Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Jewish’ Category

[The following post appeared May 10, 2011, on The Mantle. The post was republished May 11 on Roma Transitions.]

BRATISLAVA – The Romani people are Europe’s largest minority – and also its most marginalized. Much is written about their persecution, both historic and contemporary, especially in Central Europe today. Yet Jud Nirenberg trammels new terrain, as editor of the newly published book, “Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy.” (I was delighted to contribute two chapters: one on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the other, early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania.)

Via email, I interviewed Nirenberg, 39, who managed to produce this book while also working as associate director of the U.S. Association for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

MJ: How did you first become interested in Roma issues?

JN: I’m an American of mixed Romani and Jewish descent, grew up in Massachusetts and had a fairly assimilated childhood, which isn’t really the norm for Romani Americans. There are, of course, Americans whose parents were Romani immigrants from Europe and whose lives resemble any other first-generation Americans. A lot of Roma came in the 50s from Hungary, for example. But there is a larger community of Romani Americans who are more often the subject of writing (and who are the focus of one part of this book), whose families came a long time ago and yet who live very much apart from mainstream America.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[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.”

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Szabolcs Szedlak’s bitter disenchantment led him to Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the World Policy Journal.]

HEVES, Hungary — The past few years have been turbulent for Szabolcs Szedlak, far worse than most Hungarians could have imagined two decades ago, when they tore a hole in the Iron Curtain and changed their world.

Szedlak, 34, came of age during the tumult of the post-communist transition from dictatorship to democracy. Back then Hungarians were told, and many believed, they’d become like neighboring Austrians—a BMW in every driveway. Just don’t remind folks of those daydreams in this bleak corner of northeastern Hungary.

Szedlak and his family live in Heves, a small, quiet town of 11,000 on the great Hungarian plains. Szedlak was born here, in the heart of the country’s most depressed region. Twenty years ago, the sudden and unexpected exposure to free markets ravaged the state-controlled mines, industries and agriculture that were staples of the communist system—especially in this region. Successive governments have failed to fill the void with new jobs or re-training.

Unemployment in the region now approaches 50 percent among those aged 25 to 40, feeding widespread anger and disillusionment with Hungary’s brand of “democracy.” As joblessness soars, so has support for a new style of politics that harkens back to a bygone era, snuffed out by communism: Right-wing extremism is on the rise. According to one survey, it has doubled here since 2003. Hungary, once dubbed the “happiest barrack in the Soviet camp,” is arguably the unhappiest of the 10 ex-communist members who have since joined the European Union.

Count Szabolcs Szedlak among the disgruntled. (more…)

Read Full Post »

[The following appeared July 15 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – To be fair, I didn’t give Gabor Vona much warning.

When Foreign Policy contacted me about writing a profile of Vona [see post just below], an exciting new leader for the far right in Europe, my first goal was to humanize him a bit. That meant visiting his hometown and provincial corner of northeast Hungary. I only had thirty-six hours to do it, so I had to prioritize.

Speaking with himself Vona – whom Budapest analyst Alex Kuli likens to a “rock star” in Western media – would be dealt with later. Over the phone. From back home. Across the border in Bratislava.

That is, if I’d even get the chance. Based on his “Jobbik” party’s track record, I had my doubts. So, I wasn’t entirely surprised that after a week of back-and-forth via an intermediary, Vona rejected my request: he was “certain” his words would be “twisted, altered and falsified.”

My pursuit of a Vona comment is no failure, though. It not only sheds light onto the mentality of the newest political force on the eastern half of the continent. It also illuminates a lingering authoritarian impulse, especially when it comes to more independent-minded media.

Now, again to be fair, it’s understandable if Jobbik were to view me as “unfriendly.” I’ve freelanced from the region for the past 16 years, primarily for Western, liberal-leaning publications. I’ve written plenty about nationalism, minorities and inter-ethnic incitement, particularly as a barometer of the post-Communist transition from dictatorship to democracy.

I can imagine Jobbik wasn’t thrilled with my first article about its militaristic Magyar Garda, or “Hungarian Guard,” in March 2008. (more…)

Read Full Post »

[This piece appeared July 13 on ForeignPolicy.com.]

With Web-savvy “radical nationalism” — and a dash of anti-Semitism and Roma-baiting — firebrand politician Gabor Vona has touched a chord among Hungary’s disaffected and disillusioned young voters.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | JULY 13, 2010

Gyongyos, Hungary – While running for a parliamentary seat in Hungary’s April elections, far-right candidate Gabor Vona made one campaign promise that was controversial even by his standards: If voted into parliament, the 31-year-old extremist would report for duty wearing the insignia of his outlawed paramilitary organization, the “Hungarian Guard” — a taboo symbol that, with its ancient, red-and-white-striped emblem, bears a striking resemblance to the flag of Hungary’s Nazi-era fascist party, Arrow Cross.

The suggestion was intolerable to many Hungarians. Arrow Cross’s brief period of political dominance, during which the party murdered thousands of Hungarian Jews and shipped many tens of thousands more to concentration camps outside the country, is still a painful subject. More to the point, the insignia itself is illegal. Vona’s announcement directly flouted a court decision banning the Hungarian Guard, and it provoked the outgoing prime minister into asking the Justice Ministry to investigate.

