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[The following article appeared on Oct. 4, 2011, in The Christian Science Monitor. It’s the third of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part I here and Part II here.]

Since last year’s ‘Red Sludge’ disaster, Hungary’s worst environmental tragedy, Hungarians have used the tools of democracy to seek restitution – a rarity in this former Communist state.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent

DEVECSER, Hungary – On Oct. 3, 2010, Jozsef Konkoly finished installing a new heating system in his home in the Hungarian town of Devescer, in advance of winter. Overall, he’d invested a small fortune on renovations.

Jozsef Konkoly, standing where his home once stood, has inspired hundreds of neighbors. (Photo: mjj)

The next day, red sludge cascaded through his windows.

Mr. Konkoly is just one face of Hungary’s deadliest ecological tragedy, the toxic “Red Sludge” calamity that struck this small Central European nation last October. But one year later, he’s also become a rare – and unlikely – symbol of Hungarian democracy-in-action.

Konkoly successfully sued the factory that was responsible for the disaster, becoming an inspiration for hundreds of other ordinary folks in Devecser and Kolontar to do the same. Victims include not only those who lost homes and are now moving into new, government-built homes, but the unscathed neighbors who saw their property value collapse overnight.

At the same time, Konkoly and fellow plaintiffs illuminate a stark truth about Hungary today, two decades into the transition from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy: despite growing disillusion and revisionist nostalgia for a ruthless ancien régime, democracy and rule of law are slowly taking root in these post-authoritarian lands.

(more…)

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[This article appeared Sept. 15, 2011, on Transitions Online in Prague. It was republished Sept. 16 on Roma Transitions, and republished Sept. 22 on The Mantle.]

After years of debate, the EU unveils its first high-level policy document on the Roma. Now it’s up to national governments to fill in the outline.

By Michael J. Jordan 15 September 2011

BUDAPEST | Angela Kocze has been a firsthand witness to all the calamities that have befallen her fellow Roma over the two decades since Central and Eastern Europe rid itself of communist rule.

Nevertheless, Kocze is the rare voice to somehow muster “cautious optimism” about the first unified European Union policy to target the plight of the Roma, Europe’s largest, most-despised and most-marginalized minority.

Angela Kocze (Photo: mjj)

She even swallows a grain of salt in that it’s Hungary, her homeland, that claims the new EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies as a crowning achievement of its just-concluded stint in the presidency of the European Union. Budapest can only hope Western partners will look more kindly upon its six-month reign, which was tainted from the outset by Hungary’s suffocating new media law.

Kocze, a research fellow in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for National and Ethnic Minorities, has for years heard empty – even insincere – promises from Budapest to do something about the subpar education, employment, health, and housing from which many Roma are unable to escape.

Meanwhile, the country has seen the dramatic rise of an openly racist, far-right party. In a not-entirely-unrelated development, nine Hungarian Roma have been murdered in suspected racist attacks, including a man and his 5-year-old son shot as they fled their fire-bombed home.

Yet the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban – despite a number of overtures to the far right over the years – seems to have adopted a new stance, promoting the idea that “Hungarians should not see Roma as a problem, but as an opportunity,” Kocze says. “Something new has started, and there’s an opportunity right now that can be exploited.”

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[The following piece appeared July 22 in TOL/Transitions Online. (It was republished on The Mantle, then republished again on Roma Transitions.) This was the first of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part II here and Part III here.]

Only a few condemned homes, stained red, have yet to be demolished. (Photo: mjj)

DEVECSER, Hungary – It was just past noon last Oct. 4, and Karoly Horvath had returned home from fishing a local lake, here in provincial western Hungary. His wife and 12-year-old daughter were home to greet him, too – just as the waves of red sludge crashed through the door and windows.

Within seconds, the toxic mud was above their waist, burning the skin. Unable to move, Karoly could only watch mother and child screaming in agony.

“It was the most awful thing,” says Karoly, 38. “As a husband and father, stuck in that red sludge, seeing that happen to them before my eyes, but being so helpless to do something about it.”

His wife, Eva, was hospitalized with burns across 70 percent of her body. At least she survived: ten were killed in what instantly became Hungary’s deadliest industrial accident ever. Greenpeace went so far as to call it one of Europe’s worst ecological disasters “in the past 20 or 30 years.”

For Hungary, the rupture of a Communist-era reservoir of aluminum waste was one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii. In Devecser, it poured trauma upon trauma for a people already battered by years of economic hardship and political hatred. Today, though, amid the gloom is a glimmer of hope: scores of hapless victims have discovered a rare source of empowerment – the courts – to pursue compensation from the wealthy, well-connected owners of the aluminum company. This reveals a surprising appreciation for the rule of law in a country often painted as fed up with its harsh brand of democracy, two decades into the post-Communist transition.

