‘Discovery and Recovery’

This Haggadah, published in Vienna in 1930, was among the artifacts in the Iraqi archives whose stay in the U.S. recently has been extended by two years. (Courtesy of National Archives)

This Haggadah, published in Vienna in 1930, was among the artifacts in the Iraqi archives whose stay in the U.S. recently has been extended by two years.
(Courtesy of National Archives)

A much-debated artifacts collection from the historical Jewish community in Baghdad that was slated to return to Iraq will remain in the United States for an additional two years, following last week’s announcement of an agreement between Iraqi officials and the U.S. State Department.

The agreement extends the exhibit of a selection of the artifacts, which is touring the U.S. and has already been displayed at New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage as well as the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Previously, the artifacts were scheduled to return to Iraq in June.

“The government of Iraq notes with satisfaction the remarkable success of the ‘Discovery and Recovery’ exhibit of the Iraqi Jewish Archive. This exhibit has led to an increase of understanding between Iraq and United States and a greater recognition of the diverse heritage of Iraq,” said Lukman Faily, Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., in a statement.

The final agreement came last week as Brett McGurk, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, met with senior Iraqi officials in Baghdad to
discuss terrorism prevention.

Though both Iraqi officials and the State Department have kept quiet about the agreement’s details, including the length of the exhibit’s extension, the office of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) revealed in a May 16 news release that the extension is for two years. Toomey’s office told Washington Jewish Week that the State Department informed it about the extension’s duration over the phone.

“The fact that this [archive issue] is even on the agenda and being discussed, and being resolved in a way that seems to at least for the time being satisfy all the parties — that’s remarkable!” Stanley Urman, executive vice president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, told WJW.

The Saddam Hussein regime in 1984 forcibly seized the 2,700-item collection that has become known as the “Iraqi Jewish Archive” from the Bataween Synagogue in Baghdad. The archive includes community records, Jewish books and sacred items that belonged to the Baghdadi Jewish community.

“Since the material was confiscated in the first place form the Iraqi Jewish community, we got involved with the Iraqi Embassy and the State Department, telling them that this was stolen from our community and is the patrimony of our people,” said World Organization of Jews from Iraq president Maurice Shohet, who served on a 2010 committee that reviewed some of the archive’s materials.

“This is material that belonged to the [Jewish] community, and it’s extremely important because there are personal documents and so on,” he said. “There were materials that were spiritual, unfortunately like Torah scrolls, that were buried. We had to bury them last December because they were unfit for use.”

U.S. Army Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha discovered the artifacts in 2003 when it raided the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s intelligence ministry. The items were found in the basement, flooded under four feet of water, requiring a $3 million, decade-long restoration process by the U.S. Archives and Records administration.

According to Ambassador Faily’s press release, items not making up the exhibit, such as duplicates of books and materials unrelated to the Jewish community, will be returned to Iraq.

Jews made up a thriving community in Iraq dating back to 720 B.C.E., and as recently as the 1940s Jews made up around a quarter of Baghdad’s population. But a June 1941 pogrom called the farhud presaged a much larger exodus of Iraqi Jews over the next decade.

Most Iraqi Jews living in the U.S. are based in the New York City area, and they are hopeful that the artifacts will remain permanently at a location where they can be accessible to Jews.

Both the House and Senate proposed resolutions asking the State Department to renegotiate a 2003 agreement it signed with the Iraqi government to return all the archive’s items to Iraq following their restoration. The Senate version passed by unanimous consent Feb. 6.

U.S. Sens. Toomey, Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the authors of the Senate resolution, all praised the new agreement.

“This is terrific news,” Toomey said in a statement. “These priceless artifacts will remain in the United States for at least another two years, protected and accessible for descendants and scholars. I don’t believe we should send this collection back to a country where their owners no longer reside. I applaud the State Department’s efforts and attention on this matter and will remain committed to permanently safeguarding these relics.”