But the controversy appeared only to reinforce the popularity of Vona’s far-right, Web-savvy Jobbik party, which went on to win a stunning 16.7 percent of the vote — the best performance of any hypernationalist party in post-communist Eastern Europe. And Vona kept his word: At the May 14 inauguration, he took off his suit jacket to reveal a black vest with the Hungarian Guard’s emblem.

Vona’s intransigence may have been shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. Central Europe may be two decades removed from communist dictatorship and ensconced in Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO — but few people are cheering. Promises of a glorious new post-communist life have resulted only in rising prices, growing unemployment, and endemic corruption. And resentment is fueling a greater appetite for right-wing extremism across the region, according to a new survey by the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. In Hungary alone, right-wing attitudes have leapt from 10 to 20 percent since 2003.

“It’s been constant disillusionment that many people [in Hungary] are susceptible to. They’re bitter about the whole system,” says Alex Kuli, a Political Capital analyst. “That’s what Vona is responding to and manipulating — this deep-seated disillusionment.” (more…)

Read Full Post »

 

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

April 22, 2009

 

GENEVA – After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s barrage Monday against Israel threatened to derail the global antiracism conference, UN officials decided to act quickly.

 

The conference was teetering on the verge of collapse. By Sunday, nine Western member-states had announced a boycott. On Monday, 22 European countries walked out as Mr. Ahmadinejad launched a verbal attack on Israel as “cruel and racist.”

 

That’s why UN officials jumped right to the main event: the final declaration. It was adopted late Tuesday, three days earlier than scheduled.

 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the document’s early adoption “great news,” saying it “reinvigorates the commitment” of governmental anti-racism efforts.

 

Typically, such documents are negotiated right into the 11th hour. That’s why it was supposed to be released April 24. The basic 16-page agreement had already been hammered out last Friday. Releasing it at the end of the five-day meeting was “just in case the main committee needed that much time – just in case various debates reopened or questions were raised,” Ms. Pillay told reporters. “None of that happened.”

 

The Ahmadinejad speech “set a very negative tone and created a very negative atmosphere,” says Slovak diplomat Drahoslav Stefanek, whose delegation was among those that walked out. “So there was a need to calm things down.” (more…)

Read Full Post »

European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

More than 40 European diplomats walked out to protest the Iranian leader’s speech, in which he called Israelis “the racist perpetrators of genocide.”

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the April 20, 2009 edition

 

GENEVA – A major UN anti-racism conference already wounded by the boycott of nine Western countries, opened Monday with the buzz of anticipation for a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the only head of state who accepted an invitation to attend.

 

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has referred to the Holocaust as a “myth” and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” assailed the West for supporting the creation of the Jewish state after the atrocities of World War II.

 

“Under the pretext of Jewish suffering, they have helped bring to power the most oppressive, racist regime in Palestine,” he said, to loud applause from Iranian activists in the gallery and pockets of headscarved Muslim women on the floor. “They have always been silent about their crimes.”

 

With that, the 23 European Union countries who had not yet boycotted the conference abandoned their seats and streamed out of the hall, which was met by a smattering of more applause.

 

It had been hoped that this year’s UN Racism Conference would avoid the fate of its 2001 predecessor, which was nearly derailed by vituperative debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event is intended to be a global forum for addressing racial intolerance and sharing how to combat it. But the Middle East conflict again threatens to dominate the agenda. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists debate outside UN-Geneva headquarters. (Photo: mjj)

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists debate outside UN-Geneva headquarters. (Photo: mjj)

A meeting to judge progress on racism is likely to be captive to Israeli-Palestinian and Islamic defamation issues.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the April 19, 2009 edition

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – The first World Conference Against Racism, held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, was all but derailed when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took center stage.

The second global meeting against racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, which starts Monday, is on shaky ground over the same question. Over the weekend, the United States and the Netherlands pulled their delegations. Australia, Israel, Canada, Sweden and Italy have said they also may boycott the UN forum in Geneva.

The week-long event is also in trouble over the issue of religious defamation, specifically the portrayal of Islam in Western nations. The 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is expected to accuse the West of Islamophobia and press to restrict criticism of Islam. If this happens, it may upstage discussion of all other topics.

At the 2001 conference, the fight over whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was racist often drowned out grievances from minorities such as the Roma of Europe, the “untouchables” of India, and the indigenous tribes of South America.

Ayca Ariyoruk, a senior associate at the United Nations Association, a pro-UN think tank, says it will be up to the OIC to “resist the temptation to bring up issues that have proven to be very divisive.” A citizen of Turkey, as is the OIC secretary-general, she adds, “This conference needs to focus on what can unite countries, not divide them.” (more…)

Read Full Post »

durbanlogo1

 

 

A crash course in eight years of the Durban process. 

 

BRATISLAVA – It’s rare for me to have covered a single story over many years, but “Durban” is one such story.

 

In 2001 I traveled to that South African city for the original U.N. event, the ambitiously titled “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.” Eight years later, I attended the follow-up “Durban Review Conference,” held in Geneva from April 20-24.

 

That’s why I devoted a special section to Durban. Like any major international issue, this one demands a grasp of the background and context, the origins and evolution. So I’ve posted links here to all the Durban-related articles I’ve written since 2001. (more…)

Read Full Post »

The 2009 Durban Review Conference will be held on U.N. grounds in Geneva (above), where security will be far tighter than in 2001. (Photo: mjj)

The 2009 Durban Review Conference will be held on U.N. grounds in Geneva (above), where security will be far tighter than in 2001. (Photo: mjj)

 

By Michael J. Jordan · April 6, 2009

 BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) – Eight years ago, at the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism, pro-Israel activists endured a week of hate-filled insults, pamphlets, posters and marches in the streets of Durban, South Africa.

