A CONFERENCE in Lithuania held to mark the bicentenary of one of the greatest Talmudic scholars in Jewish history could have been expected to strengthen scholarly and diplomatic ties between Lithuania and Israel.
Instead it generated an atmosphere of acrimony and accusation, with Jewish activists calling for a boycott and Lithuanian politicians demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Lithuania.
Vilnius was once the premier centre of Jewish scholarship in eastern Europe. It was frequently called the "Jerusalem of the North" and the most famous of its scholars, Rabbi Elijah, is often dubbed the Gaon of Vilna. But more than 90 per cent of Lithuania's Jewish community - some 200,000 people - died in the Holocaust and thousands of Jewish books and manuscripts seized by the Nazis are now stored in poor conditions in a disused church.
Nevertheless, Lithuania's small Jewish community decided to organise a conference to honour the Gaon's anniversary, and the Lithuanian government gave considerable financial support.
However, a few weeks before the event Effraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation in Jerusalem, called for a boycott of the conference, alleging that the Lithuanian state had done nothing to prosecute ex-Nazis suspected of complicity in war crimes - in spite of a pledge by Lithuanian president Algirdas Brazauskas when he addressed the Knesset in 1995.
Mr Zuroff's call followed the announcement by the Lithuanian prosecutor, General Bazys Pednyeia, that proceedings were being dropped against Aleksander Lileikis, the head of the Vilnius Security Police during the second world war, on health grounds. A Lithuanian law forbids the prosecution of a person whose life could be endangered by standing trial.
Prime minister Gedimininas Vagnorius has promised that this law will be amended. Mr Zuroff was either not aware of this pledge, or discounted it. He claimed that the Association of Lithuanian Jews supported the boycott call.
But Simonas Alperavicus, Lithuania's Jewish community chairman, said the group considered that "the contemporary generation of Lithuanians had nothing to do with the war or war crimes".
The Lithuanians were incensed at the attacks on their country. Neris Germanas, foreign affairs adviser to President Brazauskas was quick to point out that the Israeli government was not supporting Mr Zuroff's stance.
However, the Israeli ambassador to Lithuania, Oded Ben-Hur, does seem to have been influenced by Mr Zuroff.
Addressing a special session of the Lithuanian parliament convened to honour the Gaon, he reportedly accused Lithuania of participating in the Holocaust.
It was these remarks that triggered the demands for his expulsion, and evoked a statement from the Lithuanian foreign ministry "regretting" the Israeli government's "inadequate" response to the Vilnius conference and noting that statements made before the parliament "did not conform to the festive atmosphere and hindered attempts at improving mutual relations".
Meanwhile, as the conference participants disperse, Lithuanian officials categorically deny allegations that the celebrations were intended to distract attention from the country's delay in prosecuting alleged war criminals. They say the two issues are entirely separate.