By Cogan Schneier – National Law Journal
A federal judge in D.C. agreed on Tuesday to officially ask Israeli authorities to get involved in a yearslong dispute over Jewish religious texts held by Russia.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic movement within Judaism, has been fighting for years to secure the return of historical religious texts seized by the Russians in the early 20th century. In 2013, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth of the District of Columbia imposed sanctions of $50,000 per day on Russia for refusing to hand over the books, known as the Schneerson Collection.
Lawyers representing Russia abandoned the litigation years ago, and the country shows no interest in paying or returning the collection, though the sanctions have accumulated to $83.5 million.
Attorneys for Chabad told Lamberth in a conference Tuesday that an auction house in Israel obtained one of the books and intends to sell it. Chabad asked Lamberth to issue a formal request, known as a “letter rogatory,” to the appropriate court in Israel to compel the auction house to produce documents and provide testimony on how it acquired the book. Lamberth agreed.
The lawyers suspect Russian officials or agents aided a third party in obtaining the book, or purposely failed to secure it.
Nathan Lewin, a lawyer for Chabad, also indicated Tuesday that the group will file a motion this week for a temporary restraining order to block Kedem Auction House from selling the book. Lewin phoned into Tuesday’s conference from Jerusalem. He said he inspected the book and could certify it is from the collection, but that Kedem was uncooperative and planned to sell it unless a court order stopped it from doing so. Lamberth said he would consider the motion once it was filed.
Steven Lieberman, another lawyer for Chabad and partner at Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck, also told the judge Tuesday that Chabad plans to ask that Russia’s sanctions be increased to $100,000 per day. He said the increase is warranted because Russia is blatantly violating the court’s order.
In February, all 100 U.S. senators sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirming their position that Russia should return the collection to Chabad. In April, then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak said in a reply letter that Chabad “never owned” the texts and has “no property rights over it.” Lieberman said the letters showed that Russia’s defiance of Lamberth’s order “reached the highest levels.”
Lamberth said that when the motion to increase sanctions is filed, he will ask the U.S. government for its views on the case, as foreign relations “is an area in which the court needs to tread carefully.” Lamberth said that though he and the government “don’t always agree,” it would be important to know what the U.S. Department of Justice ‘s position is.
While the DOJ has supported Chabad’s claims to the books, it opposed efforts by Chabad to conduct discovery and seize Russian assets out of concern it could hinder the State Department’s diplomatic efforts to recover the texts. The government also opposed the sanctions, fearing they could spark similar sanctions from Russian courts in return.
When the government does weigh in on the case, it will be the first time Lamberth hears from the Trump administration on the issue, which plagued the Obama administration. But with the new administration, there is the added backdrop of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election, and the increasingly strained relationship between the United States and the Kremlin.
Justice Department lawyer Nathan Swinton did appear in court Tuesday, but said only that the government did not oppose the motion for a letter of rogatory. He said he would inform the relevant officials at the DOJ and the State Department about the court’s proceedings.
“They’ll want to tell the Israel desk, I’m sure,” Lamberth quipped.
Chabad Librarian Rabbi Sholom Dovber Levine declaration