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Archive for the ‘Belarus’ Category

[The following Feature appeared Jan. 17, 2012, in Foreign Policy magazine. It was republished on Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

Budapest Winter: Can anyone stop the Putinization of Hungary?

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN |JANUARY 17, 2012

A humiliation for many Hungarians. (Photo: Reuters)

BUDAPEST/PRAGUE – With the European Union’s threat of a lawsuit against the Hungarian government for meddling with the independence of its central bank, the world is finally taking notice of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s aggressive recent moves to consolidate power.

But for some Hungarians themselves, the gravity of what’s happening in today’s fractious Hungarian political scene was driven home on Dec. 3 by the blurred-out face of the former Supreme Court chief justice, Zoltan Lomnici.

It was one thing for Orban’s muscular center-right government to replace the upper ranks of state television and radio with its own loyalists after winning a two-thirds “supermajority” in the April 2010 parliamentary elections — seizing control of state-run media by incoming governments still remains an acceptable spoil of political warfare in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.

But it was another when, in a news report, Hungarian state television pixilated the face of Lomnici — a one-time Orban loyalist who had recent fallen afoul of the prime minister — to conceal his identity from viewers. And that was the final straw for Hungarian TV staffers Balazs Nagy-Navarro and Aranka Szavuly.

Navarro and Szavuly say the Lomnici pixilation proved that the minions of Orban’s party, Fidesz, have taken media combat one step further: They are willing to manipulate stories, edit tape to suit their agenda, and instruct reporters on whom to interview and whom to ignore.

To Szavuly, these tactics epitomize Fidesz’s society-wide conquest. Step by step the party has gobbled up all forms of independence, opposition, and checks-and-balances in one of the EU’s newest members — reminiscent of the “salami tactics” of the late 1940s, when Hungarian Communists gradually hacked away at enemies like slices of salami.

Although Hungary was once “the best pupil in the class” of ex-Communist states striving to join Western institutions — a model of economic dynamism and political reform — wayward Budapest has become a political thorn in the side of a European Union already reeling from Euro-induced calamity.

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[The following Postcard was republished Feb. 24, 2011, in the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia. It was originally published March 2004 in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

The artist, circa 1920, from "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater"

VITEBSK, Belarus — There’s no business like Chagall business. At least, not in the hometown of the legendary artist.

Shunned by the Soviet authorities for his leaving the “worker’s paradise” of the Soviet Union for the artistic incubator of Paris, Marc Chagall has undergone a remarkable posthumous rehabilitation in his Belarussian birthplace.

The charming provincial city of Vitebsk, an inspiration for much of the artist’s oeuvre — like his floating, dreamlike images of wood rooftops, barnyard animals and bearded fiddlers — is not only a must-see for Jewish tourists, it’s said to be a cornerstone of national tourism. Located 120 miles northeast of Minsk, the capital, Vitebsk draws German and Japanese tourists and countless foreign art students.

Hordes of schoolchildren tour the museum within the refurbished Chagall family homestead. The museum was opened in 1992 and has since been accompanied by annual “Chagall Days,” featuring music, exhibitions, lectures and poetry readings. It’s quite a turnaround for an artist revered by some, scorned by others as a symbol of dissent, and long banned from public discourse.

Chagall is now a symbol of another kind, says Vitebsk native Arkady Shulman, a Jewish journalist and amateur Chagall historian.

“Any person who emigrated was denounced as a traitor,” says Shulman, who helped establish the Chagall museum and is chief editor of Mishpoha magazine. “People didn’t know his pictures, but they knew his name, and that he was against the system. Today, more people know his art, but he’s become a symbol of a boy from a small town who became world famous.”

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[The following article appeared March, 18, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — Grigory Reles has a lot to cry about.

Belarus’ greatest living Yiddish writer and last literary link to shtetl life here breaks into tears twice during a recent two-hour conversation.

The first comes when the nonagenarian fondly recalls his mother, Reyzl. His voice is soon choked with emotion, and Reles refuses to discuss her further.

It’s the second tearful episode that is more surprising. It comes while he recounts the 1930s and the fate of colleagues in the Jewish section of the vaunted Belarussian Writers Union.

The Minsk branch was decimated during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1935-38 — blood-drenched purges that claimed countless writers and poets of all ethnic groups among the thousands who died across the Soviet Union.

In Minsk, writers like Moshe Kulbak and Izzy Kharik fell victim. Reles’ memory is sometimes a bit hazy, and he often cups his right ear to hear better, but his voice is robust and animated. Especially when describing his former comrades.

