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In New Square where arson attack occurred, the rebbe’s word is law

NEW SQUARE, N.Y. – For years, this leafy chasidic village about an hour north of New York City has been a shtetl-like haven where residents could live their strictly Orthodox lifestyle far from the temptations and bustle of the nation’s largest city.

Out of view of all but very few, life in this community of some 7,000 Skverer chasidim has revolved around its spiritual leader, the Skverer rebbe, David Twersky.

In the wake of a recent arson attack that left a dissident New Square resident in the hospital with third-degree burns over more than half his body — and thrust this community into the harsh glare of media and police investigators — the question is whether the centrality of the rebbe to community life has created an atmosphere of dangerous coercion.

“We cannot encourage theocratic rule,” said Michael Sussman, the civil rights attorney representing the burn victim, Aron Rottenberg. “Yet by tolerating these communities, we’re doing that.”

The incident that has thrust New Square into the spotlight came in the wee hours of May 22, when police say that Rottenberg approached a man carrying a rag soaked with flammable liquid behind his family’s house. In the ensuing altercation, which took place at approximately 4 a.m., Rottenberg and his alleged assailant — Shaul Spitzer, 18 — were badly burned. Both remain hospitalized.

The incident appears to be the culmination of a dispute about enforcing the will of the rebbe — something akin to the rule of law in New Square.

The rebbe likes his followers in New Square to pray at his synagogue. But since the fall, Rottenberg and a small group have been making the mile-long trek to Friedwald Center, a nursing home in the adjacent village of New Hempstead, for a minyan. That instantly marked Rottenberg, a 43-year-old plumber, as persona non grata in the community.

The campaign of intimidation began soon after.

Stones were thrown through his car and home windows, he received threatening phone calls late at night, and his children were expelled from the village’s religious schools, according to Sussman.

Then came the arson incident involving Spitzer, who had been serving as Twersky’s live-in butler for about a year.

In a letter sent to state and federal judicial officials, Sussman said the campaign of intimidation occurred “under Twersky’s authority” and asked for the arson attack to be classified as a hate crime.

The FBI reportedly has joined forces with the Ramapo Police Department to investigate the attack, according to The New York Times.

Most New Square residents defend Twersky as innocent, according to Yossi Gestetner, a chasidic journalist and public relations consultant.

“Few people in New Square think that the New Square grand rabbi or anyone in leadership actually ordered or at all wanted this arson attempt to take place,” said Gestetner, who is based in the nearby village of Spring Valley, N.Y. “However, many people living in New Square think that leadership owes responsibility — in a moral, not legal sense — for not coming out strongly against the low-level violence in the past.”

The haredi Orthodox AMI magazine published an interview with Twersky last week in which he condemned “in the strongest possible terms any violence or coercion under any circumstances.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the magazine’s publisher and editor-in-chief, said it is unfair to blame Twersky for the actions of one member of his community.

“It’s racism to attack an entire community based upon a lost soul or criminal minds who perpetrate crime against others,” he said. “When we have an attack like that, we don’t go ahead and attack an entire community, and we don’t attack the rebbe, who has never been accused of a crime.”

In communities like New Square, however, where chasidic leaders influence not just residents’ spiritual lives but their financial and political endeavors as well, little happens without the rebbe’s say-so, says Shmarya Rosenberg, author of Failedmessiah.com, a watchdog blog about the haredi Orthodox community.

“There’s no concept of democracy. There’s no concept of any kind of a civil society at all,” Rosenberg said. “Every institution in the community is completely under the rebbe’s thumb.”

If a New Square resident crosses the rebbe or breaks one of the village’s many unwritten rules, one New Square resident told JTA, his neighbors will treat him “like a goy” — not saying hello in the morning, not answering his questions or acknowledging his presence. The man, who asked to be identified only as Weiss, agreed to talk only if the interview were conducted outside New Square.

Weiss said a dissident faces even more harassment: His house windows might be broken, his car’s tires slashed, and his kids expelled from school.

“Everyone’s fighting because they think the rebbe is God,” he said. “I’m not going to fight, even for God. They make sick people because of the rebbe.”

Shulem Deen, a former New Square resident whose ex-wife and five children still live in the village, said dissent is not tolerated and leaving is extremely difficult. Deen himself faced harsh resistance from the village’s rabbinic court before he left the village about six years ago.

“New Square is not an organization, it’s not a private club where you join, pay dues, and then you can cancel your membership,” he said. “Their entire life is in that community.”

Deen recalled an incident about seven or eight years ago when a family chose to circumcise their son in Brooklyn rather than New Square. Their tires were slashed and their house was vandalized, he said.

“This is definitely a sea change,” Deen said of the arson attack. “This is not new, but it’s never been anything quite like this.”