The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, which has been involved in the archive issue, prefers a different approach to the Capitol Hill lobbying that has taken place.

“I spoke with the Prime Minister’s Office of Iraq and I requested that the prime minister give these artifacts as a gift to the Iraqi Jews in New York whom I represent,” said Heskel Haddad, the president of WOJAC.

Although Haddad is happy about the U.S. exhibit’s extension, he believes that it is pride — more than the actual financial worth of the artifacts — that is preventing the Iraqi government from relenting on its demand that the archive return to Iraq. He believes that requesting the archive as a gift to the Jewish community, rather than engaging in negotiations and legislative pressure, would help the Iraqis save face.

“We [Americans] don’t do things in a way that would give [other countries like Iraq] some respect,” Haddad said.

“We did that with Egypt, we did that with Syria, and we did that with Afghanistan,” he said. “This is my only disagreement [with the approach on the archive].”

Meanwhile, requests are being taken from institutions throughout the U.S. and Canada on where to display the exhibit next. Despite the two-year extension, most reputable collections book their displays far in advance, causing a logistical problem.

Details including the location and duration of the next exhibit are still being determined, but “we hope to have something to announce soon,” a State Department official told WJW.

“We look forward to continuing our cooperation with the government of Iraq on this matter so that the exhibit can be displayed in other cities in the U.S.,” the official said.

Shohet, of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, explained that the issue is “when you prepare for the exhibit, it takes 18 months.”

“So originally, when we were involved with preparing the exhibits and the Museum for Jewish Heritage was chosen, we knew at the time that we had enough time, but the whole thing came to be approved just recently,” he said. “So it’s hard for us to know when the next exhibition is, because all of them have plans ahead of time.”


dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

JNS.org contributed to this story.

Israeli group reportedly excluded from West Bank ‘peace run’

A group of six Israeli runners reportedly was excluded from the West Bank portion of a regional long-distance run.

Dubbed the Peace Run and led by Australian ultra-marathoner Paul Farmer, the course began in Lebanon and wound its way through Israel and the West Bank before ending Monday in Jerusalem.

The group of Israeli runners, organized jointly by the Yesha Council, an umbrella settlers’ group, and Regavim, a right-wing legal nonprofit, joined the run as it headed south down Route 60, a West Bank highway. But Regavim’s director, Ari Briggs, said that as soon as the group entered the run, the Palestinian contingent accompanying Farmer fell back and stopped running.

After a few miles, according to Briggs, Farmer told one of the Israelis that a delegation from the Palestinian Olympic Committee set to join the run would not come unless the
Israelis left. Although Briggs said he hoped participating in the run would highlight the Jewish claim to the West Bank, none of the Israeli runners lived in settlements.

The Israeli group stopped running at Farmer’s request. Briggs said he was disappointed that the Palestinians would not run alongside Israelis.

“It’s a peace run,” he said. “Let’s run together. I was very disappointed that they weren’t ready to run with us for even a meter.”

The Palestinian Olympic Committee has long had a policy of not training jointly with Israelis. In 2012, Palestinian Olympic delegation head Hani Halabi said that in protest of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, he refused to use Israeli facilities to prepare for the 2012 London Games.

Survey: 74 percent of French Jews mulling emigration

Nearly 75 percent of thousands of French Jews who participated in a recent survey said they are considering emigrating.

The survey, the results of which were released Monday by the Paris-based Siona organization of Sephardic French Jews, encompassed 3,833 respondents from the Jewish community of France, Siona said.

Of the 74.2 percent of respondents who said they are considering leaving, 29.9 percent cited anti-Semitism. Another 24.4 cited their desire to “preserve their Judaism,” while 12.4 percent said they were attracted by other countries. “Economic considerations” was cited by 7.5 percent of the respondents.

In total, 95.2 percent of all respondents to the online survey conducted by Siona from April 17 to May 16 said they viewed anti-Semitism as “very worrisome” or “worrisome.”