 When they finally marched out of a forum that branded Israel genocidal and racist like Apartheid South Africa, keffiyah-clad antagonists serenaded them with chants of “Free, free, Palestine!”

 Overwhelmed, activists vowed to prepare better the next time. That chance comes later this month: the Durban Review Conference will be held April 20-24 in the Swiss city of Geneva.

Palestinian supporters will hold another large street demonstration and brainstorm ways to strengthen their Israel-is-apartheid movement. But this time around Jewish groups are, among other things, sponsoring a pro-Israel rally, co-sponsoring a human-rights event that will feature Martin Luther King III and others, and organizing a Holocaust commemoration just outside the gates of the bucolic U.N. compound in Geneva.

 

“Some have told me the reactions now are like post-traumatic stress syndrome, because the community was so traumatized by what happened in 2001,” says Felice Gaer, who attended Durban as director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. “Jewish tradition teaches us to repair the world, not turn our back on the world. So why will Jewish groups be in Geneva? To bear witness, fight back and repair the world.” (more…)

Read Full Post »

unrwalogoDuring the recent war in Gaza, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees repeated a pattern of bias that I documented three years ago in a five-part, award-winning series.

 

BRATISLAVA – Criticism is mounting that a UN probe of Israel’s attacks on its own facilities in Gaza is too limited, and should be widened to investigate attacks on both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

 

The UN “Board of Inquiry” findings are expected any day, and pro-Israel advocates expect no surprises – especially since the key source is UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

 

In February, Amnesty International, which pro-Israel advocates critics describe as no friend of the Jewish state, opened criticism of the narrow mandate. “What is needed,” said Amnesty’s Irene Khan, “is a comprehensive international investigation that looks at all alleged violations of international law – by Israel, by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed groups involved in the conflict.”

 

Then on March 16, 16 respected war-crimes investigators and judges sent an open letter to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, further chastising the world body – and added that a broadened investigation should recommend for prosecution “those responsible for gross violations.”

 

“It is not only the UN personnel that deserve truth and justice, but Palestinians and Israelis themselves,” wrote one signatory, Prof. William A. Schabas, former member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

 

Even if the investigation were expanded, Israel’s defenders would balk at the main witness: UNRWA. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, standing in front of the lone memorial in Karaganda to gulag victims, says his grandmother's faith in the Soviet system never wavered despite eight years in the gulag. (Photo: mjj)

Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, standing in front of the lone memorial in Karaganda to gulag victims, says his grandmother's faith in the Soviet system never wavered despite eight years in the gulag. (Photo: mjj)

 

By Michael J. Jordan · December 22, 2008

 

KARAGANDA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — Liza Luchanskiy was born to a poor, Yiddish-speaking family in Berdichev, the historic, heavily Jewish city deep in the Pale of Settlement.

 

Lured by Soviet promises of equality, she became a communist true believer, working her way up to serve on a committee in Siberia that targeted so-called enemies of the revolution. But her zeal wasn’t enough to save her or her similarly devoted husband, Josef.

 

They were swept up during the frenzy of Stalin’s Great Terror, from 1937 to 1939. Josef was shot by a firing squad in 1938, and Liza was exiled by cattle car to Karaganda.

 

Luchanskiy was sentenced to eight years in the vast network of forced-labor camps here, on the southern edge of Stalin’s fearsome gulag. Enduring extreme cold, hunger and exhaustion, which afflicted her health ever after, Luchanskiy never let go of her faith in communism, her grandson says.

 

“She never blamed the system, only Stalin,” says Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, an internist who today heads the Jewish Cultural Center in Karaganda.

 

As many as 1.2 million Soviet citizens — spanning practically all the myriad ethnic groups nationwide — were worked to death or near death in the 75 camps that comprised Karaganda. Among them were many Jews, including many rabbis. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Koran teacher Adilkhan Serikbay says Kazakhs want no trouble with Jews or any other of Kazakhstan's many ethnic and religious groups. (Photo: mjj)

Koran teacher Adilkhan Serikbay says Kazakhs want no trouble with Jews or any other of Kazakhstan's many ethnic and religious groups. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — Seventy-five years ago, the once-nomadic Kazakhs endured a famine, purportedly orchestrated by Moscow, in which some 1 million people starved to death.

 

Not long after, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin created a network of prison camps in Kazakhstan that in the late 1930s became the southern flank of his notorious Gulag, sucking in countless Kazakhs, Jews and myriad other ethnic groups.

 

Then, during the Holocaust, thousands of Jews from places such as Ukraine and Belarus were evacuated ahead of the onrushing Nazis eastward to the vast, sparsely populated steppes of Kazakhstan. The local Kazakhs mustered the hospitality to greet them with milk and bread.

 

“That which united our grandmothers and grandfathers makes us closer today,” says Jewish activist Valentina Kuznetsova, who lives in Karaganda, the country’s third-largest city.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

In tightly controlled Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ubiquitous face and words are seen as a "cult of personality." (Photo: mjj)

In tightly controlled Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ubiquitous face and words are seen as a "cult of personality." (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — In a world where Israel can claim few Muslim friends, no one is more passionate about Kazakhstan than the Israeli envoy to this oil-rich nation.