Nomi Stolzenberg, a University of Southern California Law School professor and an expert on haredi Orthodox Jewish communities, says internal divisions often arise in the successor generations following the death of the chasidic rebbe who founded the community.

In New Square, Twersky, 70, took over in 1968 after the death of his father, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky, who founded the community in 1954. Twersky lives in a mansion and is treated like royalty by community members — as are most chasidic rebbes by their followers.

“Competing factions arise,” said Stolzenberg, the co-author of the forthcoming book “American Shtetl.” “Even if there hadn’t been an outside world looking on, it’s inevitable that schisms and factions and divisions within the community were going to develop.”

Still, most Skverer chasidim remain loyal to Twersky and believe the incident is being unfairly magnified by secular authorities, Deen said.

“I think they primarily see it as a public relations issue. I would be very surprised if there are discussions going on there that are about actual change,” said Deen, who runs Unpious.com, a blog about the haredi Orthodox world. “Most of the discussion there is now is how do we respond to the world as opposed to how do we be reflective about what we’ve been doing wrong.”

New Square resident Meyer Knoloch said the Rottenberg story has been blown out of proportion by outsiders and anti-Semites.

“Most of the population living here is very satisfied with the village — just a few people not so satisfied who make the trouble,” Knoloch said. “People live here peacefully. There’s no fighting, no drugs, no weapons. There’s no break-ins in houses. But there are rules.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a public relations consultant hired shortly after the attack by “a group of concerned citizens,” says New Square’s peaceful and philanthropic past should prompt outsiders to think twice before lambasting the village.

“Nonsense, untrue, inaccurate,” Sheinkopf said of the rumors of a campaign of intimidation against Rottenberg. “The rebbe’s been very clear about this.”

Still, there are certain rules that come with living in a 0.4-square-mile modern-day shtetl, and Sheinkopf said residents know what they’ve signed up for.

“They know what community they live in,” he said. “There’s a rebbe, there’s a way of life, it’s worked for 60 years and it will go forward.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Weiner’s downfall a reminder of perils of Jewish pride

NEW YORK – He was supposed to be one of Congress’ rising stars, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn with great ambition and promise.

A truculent Democrat with a penchant for media attention, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was an unabashed liberal on domestic affairs and a hard-liner on foreign policy, particularly Israel. Like his predecessor in his U.S. House of Representatives seat, Sen. Charles Schumer, Weiner had larger ambitions — in his case, mayor of New York City.

But then came his shamefaced news conference Monday, when the 46-year-old congressman, who was married last year, admitted to lying about sending a lewd photo to a woman he met on the Internet.

It was the culmination of a week of dissembling since the conservative blog biggovernment.com had posted the photo. In all, Weiner confessed to carrying on inappropriate online relationships with six women. He said he would not get a divorce from his new wife — Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who is Muslim — nor would he resign.

In the Jewish community, which long had regarded him with pride, Weiner’s spectacularly public downfall was a reminder of the perils of associating a particular person’s successes or failures with his Jewishness.

Weiner’s perennial prefixes — “Jewish congressman, from New York, staunch supporter of Israel” — clearly identified him in the public mind, said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief of the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith.

Just as Italian Americans worry about blanket generalizations with “The Sopranos” or “The Godfather,” Jews sigh reflexively when there is a Jew whose bad judgment and bad behavior are in the spotlight, Weidman Schneider said.

“Only this isn’t fiction,” she said. “There’s a foolishness to Weiner’s attempted cover-up, no pun intended, that’s as embarrassing and cringe-inducing as the acts themselves.”

“When the Son of Sam turns out to be David Berkowitz or the greatest Ponzi scheme ever is perpetrated by Bernie Madoff or a humiliated politician is named Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner,” Democratic political consultant Steve Rabinowitz said, “you can almost hear it as a community: Why did he it have to be our guy?”

Weiner’s political identity has long been intertwined with his Jewishness. He has been celebrated by the pro-settlement Zionist Organization of America for his positions on the west bank, and he routinely introduces a bill that would deny assistance to Saudi Arabia, even though that wealthy country does not receive U.S. assistance beyond a small program that trains Saudi army officers in democracy.

ZOA President Morton Klein said the Weiner scandal represents a “terrible loss for the pro-Israel community.

“As long as Anthony Weiner remains in Congress, his position on Israel will be among the best,” Klein said. “The only issue now is whether his influence will have diminished and whether his credibility will have diminished.”

Robert Wexler, a Democrat and former Jewish congressman from Florida, said regaining voters’ trust will have to be a top priority for Weiner.

“Up until last week, Anthony was an excellent congressman and a fine public servant,” said Wexler, who runs the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. “The bottom line is that he’s a good and decent person that made some grave errors.”

With sincere and honest repentance and a reminder of the Jewish value of “seeing the other person in the image of God,” there’s a way for Weiner to put the scandal behind him, said Orthodox feminist activist Blu Greenberg.