Slightly more than half, or 57.5 percent, of respondents said, “Jews have no future in France,” while 30.6 percent said there is a future for Jews there.

Asked whether they had personally experienced anti-Semitic incidents in the past two years, 14.5 percent replied in the affirmative, but of those, only 21.2 filed a complaint with police. Of the complainants, 27.6 percent indicated that their deposition had led to concrete results.

A similar survey from 2012 showed a quarter of Jews who experienced anti-Semitic incidents filed a complaint, Siona noted in a statement, adding, “The results give cause for concern.”

Ninety-three percent said the French state had no efficient means for countering “Islamic exclusionist and pro-Palestinian propaganda,” whereas 93.4 percent said French mass media are partially responsible for France’s anti-Semitism problem. Roughly three-quarters said French Jewish institutions were helpless to stop anti-Semitism.

A similar number of respondents, 76.3 percent, said they were concerned by “the attack on ritual slaughter and circumcision,” compared with 16.9 who said they were not concerned.

The New Reality

Head of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh (right) and senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed share a private moment during a news conference that announced a Palestinian reconciliation agreement in Gaza City on April 23. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)

Head of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh (right) and senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed share a private moment during a news conference that announced a Palestinian reconciliation agreement in Gaza City on April 23.
(Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)

With the recent collapse of the U.S.-brokered peace negotiations, the Palestinian leadership has embarked on a broad plan of unilateral action to gain recognition of a Palestinian state and to isolate Israel internationally. Couple those developments with the Palestinian Fatah movement’s unity pact with the terrorist group Hamas, and Israel is facing a complex new reality.

Without peace talks, what options does Israel have left? Will Israel be forced to take its own unilateral steps?

“If [an] agreement is unachievable, then moving independently to shape the borders of Israel is the better course,” Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Air Force general and former head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate, said. “While it is not the [ideal] alternative, it is better than the status quo or a bad agreement [with the Palestinians].

Yadlin, who now serves as director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), is among a growing number of respected Israeli leaders putting forth proposals for unilateral steps.

In a proposal posted last Sunday on the INSS website, Yadlin argues that Israel has more than the two options usually discussed — a peace agreement and the status quo. According to Yadlin, Israel’s four strategic options are as follows: a peace agreement along the parameters established by former President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000; an “unacceptable” peace agreement on Palestinian terms; a status quo in which the Palestinians can dictate their own terms; or a status quo in which the Israelis dictate their own terms.

Yadlin argues that while the Clinton parameters — which include the Palestinians agreeing to end the conflict and give up both the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and dividing Jerusalem — are Israel’s “best option,” it is “highly unlikely” that such an agreement will ever be realized.

Instead, Yadlin believes that Israel should promote an “Israeli option” that preserves Israel’s objectives to remain a “Jewish, democratic, secure and just state.” He said this move allows Israel to “independently shape its own borders” with a strategy toward “advancing a two-state solution.”

In this scenario, Yadlin said Israel would “withdraw from heavily populated Palestinian areas to the security barrier, keeping the Jordan Valley for security reasons.

“[This would leave] 70 to 80 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians and allow Israel to keep 70 to 80 percent of the major settlement blocs,” Yadlin said.

Unilateralism, however, has been a taboo subject in Israel for many years since former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which many Israelis — especially on the right — look back upon as a failure due to the rise of Hamas there. Sharon suffered a stroke before he could implement plans for unilateral moves in the West Bank.

As such, Israel is likely to be cautious in considering any unilateral plans, especially given that the status quo still favors Israel.

“I don’t see the Israelis necessarily making any unilateral moves at this moment. The collapse of the peace talks wouldn’t prompt any immediate action from the Israelis, because there is no immediate threat,” Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East expert and vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said.

Nevertheless, with the ongoing unity talks between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party and the terrorist group Hamas, along with recent unilateral actions by the PA through the United Nations and other international avenues, Israel may soon realize it does not have a viable partner for peace — possibly spurring a unilateral move.