 

While the nation jockeys to be a major energy producer, joining Caspian Sea neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan as a vital alternative to Middle East instability and Russian heavy-handedness, observers often cite the Central Asian nation as a moderate Muslim bridge to the Islamic world. That helps explain why Western allies typically downplay the unseemly side of Kazakh rule — repression of independent critics, persecution of political opposition, harassment of marginal religions. They instead accentuate the positives about this ex-Soviet republic.

 

Israel’s ambassador here, Ran Ichay, also tends to focus on the upside, listing several Kazakh achievements of recent years that he terms “world-class contributions.”

 

Kazakhs, for example, voluntarily dismantled their nuclear program, even as folks in the northeastern region of Semipalatinsk still suffer from having served as human guinea pigs for Soviet-era nuclear testing. And twice they have hosted the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an interreligious forum they created that Ichay says is the rare gathering where Jews, Israelis and Iranians are spotted around the same table.

 

“Kazakhstan is very different from what we know in the Middle East,” he says from his modest office in central Astana, the capital city. “They use their religion as a bridge between cultures.”

 

Still, the elephant in the room remains oil and the worldwide worry over “energy security” that was underscored by Russia’s assault on Georgia in August. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Dina Itkina, director of the Jewish community center in Astana. (Photo: mjj)

Dina Itkina, director of the Jewish community center in Astana. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — For Dina Itkina, the number of times she has trekked hundreds of miles for a Jewish event are too many to count. But one time stands out in the mind of this young Jewish activist here — a journey to neighboring Uzbekistan.

 

Seven years ago, at the age of  17, Itkina began with a 30-hour train trip from her hometown, Kokchetav, south across the plains to Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. There she met two dozen other young Jewish leaders from around the country,  including a pair who had spent more than two days aboard a train from the western Caspian Sea coast. Together they piled into another train for the 12-hour overnighter to the southern city of Shymkent. Then came a one-hour bus trip to the border, an hour walk across the border and another hour ride to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

 

After three days of conference, there was the grueling return home.

 

“And nobody cried,” says a laughing Itkina, now 24 and director of the Jewish community center in this capital city. “You have to live here to feel the distances. But this event was a new experience, new emotions, new friends. And a lot of fun.”

 

It’s not only Jewish youth who are immersed in Kazakhstan’s culture of overnight train travel, tolerating odysseys that might deter all but the hardiest Westerners. This is the way of life in Kazakhstan, a country comparable in size to Western Europe, four times the size of Texas. Its population of 15 million is clustered across vast, mostly empty swaths of inhospitable desert and prairie known as steppes.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[The first installment of a four-part investigation; Parts II, III, IV.]

By Michael J. Jordan

NEW YORK (JTA) – In August 2001, Israel became a punching bag for several thousand human rights activists from throughout the world who were gathered for a U.N anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa.

But while the Jewish state may have been the target, the Ford Foundation also ultimately suffered a serious black eye after it emerged that many of the anti-Israel activists in Durban were egged on by Ford-backed, pro-Palestinian groups.

Hoping to head off a similar debacle, Ford says it will not pay for any organization to participate in the first follow-up conference to Durban, slated for April in Geneva. This announcement comes nearly five years after Ford, America’s second-largest philanthropic institution, adopted what experts describe as the most stringent guidelines on grantees.

Yet despite such steps and the foundation’s public criticisms of what transpired seven years ago, Ford today is funding several organizations that engage in the “Durban strategy” – a two-pronged tactic launched at the ‘01 conference to paint Israel as a “racist, apartheid” state and isolate the Jewish nation through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

The Ford slice of funds to anti-Israel nongovernmental organizations may pale compared to that provided by Europe and its myriad governmental agencies. But the Ford funding enables the groups to wage low-key, diplomatic and economic warfare against Israel, dragging the Palestinian conflict from the battlefield into international forums, media, the Internet and college campuses.

These revelations are the result of a months-long JTA investigation into Ford funding after the highly influential foundation revised its guidelines under pressure from the U.S. Congress.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[The second installment of a four-part investigation; Parts I, III, IV.]

By Michael J. Jordan

GENEVA (JTA) – In less than a year, the United Nations will try again to tackle the thorny questions of racism around the world. Its effort in 2001 devolved into a virulent attack on Israel and Jews.

While it’s too early to tell which groups hostile to Israel will show up at the follow-up conference in April, at least two hint at what treatment awaits the Jewish state.

The Ford Foundation, the powerful philanthropy whose money fueled much of the anti-Israel activity at the anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, has opted out of the event in this Swiss city.

Indeed, Durban reportedly has become something of a dreaded “D word” in some diplomatic circles, prompting widespread concern that the follow-up could be a repeat of the anti-Israel extravaganza seven years ago.

At least two Palestinian organizations have declared publicly their intent to carry the crusade launched in Durban to Geneva.

That crusade paints Israel as an “apartheid state” like the South Africa of old to be similarly crippled through boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And by most accounts, even more pro-Palestinian groups are sure to arrive in Geneva to trumpet their cause celebre.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[The third installment of a four-part investigation; Parts I, II, IV.]