Judaism appreciates forgiveness, and Weiner has the chance to atone by making changes to his life and way of thinking, Greenberg told JTA.

“He doesn’t necessarily have to be a condemned man the rest of his life,” she said. “If others are big enough to forgive him, then his life isn’t over.

“He’s not an ax-murderer. He’s a very foolish man in power lacking a sense of appreciation for what he had.”

But whether Weiner can recover to the degree where the American Jewish community will proudly count him again among its ranks is a tougher question.

“He provided a negative example for our children,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “We appropriately feel outrage for that.”

JTA Wire Service

JTA Washington Bureau chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

 
 

As Norway’s Jews mourn, there’s concern about muting of pro-Israel voices

OSLO, Norway – Norway has just 1,500 Jews, but to hear Avi Ring tell it, the country is reacting to last Friday’s bombing of a government office building and massacre at a political summer camp in a traditionally Jewish way.

“As soon as people speak about it, they start to cry,” said Ring, a neuroscientist and former board member of Norway’s official Jewish community organization, called the Mosaic Religious Community and known by its Norwegian acronym, DMT. “It’s like a country sitting shiva.”

A sea of flowers, candles, photographs, and handwritten notes line not just major Oslo memorials — like the fence of the exclusion zone around the blast site or the central Domkirke Cathedral — but far-flung fountains, parks, and statues with no connection to the violence.

“We’ll be together in the grief,” said Ervin Kohn, the leader of DMT, which is also the country’s main synagogue and counts about half the country’s Jews as members. No Jews are known to have been injured in the attacks.

Yet even as they mourn along with their fellow countrymen, some Jews here are quietly expressing concern that the attack by a right-wing xenophobe who apparently sympathized with Israel may further mute pro-Israel voices in Norway, where anti-Zionist sentiment already runs strong.

In the rambling 1,500-page manifesto attributed to the alleged perpetrator of the attacks, Andres Behring Breivik, anti-Muslim diatribes are punctuated at times with expressions of admiration for Israel and its fight against Islamic terrorism.

And on Utoya island, the young Labor Party activists who were holding a retreat when Breivik ambushed them had spent part of the previous day discussing the organization of a boycott against Israel and pressing the country’s foreign minister, who was visiting the camp, to recognize a Palestinian state.

If the Norwegian public is looking for a larger villain than Breivik, Jews here are worried that Zionism and pro-Israel organizations may be singled out.

“Can the average Norwegian accept that this is the one random act of one confused ethnic Norwegian?” Ring asked. “What I’m worried about is that in the Norwegian mind it will slowly attach an antagonism to Israel.”

Joakim Plavnik, a young Norwegian Jew who works in the financial sector, said he’s already worried by news reports that have focused on the seemingly pro-Zionist parts of Breivik’s writings.

“That can potentially have very negative ramifications toward the small, vulnerable Jewish community,” Plavnik said. But, he added, “We can’t be paralyzed by that fear.”

Rachel Suissa runs the Center Against Antisemitism, a pro-Israel group that counts about 23,000 supporters and 10,000 subscribers to a quarterly journal. She said the Norwegian government’s general pro-Palestinian stance — Norway’s foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store, recently said that Oslo soon would announce its support for an independent Palestinian state — makes Zionism difficult to promote here.

“Anyone who dares support Israel is demonized,” said Suissa, a professor of medical chemistry. “The Jews need to know that they have a lot of friends in Norway, but the Norwegian politicians are not our friends.”

In an interview published Tuesday by the Israeli daily Maariv, Norway’s ambassador to Israel, Svein Sevje, said it was important to recognize the distinctions between the Norwegian attacks and terrorism in Israel.

“We Norwegians consider the occupation to be the cause of the terror against Israel,” he said. “Those who believe this will not change their mind because of the attack in Oslo.”

Suissa said she is concerned that Breivik’s attack will make it more difficult for Israel supporters and the right-wing Christian groups she works with to express their views. But Rabbi Joav Melchior, spiritual leader of the community synagogue also known as DMT, dismissed such concerns.

“That someone ... calls himself pro-Israel shouldn’t in principle change anything for us,” he said of Breivik. “We don’t feel that he’s a part of our group.”

The bombing in Oslo and shooting rampage on the nearby island of Utoya has sparked a national debate in Norway about security measures in this country of 4.6 million where political leaders routinely travel without a protective security detail and police officers do not carry guns. The slow police response to the massacre — it took about an hour for police to reach Utoya — has been widely reported and debated here.

“This happened in a place where if someone walks in and steals a pack of eggs, it would make the news,” Ring said. “Norway will have to increase its awareness of security on all levels.”

At Oslo’s main synagogue, which was the target of an early-morning shooting attack in 2006 that resulted in cosmetic damage but no casualties, security already is high. Concrete barriers make it impossible to park in front of the building, and a receptionist told a reporter that he could not enter the facility on Tuesday “for security reasons.”