“Those are the things that I think could prompt a response from Israel,” Schanzer said.

Other prominent Israelis have come out with their own unilateral plans of action.

Historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said in an interview in February — while peace talks were still ongoing — that Israel needs to have a Plan B like the Palestinians do.

“The two-state solution is the preferred solution. And if we can reach a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians that is permanent, legitimate and assures Israel’s security, that is, of course, the preferable choice,” Oren told the Times of Israel.

“However, the Palestinians have intimated that if they can’t reach a negotiated solution with us, they then have a Plan B, and their Plan B is a binational state. And I think it’s important that we also have a Plan B,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli Economy Minister and Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that urged him to annex a number of the major Israeli communities in the West Bank, including Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim, Ofra, Beit El and several more — which are home to about 440,000 Israelis.

“These areas enjoy a broad national consensus and have security, historical and moral significance for the State of Israel,” Bennett wrote.

If Netanyahu does decide to pursue a unilateral course of action, one of his toughest sells might be with the international community, which has rejected previous Israeli unilateral moves such as the annexation of Eastern Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

In order to address this, Yadlin believes that Israel should offer the Palestinians a “fair and generous agreement” before taking any unilateral steps.

“The international community has to be convinced, as they were with [former Prime Minister Ehud] Barak in 2000 or [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert in 2008, that Israel really offers the Palestinians a fair deal,” Yadlin said.

After nine months of negotiations that produced little results, Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the U.S. will likely take a “pause” in its peace efforts.

Without peace talks holding back the Palestinians, it is clear that Abbas is seeking to shape his own legacy and future — one that may include reuniting the Palestinian people, which split under his watch during Hamas’s bloody 2007 takeover of Gaza.

“You can make a very valid argument that all of these moves are designed to spook the U.S. and Israel and force them back to the table to yield more concessions. I would say that the trajectory is far from clear,” Schanzer said.

Yadlin believes that Israel must be proactive and not allow the Palestinians, or anyone else, to dictate their terms to the Jewish state.

“[Unilateral action] is a move done out of a position of strength and the ability to shape your own destiny according to parameters that I believe are better for the Sstate of Israel,” he said.

Glover, others in ‘American Revolutionary’ call for boycott of Israel

Actor Danny Glover and others featured in “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” lamented the documentary film’s screening at the DocAviv festival in Tel Aviv and called for a boycott of Israel.

“We stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine and support their call for cultural and academic boycott of Israel,” the 12 signatories said in a statement.

The signatories, including Grace Lee Boggs herself, said they were “shocked” about the film’s screening at DocAviv on May 13 and 15, which was “scheduled without our knowledge.”

“We immediately took action to have the film withdrawn from the festival,” they said. “The festival organizers and film producers informed us that this was not possible, and they would move forward with the screening, over our objections.”

Glover had already supported a boycott of Israel in 2009.

Far Out!

The SpaceIL team has its sights set on a moon  landing and the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize.

The SpaceIL team has its sights set on a moon landing and the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize.

TEL AVIV — One small step by Israelis could become a giant leap for the State of Israel.

At a Tel Aviv University laboratory, a team of 20 Israelis is building a spacecraft they believe will make Israel only the fourth country — after the United States, Russia and China — to touch down on the moon.

The project, known as SpaceIL, looks like a long shot. The three-legged hexagonal craft appears too puny for interstellar travel, measuring just 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Of the initiative’s three founders, only one holds an academic degree beyond a bachelor’s. And SpaceIL is competing against 17 other teams to win the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize by being the first private spacecraft to land on the moon. The team hopes to land its craft by the end of next year.

Despite the odds, however, the founders exude the confidence of Nobel Prize-winning scientists — and that’s not all that makes the project
Israeli. From its origins to its endgame, SpaceIL is a quintessential story of Israel’s upstart high-tech sector.