By Michael J. Jordan

NEW YORK (JTA) – In October 2003, the Ford Foundation announced a five-year, $20 million grant to the New Israel Fund, an organization that promotes civil liberties and human rights in Israel. The grant was announced on the eve of publication of a JTA series, “Funding Hate,” which documented Ford funding of pro-Palestinian groups that vilified Israel and Jews at the anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

Ford has promised NIF another $20 million grant, which it says will be delivered in the fall. In the aftermath of the JTA series, Ford doled out millions more to other Jewish groups. Among the beneficiaries were:

* The Anti-Defamation League: nearly $1.5 million from 2004 to 2007 for an “online platform for delivering the teacher education programs of the ADL’s A World of Difference Institute.”

* American Jewish Committee: $400,000 in 2006 and another $550,000 for 2008 for its Berlin office “to counter anti-Semitism and other forms of bias in Germany and throughout Europe.”

* The Simon Wiesenthal Center: $600,000 from 2007 to 2009 for its Tolerance Center “to conduct a tolerance and diversity training program for New York and New Jersey criminal justice personnel.”

* Jewish Funds for Justice: $2.85 million between 2004 and 2008 for youth initiatives and leadership programs “to strengthen the development of and networking among social justice organizations.”

* The Institute for Jewish Policy Research: $935,000 between 2004 and 2008 for programs to help combat anti-Semitism and “foster dialogue among various ethnic and religious groups in Europe.”

Read Full Post »

[The fourth installment of a four-part investigation; Parts I, II, III.]

By Michael J. Jordan

NEW YORK (JTA) – In October 2003, on the eve of a JTA series about its financial support for vitriolic pro-Palestinian groups, the Ford Foundation announced a landmark $20 million grant to a Jewish group.

Not just any Jewish group: the New Israel Fund, an organization dedicated to social change in Israel, yet criticized by some for funding groups involved in Israeli Arab and Palestinian rights that accuse the Jewish state of horrendous human rights violations.

Nearly five years later, the NIF-run Ford Israel Fund is facing the same dilemma as Ford regarding the behavior of a small but influential number of its grantees: While these nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are mostly engaged in conventional civil rights work, there are dueling perceptions of whether some cross the line into anti-Israel demonization.

Do the words and actions of these groups incite hatred or challenge the legitimacy of Israel, as some observers believe, or are they engaged in legitimate political activism, exercising freedom of speech that no pro-democracy organization should dare censor? For the NIF, the answer is clearly the latter. Yet cognizant of its predominantly American Jewish donor base, the organization often finds itself navigating a delicate line.

“Our family of organizations represents a wide range of opinions on various difficult issues, and we do not expect them to adhere to an NIF position in every instance,” said Naomi Paiss, the group’s spokeswoman in the United States. “We expect organizations to share our values in the broad sense, and one of the most important of those values is free discourse in the democratic context.”

Even as it defends freedom of speech for its grantees, the NIF downplays the role some of them have played in injecting fodder into the steady stream of anti-Israel propaganda that permeates the public debate in Israel, in the international arena and on the Internet. Critics of the NIF counter that some of the grantees’ public pronouncements have inflamed domestic tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs, and between hawks and doves, while also feeding into a global PR machinery that tends to ascribe the most nefarious motives to Israel’s every move.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

The author says it was "gratifying" to see his sons Kende, far left, and Miksa, second from left, "find their Jewishness a comfortable fit" at a Jewish camp in Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

The author says it was "gratifying" to see his sons Kende, far left, and Miksa, second from left, "find their Jewishness a comfortable fit" at a Jewish camp in Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · June 23, 2008

 

 

SZARVAS, HUNGARY (JTA) – A friend told me recently about an article he had read proposing that one way to encourage children to eat salad is to drizzle a dab of dressing on top. This way, they would associate healthy eating with something positive rather than the parental harangue, “Because it’s good for you.”

 

I was reminded of this advice earlier this month when we immersed our two sons, ages 6 and 4, in their first meaningful Jewish experience: five days at the renowned international Camp Szarvas in southeastern Hungary.

 

On this occasion, though, instead of the hundreds of Jewish youth from across Central-Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who gather here each summer at this Jewish oasis, it was Family Week for Hungarian Jewish families with young children.

 

It was particularly important for my boys to have a positive experience, as my Hungarian wife and I have agreed to raise them with dual identities: Hungarian and Jewish – with a dash of American. And while Agi has held up her end of the deal, I – a tribal agnostic – need to offer up some Jewish substance. Or, as we say in journalism, “show, don’t tell” what being a Jew means to me. (more…)

Read Full Post »

[This piece appeared March 21, 2008, in Transitions Online.]

 

A Hungarian far-right party spins off a contingent of uniformed marchers and takes aim at “Gypsy criminality.”

 

by Michael J. Jordan

 

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY | Tamas Gyimesi has a style all his own, like a cross between a nightclub bouncer and Hungarian folkloric dancer.

 

 

 

Below his shaved head and gold loops that dangle from both ears, he’s wearing a striking floral, hand-woven vest over a billowing white shirt.

 

On marching days, though, Gyimesi breaks out a more ominous look. He and fellow members of the new, far-right Hungarian Guard don black boots, black caps and black vests stamped with ancient Hungarian stripes last embraced by the Nazi-allied Arrow Cross – a regime that killed tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, dumping many of them in the icy Danube.

 

Members of the Guard, which claims at least 650 adherents, say their mission is to protect Hungarians, their culture, their traditions.

