Israeli envoys speech stirs Lithuania havoc

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

MOSCOW — Lithuanian politicians are up in arms over a speech by Israel's ambassador to their country.

Within days after the speech by Oded Ben Hur, Lithuania's parliament delayed action on amendments to the country's criminal code that would facilitate the investigation of alleged World War II criminals.

During a discussion of the amendments, parliamentarian Rimantas Smetona urged his colleagues not to cave into the pressure of international Jewish organizations.

Smetona, a candidate in Lithuania's December presidential elections, had especially harsh words for Ben Hur, who told the Parliament's opening session last week that Lithuania had failed to prosecute alleged war criminals.

Parliament was expected to take the amendments up again next week.

Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas and Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius were among those attending the parliamentary session, which was devoted to speeches praising the legacy of the Vilna Gaon, the renowned commentator on the Talmud and Torah whose 200th yahrzeit is being commemorated in Lithuania.

Some Jewish groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Israel-based Association of Lithuanian Jews, boycotted the commemoration, saying that participation would be seen as support for a government that has not yet atoned for the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry.

Nearly 94 percent of the country's prewar Jewish community perished in the Holocaust, a tragedy that local Jews say is not widely known in Lithuania.

Other parliamentarians besides Smetona took issue with Ben Hur's comments, which one legislator said displayed "impudence and tactlessness."

Another legislator, Kazys Bobelis, said that Ben Hur had "insulted the Lithuanian nation."

Bobelis added that Parliament had wanted to express its sincere respect for the Vilna Gaon, but that Ben Hur's speech was "absolutely improper and spoiled the festive tranquillity of the event."

Ben Hur made the "rift between the Lithuanian and Jewish nations even wider," he added.

Lithuania's Ministry of Foreign Affairs described Ben Hur's speech as "regrettable."

Ben Hur remained unapologetic, but said he hoped that his comments would not arouse a wave of anti-Semitism in Lithuania.

"I understand that the manner of my speech will not contribute to the improvement" of Israeli-Lithuanian relations, he told reporters.

He said that his speech to Parliament had been passionate because of the scope of the Holocaust in Lithuania, adding that he said "what had to be said" and that the speech came with the full blessing of Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Ben Hur's speech made front-page headlines in every major Lithuanian newspaper.

After declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Lithuania issued certificates of exoneration to more than 50,000 Lithuanians who were convicted as war criminals by Soviet courts. Among those pardoned were people who allegedly helped the Nazis kill Jews.

Holocaust survivors, American Jewish leaders and the Lithuanian Jewish community have protested this practice of rehabilitation and called upon the Lithuanian government to reverse the pardons.