Norway, like practically every country in Europe, has a spotty history when it comes to the Jews.

Jews were first allowed into Norway after the Inquisition, but were banned from 1687 to 1851. The first synagogue in Oslo was established in 1892. Some 800 Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation of the country, and many who fled to seek asylum in Sweden did not return after the war.

Today, most of the country’s Jews live in Oslo, though smaller congregations do exist in other cities, like Trondheim, a seven-hour drive north.

David Katzenelson, an Israeli transplant who has lived in Norway for 15 years, said Norway is not known as a particularly hospitable place for Jews. A high school math and science teacher who also runs the small Society for Progressive Judaism here, Katzenelson said he has had a swastika spray-painted on his mailbox and that Jewish students of his have been afraid to publicly disclose their faith.

“There’s a feeling in the society that you have to be nice to everyone who’s in the room — and since Jews are generally a very small group who are usually not in the room, you’re allowed to speak nasty about them because that doesn’t discriminate against anyone present,” he said. “That can develop into very ugly things.”

In the wake of last Friday’s attacks, however, the prevailing mood among Norwegian Jews has been solidarity — as it has for all Norwegians.

More than 150,000 people participated in a “rose march” in front of Oslo City Hall on Monday even after the event was officially canceled for security reasons because it had grown too large. People have taken to cheering for policemen and Red Cross workers when they pass by on the streets. And bars and restaurants are packed in Oslo in an apparent show that this city of about 600,000 will not bow to terror.

While many Norwegian Jews interviewed by JTA were quick to say now is the time for grief and that soul searching should be put off for later, Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm, who runs the seven-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch center in Oslo, said the way to prove Breivik and his ideology wrong is to embrace tolerance.

“What we should try to learn from all this is that multiculturalism isn’t just a thesis and a concept,” he said. “That would be the greatest revenge against this murderer and against people of his ilk: that we can actually practice tolerance in a very real way.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Coming home after 500 years

In Siracusa, reaching out to Inquisition-era forgotten Jews

Alex WeislerWorld
Published: 16 September 2011
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Rabbi Stefano di Mauro has jump-started a tiny Jewish community in southern Sicily that appeals to descendants of Jews re-establishing their connection with the religion. Alex Weisler

SIRACUSA, Italy — On her deathbed, Salvatore Zurzolo’s grandmother confided a long-held secret: Their family was Jewish.

Zurzolo, of Calabria in southern Italy, had been flirting with Judaism for years, ever since choosing to stay with Parisian Jews during a Catholic youth trip to the city when he was 18.

After his grandmother’s confession, Zurzolo contacted the central Italian Jewish community in Rome and asked to begin the conversion process.

“For 20 years I was told it was not possible,” Zurzolo said.

But he didn’t give up, keeping kosher, wearing a yarmulke and a Star of David necklace, and visiting Israel 10 times in two decades, according to his account.

Finally, last December, Zurzolo formally converted to Judaism with a dip in the ancient mikvah of Siracusa, Sicily’s fourth-largest city and one of Italy’s southernmost municipalities.

Last week, Zurzolo returned to the site of the ritual bath, which sits below an upmarket hotel, for a first-of-its-kind conference aimed at “Ebrei di Ritorno,” the Italian term for “Returning Jews” — descendants of Jews forcibly converted during the Inquisition era who are now exploring the possibility of coming back to the religion.

The gathering, which brought together a passel of prominent Italian rabbis and more than a dozen mostly Sicilian descendants of Jews, was an important step for Siracusa: It marked the first time that the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, or UCEI, the umbrella group for the Italian Jewish establishment, offered formal recognition and support. Among the attendees were Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, chief rabbi of Turin; Rabbi Shalom Bahbout, chief rabbi of Naples; and Rabbi Roberto Della Rocca, head of the UCEI’s culture and education department.

Sicily now has its first rabbi in 500 years, and Siracusa’s tiny one-room synagogue — occupying the bottom floor of an apartment building in the city’s outskirts and drawing from a revolving population of about 40 interested locals — is one of only two or three Jewish communities in Italy south of Naples.

Perhaps most important, Italian Jewry seems open to welcoming newly converted Jews from Siracusa. Rabbi Gadi Piperno, project manager for southern outreach for the Union of Italian Jewish Communities’ department of education and culture, came to Siracusa for the recent outreach seminar.

“We used to say that Naples was the frontier” of Italian Jewry, he said. “But now, at the end of Italy, we have a community — so this is the new frontier.”

At the two-day conference, participants told personal stories of discovering their heritage, pored over Torah passages — including the Book of Ruth, which is focused on the conversion of Naomi’s daughter-in-law — and heard from Michael Freund, founder and chairman of the Shavei Israel Foundation, which seeks to facilitate connections between descendants of Jews, Israel, and the Jewish people.