 

“Here, all the minorities have rights, but unfortunately, I don’t have rights,” Gyimesi explains from the outset. “We’re becoming a minority in our own country.” (more…)

Read Full Post »

[The following announcement appeared in JTA on July 3, 2007. The five-part series on UNRWA was published March 15, 2006. To read UNRWA's response, click here.]

NEW YORK (JTA) – JTA earned six journalism awards at last week’s gathering of the American Jewish Press Association in San Francisco.

The Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism, established in 1980, recognizes outstanding journalism in 14 categories.

For the fourth year in a row, JTA took top honors in the investigative
reporting category with a five-part series by Michael J. Jordan that
delved into the practices of the United Nations Relief and Works
Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees.

A JTA investigative series by Edwin Black took third prize in the same category. The series, “Hitler’s carmaker,” reported General Motors’ ties to the Nazi regime.

Brian Hendler, JTA’s Jerusalem photographer, also garnered first place in the
photography category for his photo “Sister Mourns Brother.”

JTA also won two of the three awards in the category for personality profiles: Uriel Heilman placed second for “Doctoring in Ethiopia,” which detailed the life of Dr. Rick Hodes, who has spent much of his career administering to the sick in Ethiopia, and Ruth Ellen Gruber was third for “Ride ‘em Jewboy,” about the maverick Texas politician Kinky Friedman.

In the Excellence in News Reporting category, JTA’s Tel Aviv-based correspondent Dina Kraft won third place for “Sudanese Refugees Jailed in Israel.”

Read Full Post »

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the March 21, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – Simonas Gurevicius has serious shtick. Blue eyes gleaming, he talks fast and animatedly. His accent, inflection, and shoulder shrugs – like a young Jackie Mason – makes him a throwback to the “Borscht Belt” and the dozens of famed, Yiddish-influenced comics who honed their acts in the upstate New York resorts that once catered to Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

 

But Simonas is no comic and he’s never been in the Catskills. He’s a Yiddish-speaking Jew from Lithuania, the Baltic region of northeastern Europe.

 

“Have a seat there,” Simonas says in English, motioning a visitor to a chair. As the visitor bends to sit, he adds: “The chair’s broken.”

 

“And this, this is a nice guy,” he deadpans, introducing a young colleague. Beat. “But he’s got major psychological problems.”

 

Simonas’s corny shtick is no gimmick; its rhythm and accent ring with authenticity. He’s a rare breed: a young, native speaker of Yiddish, the historic language of Eastern European Jews. And his perseverance makes him something of a hero here.

 

“Simonas is the last of the Mohicans,” says DovidKatz, the Brooklyn-born director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. “He’s the last of his generation here to have learned Yiddish in the home.”

 

The Holocaust erased 5 million of the world’s 11 million Yiddish-speakers. In Lithuania, 220,000 of 250,000 Jews died. But Simonas and other Jews here in Vilnius – the cobblestoned cradle of Yiddish life and culture, or Yiddishkeit; a city Napoleon reportedly dubbed “the Jerusalem of the East” – are today working to revive the language. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Rosy and Frank Jordan in a recent photo with two of their grandchildren – Kende, 2, and Miksa, 4, the author’s sons. (Photo: mjj)

Rosy and Frank Jordan in a recent photo with two of their grandchildren – Kende, 2, and Miksa, 4, the author’s sons. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · October 25, 2006

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) — The first came to America with parents, delivered via U.S. Army transport plane. The other arrived alone, six months later, aboard an ocean liner. 

My mother and father were refugees from different lands. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the simultaneous Cold War events that spurred their journey to freedom. October 1956: The Hungarian Revolution. The Suez Canal Crisis.

 

“It was the most crucial month of the most crucial year, the most dramatic time in the entire history of the Cold War,” historian John Lukacs wrote a decade later in “A New History of the Cold War.”

 

As the world confronts a nuclear North Korea and nuclear-aspiring Iran, the 50-year anniversary reminds us of the world’s first nuclear showdown. Coming at the height of the nuclear-arms race, the Hungary-Suez entanglement sparked the first Soviet threat to attack the West with what Nikita Khrushchev called “rocket weapons.”

 

The American reluctance to intervene in Hungary — after encouraging Hungarians to rise up against their Stalinist oppressors — also was a turning point in U.S.-USSR relations, signaling to the Soviets that their grip on half of Europe would go unchallenged.

 

Meanwhile, the British-French maneuver against Soviet-friendly Egypt to reclaim the Suez Canal — in concert with Israel, but without U.S. support — almost shattered the NATO military alliance. With London and Paris ultimately forced to climb down, the Suez adventure drove the final nail in the British imperial coffin.

 

For me, October 1956 was a pivotal time in my parents’ teenage lives — though they would actually meet only a decade later, as newly minted U.S. citizens in Philadelphia. Dad was born and raised in Budapest; Mom in Alexandria, Egypt. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Newly arrived Hungarian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. who fled their country due to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  (Courtesy HIAS)

Newly arrived Hungarian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. who fled their country due to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. (Courtesy HIAS)

By Michael J. Jordan · October 25, 2006

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) — The second half of the 20th century was marked by crises that sparked waves of Jewish flight and immigration — but it was rare for two such crises to happen simultaneously.

 

In late 1956 and early 1957, the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis in Egypt rattled their respective Jewish populations, disgorging about 20,000 Jews apiece. For those who fled, the anti-Jewish strain in each event was the final straw.

