Another Tack: The Sergei connection

Poor Tzipi Livni – the burden of ministerial office can weigh heavy. It involves obligations that produce not a little unease. For instance, among the last follies ascribed to Ariel Sharon, just before his catastrophic stroke, was a promise to Vladimir Putin to hand over the Russian Compound’s famed Sergei Building (the sumptuous “Sergei Imperial Guest House”). It’s smack-dab in the very heart of Jerusalem – in the western part thereof, the one that lies within the Green Line, the one that ostensibly Israel may be allowed to keep after it relinquishes all it liberated in its 1967 war of self-defense (including Judaism’s Holiest of Holies).

Claims for a pound of the Jewish national flesh, it so appears, are being made not only by Arabs. We owe slices of our capital to all sorts of latecomers, conquerors, glory-seekers, clout-hunters and would-be meddlers in our volatile region.

With friends like Putin, let’s not forget, we need no enemies. He actively helps Iran gain the nuclear capability with which to obliterate the Jewish state. Putin supplies Syria with missiles with which to decimate Israel’s population centers and down its fighter jets. Via Damascus, Putin succors Hizbullah and Russian-made rocketry fired from Gaza’s Hamastan explodes in Ashkelon. Putin deserves none of the consideration that might perhaps be extraordinarily extended a bosom buddy (though genuine allies wouldn’t pursue archaic pretexts for a foothold in another nation’s capital and the cradle of its heritage).

Moreover, Putin doesn’t politely request a special cordial gesture. A Russian Foreign Ministry-sponsored Web site names the issue of “Russian property in Jerusalem” as one of the most outstanding bilateral problems between the countries, listing it under the heading of “Getting What Is One’s Own” with the further elucidation that “Russia has a number of complaints against Israel.” It goes on to assert that there’s no contesting “the legitimacy of Russia’s claim to the St. Sergius Metochion and the building of the Russian church mission as well as various other facilities in Jerusalem.”

THOUGH NO written documentation exists anywhere of Sharon’s alleged pledge to Putin, its intrinsic logic and consistency are undeniable. An administration prepared to divest Israel of some parts of Jerusalem won’t shrink from surrendering other parts too – even bits of its central downtown, in which nobody would presumably portray our tenure as controversial or precarious.

Given such an ultra-appeasing mindset, it might well be that Sharon was loath to disappoint Putin and so is Foreign Minister Livni. But had they and their Kadima cohorts fully focused on the ramifications? The ultimate eviction from the Sergei premises of Israel’s Agriculture Ministry and environmental organizations is the least troublesome consequence (the blow to national sovereignty notwithstanding). In Kremlin hands, these holdings would de facto become extraterritorial. What if terrorists were to flee and find refuge therein? Would IDF troops break into Putin’s toehold in the Holy Land?

The precedent, additionally, might stimulate other appetites. The Greek Orthodox Church owns the land on which the Knesset and the prime minister’s residence stand. If a ministry can be evicted, why not the Jewish parliament and the head of government?

Livni might not relish the complications, but noblesse oblige. If Arik obsequiously promised, she is honor bound to fawningly fulfill Putin’s wishes. All foreigners, it seems, have more cogent claims to Jerusalem than do Jews. As Sharon and sidekicks – with Livni prominently among them – demonstrated during disengagement, Jews are portable and disposable.

And how did Russia’s unchallengeable claims arise? The Russian Compound was chartered by the Russian Orthodox Church from the Ottomans in 1858. It was earmarked for the welfare of pilgrims. The Sergei Complex, occupying nine compound acres, was constructed decades afterward by Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (son of Tsar Alexander II, brother of infamous Tsar Alexander III and uncle to last Tsar Nicholas II) to accommodate visiting aristocrats. Among his other distinctions, Sergei was president of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society.” Turkish law categorized his property as strictly private and emphatically not a Russian state holding.

Post-revolution, “White” and “Red” Russian churches vied for compound ownership. The Mandatory Brits commandeered the lot. Israel purchased most of the compound from the USSR in 1964, but, being cash-strapped then, paid the $3.5 million in… oranges. The Sergei Building, church and courtyard weren’t included in the deal and until the Six Day War served as the local KGB spy nook.

Putin reportedly won’t countenance sale of the property due to a deep-seated sentimental connection to Sergei and his legacy. Too bad Livni doesn’t exude similar emotional attachment to Sergei’s victims.

SHE, OF all homegrown dabblers in statecraft, should know that the grand duke was an avid practitioner of the recurrent Romanov theme: “Beat the Jews and save Russia.” His anti-Semitism was unrivalled even by the rabid anti-Semitism of his royal kinfolk. In 1891 – mere months after Sergei’s building went up in Jerusalem – his brother appointed him governor-general of Moscow. Sergei’s immediate move was to uproot the city’s 30,000 Jews. Moscow was to be “cleansed” in three orderly phases – the poorest and least-veteran Jewish inhabitants ousted first and the richest and longest-residing Jews removed last.

The banishment edict was published on the first day of Passover. The next night police swooped down on Jewish homes, roused entire frightened families and drove thousands of scantily clad men, women and children to the lockup where they were crammed into filthy cells. Others hid out in dark alleyways and cemeteries, only to be eventually rounded up and roughed up. All, shorn of their possessions, were later driven out of town like vermin. Many were tortured. The infirm died in transit. Some were dragged in wooden manacles, like outlaws, to do long stretches of hard labor in distant prisons.

Over months and several expulsion installments, Moscow was rendered virtually judenrein. While Sergei rejoiced, deported Jews were reduced to utter destitution. In Sergei’s Russia, however, they were the lucky ones. Elsewhere, Sergei’s clan unleashed gruesome pogroms – painstakingly premeditated as diversionary tactics to quell internal unrest – in which Jews suffered all manner of barbaric butchery, eclipsed only by the horrors of the Holocaust.

This is the Sergei whose individual real estate holding Putin elevates to a sacred national heirloom for all Russians. But if Putin speaks in terms of national birthright, why not also Livni? Why not demand at least a modicum of quid pro quo – a central sliver of Russia’s capital for a central sliver of Israel’s capital?

Why not demand that – in return for one ruthless Russian despot’s property, for which Putin yearns nostalgically – he pay with what Sergei stole from the Jews he robbed and exiled? Moscow’s Zaryadye historical district, adjacent to Red Square, was the hub of Muscovite Jewry (particularly the sizable Glebov Yard, site of the then-Jewish ghetto). Why not award that area to Israel in return for Sergei’s courtyard?

Putin may balk and assert that Israel isn’t heir to the Jews Sergei dispossessed, in which case Livni could note that neither is Putin’s Russia heir to Sergei.

That’s how a proud foreign minister of the Jewish state and a prime-ministerial aspirant should have reacted. But although Livni may not lack ambition, she is woefully deficient in Jewish pride.

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