13 June 2011

Chabad vs. Russia

The legal battle pitting the Lubavitch movement against the Russian government has reached new heights following two developments:
  1. a judgment issued on August 6, 2010, by Federal Judge Royce Lamberth in the United States in favor of the Chabad Lubavitch movement’s quest for restitution of the so-called “Schneerson Library” and related archives which can be found in several institutions in Russia;
  2. the over-reaction by the Russian government to cancel loans of cultural assets to American museums and cultural institutions out of a perceived fear that those assets would be subject to seizure in order to force the Russian government to relent on its refusal to return the Schneerson library and archives to the Lubavitch movement.
The pitbull, scorched-earth approach taken by both sides in this struggle for recovery does not augur well for future attempts to negotiate the restitution of cultural assets currently located in the former Soviet Union. It also makes one wonder whether or not an all-or-nothing strategy is the best policy to pursue.

In the world that we strive to build, there would be no issues underlying the restitution of cultural artifacts forcibly removed from individuals and groups because of their racial, religious, political, ethnic, or other identities and beliefs. For that world to exist, all countries have to come to grips with the fact that they control significant quantities of cultural artifacts and assets which do not belong to them and that need to be returned to their rightful owners.

In reality, we live in a world where governments are either loath to admit that they hold such vast amounts of illicitly-obtained cultural assets or they prefer to view these misappropriated cultural assets as “cultural patrimony,” a rather primitive approach more attuned to the conquering ways of ancient societies than to individuals who pride themselves on being civilized and ethically-grounded.

Moreover, there is a propensity in the United States to litigate everything to death which can be viewed as an outright provocation by non-American entities. However, the idea that cultural assets can be held hostage in a transnational game of arm-wrestling with no end in sight, is neither appealing nor inspiring. And for that reason, both sides can be chided for outdoing the other in dogmatic, self-righteous indignation.

Most of us ignore the back-channel discussions, the unstated aims and motivations of all parties involved in this unseemly struggle for control over intellectual, cultural, and religious artifacts that are the rightful property of the Lubavitch movement. But, for any resolution to occur, the parties at war with one another have to engage in a very serious reality check. If we are to continue to interact as civilized human beings, it is time, therefore, to behave and grow up and discuss what is really at stake here. It is not the fact that the Lubavitch movement wants its archives back, an archive that, frankly, most people in the Russian Federation do not give two beans about. It’s all about principle, the principle that someone, anyone, would have the audacity to ask for the return of property that was once theirs, but was forcibly taken, removed, transferred, and amalgamated into another culture’s “patrimony” without its consent.

Consent is the key here. If there is no consent, we enter the realm of illegality. The Russian government cannot sensibly argue that its identity is wrapped up around the Lubavitch movement’s archives and library. Neither should we go to war over them.

An opportunity exists here to show the world how to avoid escalating the restitution of cultural assets to the level of an international incident between nations and cultures. All parties need to think seriously about what they are willing to settle for in order to bring about an acceptable resolution to this crisis. In other words, let’s speak plainly: it may very well be that nothing good will come of this pitch battle if there is not a negotiation. Both parties have to stop their respective chest-thumping. In sum, let’s talk.

To the Russians: what is it that you really want? Quid pro quo? Something in exchange? If so, what? Or, put another way, what would it cost you really, honestly, to effect the return of the Schneerson Library and the archives of the Lubavitch movement?

To the Lubavitch movement: you’ve lived this long without those papers and books. If the deal is all or nothing, you might well end up with nothing. What would you be willing to settle for in order for you to retrieve something as opposed to nothing, even if we all know that the ideal solution is to obtain full restitution.

Here, the Italian government comes to mind. Its concept of cultural patrimony has evolved to the point where it considers items stolen from Jews during the Second World War as part of its ‘patrimony’ just like antiquities that have been excavated from Italian soil. Therefore, the return of such property is doomed because of the label of ‘cultural patrimony.’ When countries hide behind that label, nothing is possible.

To the Russians: if you consider the Schneerson archives and books as part of your “cultural patrimony”, including those that the Nazis stole and you recovered, aren’t you behaving as shamefully as the Italian government?

To the Lubavitch movement: the Italian government negotiated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other cultural institutions in the United States for the return of its antiquities that had been illegally removed from Italian soil to adorn their collections. There was a moment where scorched earth seemed to be on the agenda, but the crafty negotiating skills of certain American museum directors, blended with the Italian government’s desire to obtain the safe return of its treasured objects, led to extraordinary settlements that provided American museums with access to more antiquities, exclusive rights to future exhibits and displays of Italian antiquities, and so forth.

To both parties: think outside the box and see if, however bizarre and unprincipled the agreements were between Italy and American museums over their antiquities, whether or not you might find similar answers to your current stalemate which is not helping anyone at all.

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