On the flip side, though, a new strain of Hungarian resentment has recently bubbled up: at the Roma living among them, known more derogatorily here as ciganyok, or “gypsies.” The venom illuminates how embittered Hungarians have grown, especially toward Europe’s most marginalized minority.

Observers may view the Horvath family as victims. But because they’re Roma, some Hungarians harbor doubts. The mantra around Devecser is, “For many, this wasn’t a red sludge, but a golden sludge.”

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[The following commentary appeared June 6, 2011, in Harvard’s Nieman Reports.] It was republished June 10 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Western intervention in Libya – and in the Arab Spring itself – has revived debate over “exporting our values,” especially the kinder, gentler, non-militaristic forms of soft power.

Then along comes James Miller’s exquisitely timed broadside, “Questioning the Western Approach to Training,” against one of those soft-power instruments – Western journalism training – in the Spring 2011 issue of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Reports. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the magazine.)

I’m compelled to respond because Miller – a Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, Goldsmiths, University of London, on sabbatical from Hampshire College – sounds like he’d dispatch with overseas journalism educators like me. There it is, in black and white, when he derides “media missionaries.”

I do indeed preach the gospel, whether to university students in post-Communist Slovakia and Czech Republic, or in Hong Kong to Chinese students from the heavily censored mainland, or to minority Roma (a.k.a. “Gypsy”) journalists in the Balkans, or to hundreds of international participants in a biennial foreign-correspondent training course in Prague. I’m not unlike the proselytizing, wholesome-looking Mormons I see around the globe, in their white shirts and black name-tags. Except I do my sermonizing in the classroom, about what I call serious, responsible journalism.

In his essay, Miller writes, “This is a time of unprecedented international efforts to codify and inculcate Western-style news reporting and editing – to train on a global scale what its proponents assertively call ‘world journalism’ – in places quite different from American newsrooms and classrooms, with nothing like the journalistic or political-cultural history of North America and Western Europe.” It’s unclear if he’s calling for a less-Western, more sensitive style to such training, or urging that it be scaled down altogether. Both views are wrong.

He cites the case of post-Communist Eastern Europe – a place I know well, after 16 years as a foreign correspondent out here. “Cold War modernization theory,” says Miller, has fostered “a surprisingly idealized version of mainstream journalism” as a “necessary means of democratization.”

My question for Professor Miller: What’s wrong with that?

(more…)

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[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.

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[The following post appeared  May 3, 2011, on The Mantle.]

I woke up yesterday to the news that Osama Bin Laden had finally been tracked and assassinated. My initial reaction: “Wow. Took ten years, but they got ‘im.” Then I read about the spontaneous celebrations that broke out on some of America’s streets – it didn’t sit well.

Celebrating outside the White House, May 2, 2011. (Photo: Robb Hill, http://www.robbhill.com)

From the hinterlands of Bratislava’s cafés, I needed to “chat.” So, I conducted a social-media experiment with my Facebook “friends.” The result is a fascinating mini-oral history of a milestone day: support, skepticism, ambivalence. Flowed below is my request and their comments, in the order of their arrival. Yet the comments are not closed! Want to add your two cents’ worth? Please do! …

Greetings, my fellow Americans! And anyone else living in the motherland!

I have a made-for-social-media kinda request. I, like you, have been captivated by the momentous kill of Osama bin Laden, ten years in the making. Seeing as I’m not among you, stateside, could you please report to me: a) where you are currently stationed in life; b) roughly how many people “celebrated with jubilation” on the streets of your town – according to your very own eyes, local media, and citizen journalists; and finally, c) any reaction or analysis of your own you might want to add.

To me, I find it curious to learn of crowds (disproportionately small – or large?) out “celebrating” a state execution. Even one as utterly justifiable as Osama’s. I wonder if it might have been more meaningful for society to seize upon this rare opportunity to remind ourselves – and the world watching us – of the three thousand people who Osama murdered on 9/11. What was lost. Instead, whooping it up like your town just won the college-basketball championship?

How isolated was this phenomenon? How should the world interpret such reaction? Bloodlust, perhaps? Please, tell me your thoughts. I’m all ears!

Wait. Come to think of it, I’d also like to ask my non-American friends living beyond our shores: how do you interpret the American response you’ve seen, heard and read? Why do you see it that way? Lastly, I shouldn’t ignore my compatriots in the American diaspora: Feel free to weigh in!

Sincerely, Michael

Donald Allport Bird (American): ‎”Greetings My Fellow Americans”!!!! Are you running for President, too?

Scott Goldman (American): My initial reaction to seeing those crowds in NYC and DC was the age of the participants. They were mostly college age people and it struck me that these were 9, 10 and 11 year olds on 9/11. Their joy came from a deep place on what must have been an extremely frightening day from a child’s perspective. Now grown up, those fears are exorcised to some extent. Very, very powerful.