 

“Ask anybody who had to flee once: It’s just a matter of pure physics,” says Valery Bazarov, director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s location and family history services, who bolted the Soviet Union with his family in 1988. “You have a scale: When the fear to stay is greater than the fear to leave, then you go. But it depends on your physical and spiritual mindset, how you interpret what you see and hear.”

 

For neither community was this the first wave of emigration: On the heels of a Holocaust that decimated their community, thousands of Hungarian Jews migrated to pre-state Palestine or to the West. Others didn’t have the means to leave or stayed with elderly relatives.

 

But thousands more — especially young Holocaust survivors grateful to the Soviets for liberating them — flocked to join Soviet-backed Communists who sought to ensure that fascism would never return. (more…)

Read Full Post »

[The following response appeared in JTA on April 10, 2006, in response to my five-part series on UNRWA. To read about the Rockower Award garnered for the series, click here.]

By Karen Koning AbuZayd

UNITED NATIONS, April 4 — The series of articles posted on the JTA web site 16 March testifies to the interest that UNRWA elicits.

The articles are well-researched, inter alia thanks to the extensive contacts between author Michael Jordan and UNRWA’s liaison office in New York. UNRWA attempted to respond to all the queries he had, and the articles reflect an understanding of most of the issues addressed.

While it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain the provenance of the information in the series since it often is attributed to anonymous “sources” or “critics,” the analysis provided is well-reasoned, if not always balanced.

But the approach appears to obscure the main thrust of UNRWA’s role and activities. We are here to provide education, health and related services to a largely destitute population of Palestine refugees in the region.

In doing so, I believe the agency has played a significant role in contributing to stability while imbuing the refugees we serve with a sense of purpose and hope. Against heavy odds, most of the refugees have managed to better their lives and become productive participants in the local economy.

What UNRWA does not do, as I made clear in an interview, is administer or supervise the camps. We have maintained the provision of our services in difficult (and sometimes quite dangerous) circumstances thanks to the resilience and commitment of our staff, and I am proud of the fact that almost all are refugees themselves.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[The following appeared in JTA on March 15, 2006, as Part I of a five-part series. See Part II, III, IV and V. For UNRWA's post-publication response, click here. And for the Rockower Award announcement, click here.]

NEW YORK (JTA) — As Washington and the West weigh a cutoff of aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency could become a crucial lifeline to millions of Palestinian refugees who depend on it for vital services.

But the recent Palestinian parliamentary elections have revived a long-standing Israeli concern: that some of UNRWA’s staff are members of Hamas, or at least sympathize with the terrorist group’s anti-Israel cause.

Israeli concerns were not eased by the fact that nine UNRWA staffers resigned to run for office in the late-January elections that Hamas swept, and another former staffer was named to serve as interior minister in the Hamas government. Furthermore, the nine candidates had to be firmly reminded, in a letter from the agency’s commissioner-general, that participating in Palestinian politics is incompatible with UNRWA’s ideal of neutrality.

To many supporters of Israel, however, UNRWA’s efforts in the region have rarely been impartial. During the Palestinian intifada, the agency routinely blamed Israel for bloodshed, eliding the Palestinian contribution to the “cycle of violence.”

Its one-sided criticism played a significant role in shaping international opinion against the Jewish state — helping to prolong the war, critics charge, by emboldening Palestinians to attack. UNRWA camps, including the infamous West Bank refugee camp that is part of Jenin, became engines of the intifada, with terrorists using them as bases from which to plan and carry out attacks — sheltering themselves, all the while, under the U.N.’s vaunted neutrality.

Tensions between UNRWA and Israel have lessened in the past year as the number of terrorist attacks, and concomitant Israeli reprisals, dropped significantly. But with many observers warning of an imminent resumption of the intifada, this time centered on the West Bank, whether UNRWA camps are again allowed to become incubators of terrorism may go a long way toward determining if peace will come to the Middle East.

It could also help determine if UNRWA’s Palestinian charges can become citizens of their own independent state, ending their decades-long status as refugees. At this critical juncture in the region, JTA takes a close look at the U.N. agency that for 56 years has helped ensure Palestinian refugees’ basic survival — yet also, some say, has helped make the Palestinian refugee issue one of the most intractable and incendiary political problems on Earth.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[The following appeared in JTA on March 15, 2006, as Part IV of a five-part series. See Part I, II, III and V. For UNRWA's post-publication response, click here. And for the Rockower Award announcement, click here.]

NEW YORK (JTA) — Armed gunmen roamed freely in United Nations refugee camps. They stockpiled weapons, recruited refugees and launched cross-border attacks. In response, opposing forces attacked the camps, aiming for the gunmen — but sometimes cutting down civilians in the process.

The international community was troubled both by the instability fomented and the thought of the beleaguered refugees — exploited within the camps, denied a truly safe haven, then caught in the crossfire.

So the United Nations took action. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan produced a pair of landmark reports singling out the militarization of refugee camps as a cause of conflict and insecurity.

He called for the “separation of armed elements from refugee populations” to maintain the camps’ civilian character. And he outlined several steps to police the camps. The U.N. Security Council followed suit in 1998 with Resolution 1208, defending the sanctity of refugee camps and criminalizing their militarization.

What was the source of this international concern — the Palestinian camps in Gaza and the West Bank? No, it was Africa in the mid-1990s, when civil wars in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia and elsewhere unleashed torrents of refugees across the continent.

