesset Speaker stated that though both Russian houses of parliament officially condemned this sharply anti-Semitic invective, the condemnations were not enough.

On Thursday, Moscow district prosecutors summoned Rabbi Zinovy Kogan - chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations who published the text - for questioning.

Kogan told the Associated Press that the investigation was meant to review an earlier decision by Moscow's Basmanny district prosecutors who found the text did not inspire such hatred and that a criminal case did not need to be opened.

Prosecutors declined to comment.

The nationalists argued that the text's aim was to "insult human dignity based on national and religious affiliation," according to the prosecutors' statement. The text was also accused of labeling Christians "worshippers of idols" in a reference to Christians' main religious symbol, the cross.

Kogan denied the accusations. He said the Russian translation of the book, printed in three editions in 1999, 2000 and 2004, with a print run of a total of about 5,000 copies, "is meant to cultivate respect toward other religions and peoples."

"For us it's a book about how to wash oneself, how to dress, how to eat," Kogan said.

The rabbi acknowledged that there are "some incorrect passages" in the text, such as an instruction for Jewish women without a medical education not to help non-Jewish women during childbirth. But he argued that these statements from such an old text could not be interpreted without appropriate commentary.

The issue of Kitsur Shulhan Arukh was raised in January, when 19 lawmakers made it the center of their appeal to conduct an investigation designed to outlaw Jewish organizations, accusing Jews of fomenting ethnic hatred and provoking anti-Semitism.

In February, an activist group filed a complaint, asking prosecutors to determine whether the lawmakers' letter incited national and religious hatred and, if so, bring them to justice, said Yevgeny Ikhlov, a member of the group that filed the complaint.

Ikhlov told the AP that Basmanny prosecutors concluded in May that the lawmakers' statement did not constitute a crime, but that they were now conducting a second investigation into the matter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.