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[Below is the blurb of a book to which I contributed two chapters. The first on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the second about early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania. This book may be purchased from Amazon.]

Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy

Editor: Jud Nirenberg

Authors: Anne Marie Codur, Carol Miller, Jud Nirenberg, Claude Cahn, Maria Serban-Temisan, Bill Bila, Michael J. Jordan, Fernanda Amaral, Istvan Forgacs et al

Roma (Gypsy) communities are not all the same. Everywhere, however, Roma are the objects of some mixture of distrust and exoticism. This collection of essays offers rare and candid voices of Roma and non-Roma women and men on sexuality, gender and inter-racial relations. The collection explores the myths about the romantic and alluring Gypsies and some of the most controversial realities. From teen marriage to prostitution to some governments’ coercive sterilization of Romani women and with memoirs covering topics from inter-ethnic love affairs to rape, Gypsy Sexuality collects the words of poor Roma in slums alongside the writing of the community’s political and women’s rights leaders.  The reader will never think about Gypsies the same way.

Available now on Kindle. Coming in paperback in April 2011 to Amazon and selected independent booksellers in Europe and the United States.

“One needs to read this attentively…This book shows the reality of Romani life…I believe that more books like this are needed.”

Asmet Elezovski, Secretary General, European Roma and Travelers’ Forum

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Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)

[The following post appeared March 14 on The Mantle. It was republished March 19 on “Roma Transitions.”]

BRATISLAVAOn the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party. Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, eyeing the situation. The din grows louder, headed our way.

“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”

No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It’s the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” — Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. — they don’t boast nearly the visibility of the Czech Republic’s “Workers’ Social Justice Party,” nor the appeal of extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.” (That uniformed paramilitary is now menacing Roma villagers in Hungary’s Heves County, a region I profiled last year for its far-right support.)

As fish-out-of-water expats in Bratislava, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia’s pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.

On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Led by the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler’s plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.

These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”

So here’s the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.

Without a camera, I fumble for my IPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police — I’m always at my bravest with cops around — I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.

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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…)

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[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on TOL’s Roma Blogs.]

The Slovak flag at half-mast today on a Bratislava street. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – In April 1999, when two American teens mowed down 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, it was a watershed moment for the country. It spawned all sorts of soul-searching and debate, on everything from gun-control laws and teen bullying to vicious video games and use of anti-depressants. It also inspired Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary on gun violence in the U.S.

In other words, a healthy response to trauma may be to look in the mirror and ask: “Does this say something about our society? Does it say something about us? Does it say something about me?”

Yet most Slovaks, it seems, want no such introspection.

Bratislava was the scene Monday of the worst massacre in Slovakia’s 17-year history, in which a lone gunman killed seven people, including six members of the same family, and injured another 15. In a flash, tiny Slovakia made global headlines. Yet the bigger story here for me – journalistically speaking – is not the bloodbath itself, but overall reaction to it: blame the victim.

You see, the family hailed from the Roma minority – a.k.a. the reviled “Gypsies.” And from the look of media reports, the thinking is that this Roma family must’ve done something to push their 48-year-old neighbor, described as moody loner Ľubomír Harman, over the edge into a murderous frenzy. (more…)

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[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…)

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[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…)

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(This post appears on my newest client, The Mantle.)

BRATISLAVA — A few years ago, I had a rare opportunity: to visit a real ghetto.

Located in eastern Slovakia, it was populated by minority Roma, known more pejoratively as “Gypsies” in Central and Eastern Europe. These Roma were booted from the downtown of a small city, shunted to its undeveloped outskirts. For me, entering their settlement was like walking into a National Geographic video. Except this wasn’t sub-Saharan Africa, or deep in the Amazon. This was the European Union.

Corrugated-metal and wood shacks. Mounds of stinking garbage. Leaking pipes that kept the place a muddy swamp. Hordes of disheveled (but playful) kids, dressed in rags.

“This, too, is Europe,” I muttered to myself.

I was reminded of that visit in recent days, following the troubling news about Slovakia and its half-million Roma. Last month, my Budapest colleague, Adam LeBor, reported for the Times of London about a new wall that separates Roma from Slovaks in the village of Ostrovany. Built by local authorities, with government funds.

Then, on March 8, Prime Minister Robert Fico floated the idea of taking Roma children from their homes – with parental consent, of course – and sending them to specially created boarding schools.

Slovakia is hardly the only ex-Communist country with a Roma problem. I’ve written about an anti-Roma climate in the Czech Republic so bad that scores have sought asylum in Canada, and a resurgent far-right in Hungary, including a uniformed militia, that rails against “Gypsy criminality.” (Coincidentally, a half-dozen Hungarian Roma have been killed in recent years.)

