WASHINGTON – A Jewish group and the Justice Department argued in court Wednesday about the best way to get Russia to return the group's historic books and documents.
The group, Chabad-Lubavitch, wants the judge to impose civil fines on Russia. The department says fines won't help resolve the dispute and in fact would be counterproductive.
Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court here had a quick rejoinder: "How can you be counterproductive from zero?"
Justice Department lawyer Joel McElvain said things could go into negative territory, adding that the U.S. government has made progress, albeit "slow and halting," on the matter. He said that fines would amount to a substantial step backward.
"Am I supposed to accept that as intuitive?" the judge asked.
Chabad lawyer Seth Gerber said he was unaware of any negotiations under way to get the materials back.
Chabad-Lubavitch, based in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, has already convinced Lamberth that it has a valid claim to the tens of thousands of religious books and manuscripts, some up to 500 years old, which record the group's core teachings and traditions. The judge ruled the records are unlawfully possessed by the Russian State Library and the Russian military archive. And in 2010, he ordered the Russian government to turn them over to the U.S. embassy in Moscow or to Chabad's representative. The lawsuit is more than eight years old.
Russia says it doesn't recognize the authority of the U.S. court, and insists the collection is part of the country's heritage.
After Lamberth's earlier ruling, Russia completely halted the loan of its art treasures for exhibit in the United States, for fear that they would be seized and held hostage in the court battle. That's despite Chabad's assurance in court filings that it will not go after any art deemed culturally significant by the State Department — which is the case for major exhibitions. Such art is already protected from legal claims under the Immunity from Seizure Act.
"That's a bogus issue anyway — because of that statute," Lamberth said.
Gerber said the best way to get Russia to cooperate is to impose fines.
"The time has come for the Russians to face consequences," said Gerber, who participated by teleconference.
Another lawyer for the group, Nathan Lewin, who was in the courtroom, said the fine could be $25,000 or $50,000 a day, although he added he didn't know what the right amount is.
Lewin said that Russia has deprived the members of Chabad access to the materials for a long time.
"I agree with you," said Lamberth, who has frequently issued largely unenforceable multimillion-dollar judgments against foreign governments he believes are hostile to this country and have harmed U.S. citizens,
In addition to arguing that fines would hurt efforts to get the collections returned, Justice Department lawyer McElvain said that fines would be "contrary to our foreign policy interests .... and contrary to international norms." He said they could lead to reciprocal measures against the U.S. in other countries.
There are two collections at issue: 12,000 religious books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian Civil War nearly a century ago; and 25,000 pages of handwritten teachings and other writings of religious leaders stolen by Nazi Germany during World War II, then transferred by the Soviet Red Army as war booty to the Russian State Military Archive.
Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement within orthodox Judaism, is estimated to have more than 200,000 adherents and to draw perhaps a million to some of its services in about 70 countries It was founded in the late 1700s in Eastern Europe, and has been led through its history by seven "Rebbes," who amassed the books and writings. The group was incorporated in New York City in 1940.
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