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Ion and Oana, standing in front of their village school, explained how their parents assimilated. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – In late 2006, an American Yiddishist in Vilnius, Lithuania, Dovid Katz, explained to me why language is the connective tissue for any tribe.

“A bona fide linguistic community must have streets where that language is spoken,” Katz said during the interview.

I’ve now seen this theory in action in the Romanian city of Targu Jiu. In the neighborhood of “Meteor,” the Kalderash Roma live together, practice the same traditions, and their womenfolk dress distinctively: vibrant skirt, head scarf and hair braided down the front. Just as important, though, is that they’re speaking their mother tongue, Romani.

Just outside of Targu Jiu is the quiet village of Ceauru, which is populated by both Roma and Romanians. The Roma here have a unique history, says the director of the local school, Cornel Somacu. He himself is Romanian, but he tells us he’s researched this because so many of his students, including some of his highest-achieving girls, are Roma.

For centuries, the Roma here were slaves owned by the local monastery. After emancipation in the 19th century, many remained in the village, living on separate sides from the ethnic Romanians. That continued until 1950, says Somacu, when the new Communist regime wanted to build a power plant nearby. The authorities uprooted the entire village, Roma and Romanians alike, and resettled them in new housing and new neighborhoods with utter disregard for who lived next to whom.

“This also mixed up the mentalities,” he says …

Just like the Jews of Eastern Europe and other ethnic groups I’ve written about, Communist pressure to conform created this “Lost Generation” of children whose parents refused to transmit unique cultural traits. (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 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 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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[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…)

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