Freund, whose group has worked with descendants of Jews in India, South America, Poland, and the Iberian Peninsula, said the Siracusa event was his first foray into the so-called anusim communities of Italy, descendants of forcibly converted Jews.

Sicily had a Jewish population of at least 50,000 at the time of the Inquisition, and Freund believes that welcoming back descendants of Jews is the best way to avenge the violence and intimidation of that era.

“The sweetest revenge for what the Inquisition did to these people’s ancestors would be to bring back as many of these people as possible,” he said.

Participants said they didn’t find their way to Judaism by poring over family trees. The narrative varied by individual, but the gist was the same: There was a gut feeling, an inescapable, always-known truth, with or without the evidence to back it up.

Elisabetta Barbera made the trip from Rome to attend the conference. She said she suspects that her family has Jewish links and that definitive proof is not the point.

“Being 60, it’s my right to die like a Jew. That’s it,” she said. “It’s my feeling, my link, my faith.”

Event attendees said the seminar made them feel less alone.

Maria La Cara traveled from the Sicilian capital of Palermo, nearly a three-hour drive. Raised Catholic, she began attending Pentecostal services at 18 and found herself getting consistently hung up on the word “Israel” when she came across it in prayers.

La Cara says one of her family’s surnames, Scimonetto, is a common converso name in the southern Italian region of Reggio Calabria, but she has no definitive proof of Jewish ancestry.

“I think I’d feel better if I found out I was Jewish,” she said. “If my past is more clear, then so is my present.”

La Cara said she has received support from her family, but that’s not a universal experience in heavily Catholic Sicily.

Carlo, a biochemistry student from Catania, about 40 minutes north of Siracusa, didn’t want to provide his last name because of his family’s discomfort with his growing Jewish identity.

When he was 8 or 9, Carlo dreamt that his mother and grandmother told him he was Jewish; he has Jewish roots on both parents’ sides. But when Carlo began exploring the religion in his mid-teens, it upset his family.

“My family is a total Sicilian family — it’s Catholic,” he said. “For them, it’s not a good decision. I’m not decided on whether I’ll complete my path to Judaism.”

Amid all the existential questions and sweeping rhetoric at the gathering were practical concerns. This was the central concern for Rabbi Stefano di Mauro, a Sicilian native who converted to Judaism when he was about 30 and was later told of his family’s Jewish roots.

Now that Siracusa has a synagogue again, he is focused on making the city a welcoming place for the community of anusim.

“The next step is to create a permanent beit din” [religious court] for the south and give the opportunity to the ones who want to come back to Judaism to be helped faster,” he said. “I’m not so young anymore to get so excited, but it seems like God wants this to happen. So many things are coming together.”

Next up is a Shabbaton weekend retreat in Calabria, at the southern tip of Italy’s boot. Then, in December, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities plans to hold a large event in Naples focusing on ethics and politics that also will serve as a chance to update the Italian Jewish community on the progress of the outreach initiative in the south.

Beatrice Macca, a young pharmaceutical student who discovered her Jewish roots about a year ago and has since taken to keeping kosher and attending synagogue, said the support of the Italian Jewish establishment is incredibly important.

“For Rabbi Piperno to come from Rome, it shows that we’re getting stronger,” she said. “Before we were alone. Now I have the hope of changing the culture that’s predominant in Sicily.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Europe’s Jewish revival

In Hungary, community’s focus is on internal issues

Alex WeislerCover Story
Published: 07 October 2011
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The Israeli Cultural Institute hosts many events, like the kickoff party for the Hanoar Hatzioni Zionist youth group seen here, but it mostly steered clear of the fray on the Palestinians’ U.N. statehood bid. Alex Weisler

BUDAPEST, Hungary — There have been no rallies, no ad campaigns, no testy community discussions here on the Palestinians’ bid for statehood.

On an issue that roused Jews elsewhere in the world, both pro and con, Hungary’s Jewish community has stayed mostly silent. The year-old Israeli Cultural Institute held a lecture on Palestinian statehood about four weeks ago, but nothing else was planned.

Adam Schonberger, the 30-year-old executive director of the Conservative youth group Marom Budapest, said the community simply is not focused on Israel.

“I think the whole question is based on the very limited influence of Hungarian Jews,” he said. “Although there are many groups and many aims, it’s still a very limited community. They are not dealing with any kind of Jewish issue, except if the far right-wing parties are harming the interests of the Jews. That’s it.”

Janos Gado, the editor of Szombat, a monthly Jewish newsmagazine based in Budapest, says it is not that Hungarian Jews do not love Israel — it is just that they are too busy fighting among themselves. “All of their energy is consumed by infighting,” he said.