To defenders of Israel, the scenario described above sounds familiar. They question why the world body has never applied Resolution 1208 to the 27 U.N. refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which were a prime source of attacks during the violent Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.

Security Council resolutions carry the weight of international law — and Resolution 1208 itself makes note of the fact that it should be universally applied. The question of the Palestinian exception to 1208 is more than theoretical.

Despite moves toward reform in other areas, the U.N. General Assembly is unlikely to make any changes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides relief and social services to the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Thus, an appeal to the Security Council to apply Resolution 1208 may be a viable option if, as some predict, the intifada is renewed and terrorists again use UNRWA camps to plan and launch attacks against Israel.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[The following appeared in JTA on March 15, 2006, as Part III of a five-part series. See Part I, II, IV and V. For UNRWA's post-publication response, click here. And for the Rockower Award announcement, click here.]

NEW YORK (JTA) — The honeymoon was sure to end sooner or later.

Since Karen Koning AbuZayd took the reins nearly a year ago of the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees, Israeli officials had praised her for steering clear of the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the smoother sailing was always a bit misleading. AbuZayd’s controversial predecessor, Peter Hansen, had served during the intifada, when Israel cracked down on terrorists in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, often via incursions into UNRWA refugee camps that were incubators of militancy.

During the relative calm since AbuZayd took over UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Israel had conducted no large-scale operations — and so had not come in for UNRWA criticism.

That has changed in recent weeks, with an Israel Defense Force offensive into the Balata refugee camp in Nablus and elsewhere to hunt down wanted men. With that, AbuZayd has made herself heard — in UNRWA’s familiar, imbalanced fashion.

“Israeli military operations have continued in the OPT, including daily shelling (in response to Kassam rocket attacks), targeted assassinations in Gaza and new incursions in the West Bank,” AbuZayd told diplomats of the 21-nation UNRWA Advisory Commission on Feb. 27 in Amman. “In the latest IDF operation in Balata camp, some of our installations were commandeered by the IDF, despite all efforts made by my West Bank colleagues and myself at preventing these unacceptable and illegal intrusions.”

Not only did AbuZayd adopt the language of the Palestinian narrative — the OPT refers to the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” — but her passive wording skipped over the fact that the Kassams were launched by Palestinians. And that was the lone reference to Palestinian violence; in contrast, several paragraphs focus on Israeli actions, with no mention of their motives.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[The following appeared in JTA on March 15, 2006, as Part II of a five-part series. See Part I, III, IV and V. For UNRWA's post-publication response, click here. And for the Rockower Award announcement, click here.]

NEW YORK (JTA) — There may be no greater test of the United Nations’ vaunted neutrality than to be a Palestinian staffer of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.

UNRWA has 12,000-plus employees in those areas — where it’s the second-largest employer after the Palestinian Authority — and similar numbers in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

In all, more than 99 percent of its staff members are Palestinian. No other U.N. agency boasts such an overwhelming ratio of local to foreign field staff.

And nine of 10 UNRWA employees are themselves refugees, the agency says.

UNRWA employees and their families in the Palestinian territories go through everything that society at large endures, which during the intifada meant the self-described “daily humiliations” of restricted movement, material deprivation and Israeli anti-terrorist raids.

Nevertheless, UNRWA employees must sign a code of conduct that compels them to avoid actions that “may adversely affect on their status, or on the integrity, independence and impartiality which are required by that status.”

Realistically, though, some observers ask: Would it be surprising if UNRWA employees were to loathe Israel and embrace the Palestinian cause — and have it influence their work?

Some of UNRWA’s harsher critics speak as if the agency were actively complicit in terrorism, but others say the situation isn’t black and white.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[The following appeared in JTA on March 15, 2006, as Part V of a five-part series. See Part I, II, III and IV. For UNRWA's post-publication response, click here. And for the Rockower Award announcement, click here.]

NEW YORK (JTA) — The U.N. General Assembly established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in 1949 as a temporary agency focused on relief work for the Palestinians. It began operating in 1950.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees in the war that began when the Palestinians and their Arab allies attacked the fledgling Jewish state the day after its independence in 1948.

Some were purposely flushed from their homes as Jewish forces sought to secure key roads and pacify areas from which Jewish communities had been attacked. Some were encouraged to leave by the Arab states, which told the refugees that they could return shortly to claim the spoils after the Jews were killed. Many simply fled what had become a combat zone.

The Palestinians constituted just one of many refugee populations in the years after World War II, and many outsiders expected their case to be the easiest of the post-war refugee crises to resolve.

Many found shelter in neighboring countries that shared their language, religion and culture, and where many of them had blood ties. Indeed, the roughly equal number of Jewish refugees who fled or were expelled from the Muslim world during the same period were quickly resettled in Israel or in the West.

Unlike the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, which serves the world’s other 19.2 million refugees, UNRWA was not tasked with finding solutions to the refugees’ plight. Instead, UNRWA’s definition of refugee — which counted even migrants who had lived in the area for as little as two years — further expanded in the 1950s when, in an unprecedented move, UNRWA included descendants of the original refugees.

This was an expanded definition that the UNHCR never adopted.  Thus, while other refugee groups have dwindled due to resettlement or death, the Palestinian refugee population, uniquely, continues to grow — from 914,000 registered refugees in 1950 to some 4.3 million today, roughly one-third of whom live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Read Full Post »

[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.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[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.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[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.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

[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.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 97 other followers