(more…)

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BRATISLAVA — I’ve often described to family and friends the “healthy emotional distance” I enjoy from American politics, while living overseas: I follow it from afar, while thankfully not submerged in it.

Like, right now. With the ongoing battle over health-care reform, the escalating Obama-hatred definitely feels scarier than the Bush-hatred that preceded it.

So, what’s the difference? Could it really be Obama’s blackness has unleashed all sorts of latent and not-so-latent racism? That epithets like “radical Communist,” “Marxist” and “socialist” – which sound odd from real-McCoy, ex-Communist Eastern Europe – are coded substitutes for the suicidal “N”-word? Or that “white, Christian America” feels besieged, and won’t have their country “stolen” without a fight?

I just Skype-chatted with an American friend of mine in Vietnam, who thinks the culture of “victimization” has somehow seeped into the minds of many conservatives. I’d go further. My own take from thousands of miles away is this: incitement and hate-speech work. If circumstances are ripe for it.

An analogy: when Yugoslavia exploded into an inter-ethnic bloodbath the early 1990s, many in the West resisted intervention, rationalizing: “These ethnic groups have hated each other for centuries. What can we do about that?” Yet that ignored the fact it was charismatic leaders like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman who pricked and provoked their people, hammering away at historic grievances that many folks had pushed to the shadows. Or, may have been unaware of altogether.

What Milosevic and Tudjman did, essentially, was convince people to hate “the other.” Just like, it seems, what agitators Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others are doing right now. They feed their audience’s deepest fears – or even stoke fears they never had before. Then, watch the hatred flow.

I’m certainly not suggesting it will lead to Bosnian-style butchery in America’s streets. But I’m reminded once again what shrewd observers say about the Holocaust: it began with words, not bullets.

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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…)

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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…)

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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…)

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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…)

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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…)

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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…)

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[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…)

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[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…)

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[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.”

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[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…)

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[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…)

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Seymur Alizadeh patrols the BTC pipeline near the village of Duzdag, Azerbaijan. (Photo: Yigal Schleifer)

Seymur Alizadeh patrols the BTC pipeline near the village of Duzdag, Azerbaijan. (Photo: Yigal Schleifer)

The $100 million effort stretches across 450 towns and is part of a growing push for corporate social responsibility. 

 

By Michael J. Jordan and Yigal Schleifer |

Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor

from the March 12, 2008 edition

 

DUZDAG, AZERBAIJAN – Six days a week, Seymur Alizadeh and his chestnut-brown mare patrol the Azerbaijani countryside. Buried a few feet below is the prized Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which delivers nearly 1 million barrels of Caspian Sea crude to Western markets each day.

 

Mr. Alizadeh, one of many local villagers guarding the oil route, says, “I feel like a very important part in protecting this pipeline.” Hiring local horsemen is part of a larger effort by pipeline builder BP to create a massive neighborhood watch.

 

BP and other energy companies are under scrutiny for their relations with local communities worldwide for the cost, disruption, and even bloodshed their lucrative pipelines are responsible for. So in recent years they’ve honed a new formula: invest heavily in the affected communities and try to foster goodwill, neutralize controversy, and hopefully safeguard their multibillion-dollar investments.

 

“They have the spotlight on them to do something good in the societies in which they operate, and with the Internet communication revolution, you can very easily publicize something about them from any corner of the globe if they do not behave appropriately,” says Lars Gulbrandsen, a Norwegian researcher who has studied corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Azerbaijan and elsewhere. (more…)

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Governments and many Roma alike are reluctant to gather accurate information on Europe’s largest minority, but activists say a lack of data blocks progress.

 

By Michael J. Jordan

 

5 March 2008, Transitions Online/TOL

BRATISLAVA | Andrey Ivanov knows all about the Roma plight, as a former activist who ran a micro-lending program for Bulgarian Roma in the 1990s.

 

He saw then how difficult it was for both government agencies and non-governmental organizations to create truly effective policies and programs without official and reliable data on the scope of Romani poverty.

 

Today, as the human-development adviser to the U.N. Development Program regional office in Bratislava, Ivanov watches the curtain close on the third year of the vaunted Decade of Roma Inclusion. Questions loom about its prospects for success.

 

Accurate data is essential to establish benchmarks for measuring all efforts regarding Europe’s Roma, who number anywhere from 8 million to 15 million. This, observers say, also helps explain why most governments dodge the data: they shun the accountability.

 

“My favorite excuse from governments is, ‘I’m sorry, but the EU doesn’t allow us to collect data by ethnicity,’ ” says Ivanov, whose office shelves hold several files with precious ethnic data that UNDP itself has collected. “That’s not the point. The EU doesn’t forbid the collecting of data; it forbids abuse of that data – the tracking of individuals.” (more…)

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[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.”

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[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…)

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[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…)

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[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…)

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[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…)

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[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…)

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[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.

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