The muted response is a function of a Jewish community in a deep struggle over its own identity and leadership, as well as a reflection of the extent to which Hungarian Jews are assimilated.

Although Hungary’s 100,000 Jews make up Europe’s fourth-largest Jewish community — after France, Britain, and Germany, respectively — they are unusually splintered. Budapest alone has 20 religious communities from four Jewish streams, according to a study released in mid-September by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

Since the fall of communism in 1991, Hungary’s Jewish community has seen significant changes. The proliferation of younger, more grassroots-oriented Jewish groups over the last decade has challenged the community’s historical leadership structure.

Schonberger blames the community’s fragmentation for the relative silence on Palestinian statehood. A handful of Zionist groups, operating under the umbrella of the Hungarian Zionist Federation, released a statement, but it did not attract much attention. That is because it did not have the backing of Hungary’s main Jewish organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, known by its Hungarian acronym, Maszihisz, Schonberger said.

Maszihisz President Peter Feldmajer said he met with Hungary’s prime minister and foreign minister to express the Hungarian Jewish community’s position on the Palestinian push for statehood. That position, he said, is that of the European Jewish Congress: “Any unilateral steps are bad steps, and we will be further from real peace.”

Feldmajer said ordinary Hungarian Jews are not that concerned with Israel.

Said Gado, “The word Zionism is a harsh word in our contemporary, liberal, left-wing, human rights-ist world. It’s rather a negative word, an insult. The organized Jews, yes, they are officially committed to Israel.”

But “the average Jew,” he said, “is much more committed to left, liberal, minority, human-rights values than Zionism.”

Certain events can stir the community to take more public action, Feldmajer said. During the last Gaza war, Maszihisz officials wrote Op-Eds and helped organize a rally near Budapest’s Israeli Embassy.

“But it was a very clear thing — there were missiles from Gaza and Israel should defend herself,” Feldmajer said. “It was a clear situation and we could communicate to the Hungarian people that Israel had a right to defend.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Europe’s Jewish revival

Lithuanian Jewish community teams up with other minority groups to protect rights

Alex WeislerCover Story
Published: 07 October 2011

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Faina Kukliansky entered the theater alone, waved at a few friends and sat down to watch “I Shot My Love,” the Israeli documentary film that kicked off Lithuania’s first gay film festival.

Some other Lithuanian Jews, she said, have told her to avoid such events for fear of being too closely associated with the gay community.

Kukliansky, however, was attending for that very reason: As the vice president of Lithuania’s Jewish community, she was trying to cement a new partnership between the Jewish community and seven other groups focused on human rights and minority rights.

“Even those who are smart in our community do not want to be involved,” said Kukliansky, a restitution lawyer. “People do not understand, really, that we are not playing with gays, but we are together against attacks on human rights.”

Believed to be the first of its kind in the Baltic states, the new collaboration — dubbed simply the Human Rights Coalition — was established officially in late June, but has been in the works for more than a year. It brings together groups with highly specialized agendas — including the official body representing the Jewish community, the Lithuanian Gay League and the Roma Community Centre — and broader human rights-focused organizations.

Simon Gurevicius, executive director of Lithuania’s Jewish community, said those who told Kukliansky to avoid gay events do not speak for the Jewish community as a whole.

“Those who spoke expressed their personal opinion — in a community you can find a whole spectrum of thoughts,” he said. “I am sure you could find many who would also oppose these people from our community, as well.”

Kukliansky said the fight against homophobia and xenophobia is a universal cause, so joining the coalition was a simple decision. “This should be an answer to all the homophobes and fascists which are so active in all of Europe,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I support it?”

Birute Sabatuskaite, a lawyer with the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights, said the coalition will help allow its member groups to pool their resources in confronting the threats they face.

Lithuania’s approximately 3,500 Jews live in relative security, but in recent years they have seen activity by extreme nationalist and neo-fascist groups, as well as instances of anti-Semitic vandalism. International Jewish groups also have strongly criticized the Lithuanian government for what they see as its failures in confronting anti-Semitism and the country’s role in the Holocaust.

Gurevicius said Lithuania is still struggling to overcome the Soviet-era mentality that “being different is bad.”

Minorities, however, should not solely focus on their own interests, he said, adding that the Human Rights Coalition should make an effort to engage with Lithuanian society at large.

“The key is not only to try to look for a unified voice for minorities. The key is to find a way to be in dialogue with all the groups — without division into bigger or smaller ones,” Gurevicius said. “In a world full of extremism and xenophobia, it is very important to look for allies.”

He added, “Even though we all are different, we can live, share and learn one from another.”

The Lithuanian effort is modeled after similar coalitions in Ireland and the Netherlands, Sabatuskaite said, and it has already elicited positive reactions from her contacts in the Lithuanian parliament.

Margarita Jankauskaite, project manager for the Centre for Equality Advancement, said she does not think the coalition will change how its member organizations operate, but that it will send a strong public message.