“There were many great writers among them,” he says. “They wrote many classics that are now in the libraries of the world. They must not be forgotten.”

Chastened by the demise of his literary friends, Reles says he learned “to keep my nose out of politics. I never gave any reason to be disliked, never acted against the law. Nevertheless, there was awful persecution.”

Reles grew up in Chashniki, a northern shtetl of 10,000 souls and humble wooden homes that was almost purely Jewish. Even the few Russian families in town spoke Yiddish, he says.

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[The following article appeared March 17, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — It’s not your ordinary Friday night gathering at the Campus, the hub of Jewish life here in the Belarussian capital.

The first night of Chanukah is coupled with the much-anticipated induction of young Rabbi Grisha Abramovich as the new spiritual head of Belarus’ Reform movement.

In the brightly lit multipurpose room at the Campus Jewish community center, nearly 200 mostly elderly Jews are decked out in their Friday night finery: Many women look as if they’ve had their hair freshly styled, and several men have pinned their war medals and other honorary insignia onto their jacket lapels.

As the Minsk-born Abramovich is sworn in from the stage with a prayer by a senior Reform rabbi from Israel, there is a pause for the audience to respond “Amen.” But the room falls silent; only two or three appear to mumble the affirmation.

The ceremony and this awkward moment speak volumes about the state of Jewish life in Belarus: enthusiastic renaissance of Jewish culture and society, but painstakingly difficult reconstruction of Jewish religion.

“It is easier to train people to provide social welfare services than it is to teach them values and traditions,” says Marina Fromer, the local representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which underwrites much of Jewish cultural, social and welfare services in Belarus.

That’s one main reason that all Campus activities are free — it brings Jews through the door. And they come back for more: The JDC claims a 90 percent rate of return visits.

Jewish culture — at once providing a form of entertainment and sense of belonging — is an easier lure than religiosity or spirituality, which must strike a deeper chord emotionally and demands commitment, says Sender Uritsky, the chief rabbi of Belarus.

After 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism, persuading Jews to observe Jewish law and ritual “is like trying to change an introvert into an extrovert,” Uritsky says.

Belarussian Jews describe themselves as living in a Jewish void.

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[The following article appeared March 10, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — Rabbi Sender Uritsky has a dream.

Virtually unattainable, even by his own calculations, but a dream nonetheless.

From a tungsten-lit office cluttered with religious texts, paperwork and dirty teacups, the Orthodox chief rabbi of Belarus wants to rebuild a “real Jewish community” — a geographic and spiritual enclave of Jews with shared values of how to live and rear their children — in a land where Jewish life once was as authentically Jewish as it got.

But the Jews of Belarus and elsewhere in the Soviet Union have become assimilated because of repression and intermarriage. Even now, some Jews only discover their religion when the once-hidden background of a parent or grandparent suddenly is revealed.

“During Soviet times, Jews were Jews in name only: Their passports said so,” says the friendly Uritsky, an Orthodox Jew born in Ukraine who has lived in Belarus for six years.

“Their attitude toward Jewish life today is they have no sense of being a member of a community, or of communal life. It’s impossible to order them to live a community life, so we have to educate them, to bring them closer to the Jewish values I believe in.”

To those well-versed in Jewish history, the idea of having to re-learn Judaism and Jewish life in a place like Belarus may be difficult to fathom.

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[The following article was published March 4, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — The crammed bookshelves in Yakov Basin’s personal library form an unusual collection, a rogue’s gallery of all the anti-Semitic, conspiracy-fueling publications that Basin has plucked from Belarussian bookstores during the past decade.

He pulls one from the shelf to illustrate his point: “War According to Laws of Meanness.” Its thesis of “Jewish crimes” — aspiring to global domination, for example — mirrors the notorious forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Basin describes how on Nov. 29, 2000, Belarussian legislator Sergei Kostian distributed copies of the war book to colleagues on the floor of Parliament.

Basin, a Jewish leader and human rights activist, took the publisher to court. But the state-controlled judiciary in this ex-Soviet republic deemed the book “scientific” and “academic literature” and therefore not subject to charges of inciting ethnic hatred. Some 30,000 copies were published.

Such acts anger and frustrate some of Belarus’ estimated 70,000 Jews. But others, after decades of Soviet-era anti-Semitic policies, are resigned to a certain level of anti-Jewish provocations.

Jews are relieved that the country’s authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, hasn’t adopted any of the anti-Semitic policies of the past or personally made any anti-Jewish pronouncements, Basin says.

But, he adds, Lukashenko also “has done nothing for us.”

Lukashenko sends mixed signals to the Jewish community.

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