“Everybody was specialized on their own agenda, so we were not united,” she said. “Now we’ve become mature enough to decide to join to make our voices stronger together.”

Vladimir Simonko, board chairman of the Lithuanian Gay League, said the coalition reflects a belief that all Lithuanian minority communities share the same struggles and pressures.

“Before when we heard about issues against Jews or against the Roma people, we monitored it but did nothing for the rights of other minorities,” he said. “But right now we are really stronger.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Europe’s Jewish revival

Turning to Herzl for a better future

Alex WeislerCover Story
Published: 07 October 2011
Israelis retracing Zionist leader’s footsteps in search of inspiration
20111006_15-1.html
The klezmer fusion band Butterfly Effect entertaining Israelis on Herzl tour at Fogashaz, one of the “ruin pubs” of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. Alex Weisler

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Sometimes it takes a Zionist organization to show Israeli Jews that Israel is not the only place where Jews have a future.

At least that is what the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and Habonim Dror, the labor Zionist youth organization, managed to do with a whirlwind trip this month for about four dozen Israelis that retraced the footsteps of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, through Europe.

The idea of the trip, which took the Israeli 20-somethings through four countries in five days, was to consider whether and how Herzl’s Zionist ideals can help Israel resolve the troubles it is now facing. The trip, however, also was about helping young Israelis move beyond an Israel-only view of world Jewry, organizers said.

Deborah Laks, a Costa Rica native who now lives in Tel Aviv, said the tour convinced her that Jews can make a home in Europe.

“What I’ve seen of young Jews and what they’re creating in Europe — they’re more useful here than they would be in Israel,” Laks said. “If they go to Israel, who’s going to do it here?”

The bus tour started with Herzl’s birthplace in Budapest before moving on to Vienna, where Herzl studied law; Basel, Switzerland, where the First Zionist Congress was held; and Paris, where Herzl covered the infamous Dreyfus Affair as a correspondent for an Austrian newspaper.

“Zionism in its very essence is a concern with Jewish peoplehood. That’s not going to happen only in the land of Israel,” said David Breakstone, vice chairman of the WZO, which helped organize the trip. Funding came from Habonim Dror and the participants themselves.

Before the trip, Breakstone said, many participants believed they would see only “abandoned synagogues and Jewish graveyards. But the focus of our trip is Jewish future and Jewish revival, not persecution and the Holocaust.

“We certainly weren’t trying to encourage anyone to devalue the importance of aliyah, but I think it’s important that they understand that those who do not move to Israel are not necessarily abandoning a Jewish future.”

The trip also was meant to help participants forge a personal connection with Herzl’s life and writings.

“For us, it’s very important that Herzl be understood not just as this incredible historical figure that started the Zionist movement, but also as a man of values whose ideas continue to be compelling today,” Breakstone said.

The WZO’s first Herzl-centric European tour was held just over a year ago, but it was not focused on Israelis. Participants on this month’s Israel-focused trip said the tour helped them think about old questions in new ways.

“The question of whether or not Europe can be a home for Jews — Herzl asked that question in 1890, but now it’s 2011,” said participant Tamar Levi, a Vancouver native who now lives in Hadera, Israel. “It’s a post-Holocaust reality, but the question for them,” she said of European Jews, “is still very present in their lives.”

In Budapest, the group visited the iconic sites of historic Hungarian Jewry, like the city’s mammoth Dohany Synagogue, the second largest in the world, and the cast-iron Holocaust memorial on the banks of the Danube depicting the shoes of those shot into the river between 1944 and 1945.

They also met, however, with nine young Hungarians leading the charge to revive Jewish life in the Hungarian capital, which has seen an astonishing Jewish revival in the two decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The group also went to listen to a klezmer fusion band in one of the city’s “ruin pubs,” hipster hotspots housed in abandoned buildings in the Jewish Quarter.

Breakstone said the trip complements a larger Herzl revival under way in Israel, with Tel Aviv graffiti featuring modern twists on his famous slogans, a college activist group called If You Will It and a satirical TV show featuring an actor dressed as Herzl serving in a Dr. Phil-type role.

Ten years ago, he said, Herzl was barely mentioned in any real way; now he is again part of Israeli culture and politics.

“This is all part of a reaction to people waking up and saying, where did we go wrong?” Breakstone said. “We’re kind of rudderless. We need to find some direction again.”

Zionist organizations such as Habonim Dror and WZO see Herzl’s vision of an Israel focused on human dignity and social justice as the answer. They see trips like the Herzl European tour as the perfect way to energize young Israeli Zionists about the man and his legacy.

“There’s a need to replace the old guard with a new generation,” said Silvio Joskowicz, Habonim Dror’s secretary-general. “We’ve come here to receive inspiration for what we must do. We didn’t just come here for a history tour.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Mixed message in Lithuania

Country’s dual wartime remembrances leave doubts about sincerity

_JStandardWorld
Published: 28 October 2011

VILNIUS, Lithuania – At first it seemed like a potential breakthrough in Lithuania’s efforts to come to terms with the Holocaust.

In September of last year, the country’s parliament declared 2011 to be the Year of Remembrance for the Victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Yet only a week later, the parliament passed another resolution — one that critics charge also made 2011 the year of the perpetrators.

The Lithuanian parliament declared 2011 the Year of Commemoration of the Defense of Freedom and the Great Losses. That designation marks the events of 1991, when the Baltic state won its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, and more controversially, 1941, the year the Nazis drove the Soviets out of Lithuania. Lithuanian fighters rose up against the year-old Soviet occupation, and Lithuanian nationalists formed a short-lived, Nazi-allied provisional government.

While the anti-Soviet fighters are seen as national heroes by many Lithuanians, they are remembered by Jews as having played a key role in the Nazi effort that wiped out some 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population, with some mounting deadly pogroms against Jews even before the Nazi killing squads arrived.

It is a disconnect that continues to bedevil Lithuanian-Jewish relations.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, said the two resolutions “are inherently contradictory,” noting that while there is a desire “to honor Lithuanian heroes, among them are people who were involved in the mass murder of Jews.”

Lithuanians have tended to focus on the brutality they faced at the hands of the Soviets rather than their wartime collaboration with the Nazis. In 2008, Lithuanian authorities outraged Jewish groups by investigating anti-Nazi, Soviet-aligned Jewish partisans for alleged complicity in war crimes against Lithuanians.

Milan Chersonskij, the former editor of Jerusalem of Lithuania, the country’s now-defunct Jewish newspaper, said he finds the juxtaposition of the two parliamentary resolutions troubling. He says the situation reflects an unwillingness to grapple with Lithuanian culpability in the Shoah.

“They want the European countries to forget and forgive them the Holocaust of the Jews. They’re doing all that they can,” he said. “The Holocaust, they say, was made not by Lithuanians, but by Germans.”

The text of the Holocaust remembrance resolution condemns “the genocide committed against Jews by Nazis and their collaborators in Lithuania during the occupation by Nazi Germany.” It also hails residents of Lithuania who fought against fascism and rescued Jews.

The resolution was sponsored by Emmanuel Zingeris, a Lithuanian parliament member who is Jewish. He said the two initiatives simply honor different slices of the country’s history.

A conversation and healthy dialogue between the two is important, he says.

“In our parliament, we have different political groups promoting different projects. We are a democracy, not a Belarus dictatorship,” Zingeris said. “We’ve struggled long enough for the right to live in a democratic society, where there’s no way one can block an initiative to mark and reflect on and evaluate history.”

Faina Kukliansky, a restitution lawyer who serves as the vice president of Lithuania’s approximately 3,500-member Jewish community, says it is important to remember that the country was under Soviet rule for 60 years and is only two decades into grappling with its role in the Holocaust.

“You have to notice not only what is wrong but what is good,” she said. “Only to sit and criticize and not take part in all these events..., I don’t think it’s the best position.”

Kukliansky said that funding from the Holocaust remembrance initiative has financed the commemoration of the old Jewish cemetery in Vilnius and facilitated the proper burial of 64 people killed during the Holocaust.

She said the Jewish community has been involved every step of the way, and if she has concerns about the other parliamentary resolution, Kukliansky said she knows better than to bring them up now. The Jewish community has pushed for Jews to be included in events commemorating victims of Soviet oppression, with some success, she said.

“We try to use it as much as we can, to commemorate the events, to educate people, to use it in our favor,” she said. “We’re not openly fighting with the government about this issue.”

The Holocaust commemorative year has brought tangible results, including 25 victim remembrance projects and the passage of a law that will allocate $53 million in compensation to Jewish communities. Zingeris noted that it also has spurred discussion about the construction of an upgraded memorial at Paneriai, near Vilnius, where some 70,000 Jews were murdered during the Shoah, along with thousands of Poles and others.

Zuroff, however, said the Holocaust commemoration year is a publicity stunt.

“This is one big cover-up, and it’s part of a well-orchestrated and financed campaign to fool world Jewry and help polish Lithuania’s image,” he said. “Everything that’s being done is being done for all the wrong reasons, and I haven’t seen any serious effort to honestly face the past.”

For Zingeris, the year represents a chance to increase tolerance in Lithuania and remind the country of its substantial Jewish heritage.

“I just happen to be a second-generation Holocaust survivor and member of the parliament since 1990. If I would not introduce this resolution, perhaps there would be no Year of the Holocaust Remembrance,” he said. “We have to fight revisionist tendencies in our society. We have to honor the victims, the fighters, and the rescuers.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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