Its founders came together with little preparation and no money. They overcame a maze of Israeli bureaucracy to qualify for the contest, attracting funding through personal connections to pre-eminent scientists. And they say they will win the competition not by being the biggest or richest team, but by redefining how to send a spacecraft to the moon.

“Only superpowers have managed to land on the moon,” co-founder Yariv Bash said. “What China did as a nation of 1.3 billion people, SpaceIL is doing as a nonprofit. It puts things in perspective.”

Launched by Google in 2007, the Lunar XPrize has straightforward rules: The first team to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon, move it 500 meters — about the length of 5 1/2 football fields — across the moon’s surface and transmit high-definition photos and video back to Earth wins $20 million. The mission must be complete by the end of 2015.

Thirty-three teams registered for the competition, and nearly all of the remaining 18 contenders plan to launch tank-like rovers to roll across the moon’s surface, which Bash says is more expensive and will consume more fuel than the SpaceIL craft. SpaceIL expects to spend about $36 million on its mission.

SpaceIL’s craft is the size of a dishwasher and weighs just 300 pounds, two-thirds of which is fuel. Rather than drive across the moon, it will take off again after landing and jump 500 meters. Its navigation system will double as a camera and its steering thrusters will guide its landing.

“Instead of taking a bulky radar system, we’re taking cameras with us, so the best thing is to reuse those cameras,” Bash said. “If I can just write more code for my camera, code doesn’t weigh anything.”

Bash hadn’t even considered entering the competition until 2010. He pushed through government bureaucracy to register SpaceIL as a nonprofit and entered the race on Dec. 31, 2010 — the last day of registration. Yonatan Winetraub, another of the project’s co-founders, connected with Israel Space Agency head Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, who gave the group three minutes on stage at a space technology convention in Tel Aviv.

It was enough to convince philanthropists at the convention to give SpaceIL its seed money and lure Ben Yisrael to join the group’s board. SpaceIL has since received support from Rona Ramon, the widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who gave $16.4 million.

“They’re young people with a lot of vision, with Israeli initiative,” Ben Yisrael said. “If the government sends a craft to space, that’s OK. But when there’s a group of young people that takes on a project that looks like science fiction, to land something on the moon, it’s different. It’s strong.”

SpaceIL has avoided the expensive and labor-intensive approach of some of the other teams, but it’s not the only one to go small. The Penn State Lunar Lion Team, an XPrize team housed at Pennsylvania State University, also is building a small craft that will jump the 500 meters. Team director Michael Paul said small projects like theirs could complement large government initiatives and broaden the reach of space exploration.

“We’ve created a new model that makes space exploration possible through philanthropy,” Paul said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a dominant piece [of space exploration], but it will be an incredibly important piece in the decades to come. NASA isn’t going away.”

SpaceIL hopes to expand the appeal of space exploration by spreading its message through Israel’s classrooms. The team is investing in a large educational program, lecturing about the program in Israeli classrooms and working with Israel’s Education Ministry to devise a science curriculum based around space travel. Along with reaching the moon, the founders hope to imbue Israel’s next generation with excitement for science and technology.

“We let them know they’re capable of building their own spacecraft,” said the third co-founder, Kfir Damari. “We want to use the story to show that science and technology is exciting, that you can have a huge impact on the world if you’re a scientist and engineer.”

SpaceIL’s team believes it has a good chance of winning. But even if it doesn’t, Damari said landing an Israeli craft on the moon will be reward enough.

“It’s the story of three people who decided one day that they’re landing on the moon,” he said. “Today it’s an Israeli project, but it’s [also] three engineers who wanted to land a spacecraft there, and it’s happening.”

Fake Holocaust memoir’s author ordered to pay publisher $22.5 million

The author of a Holocaust memoir now proven to be fake was ordered to pay back $22.5 million to the publisher from whom she had won a judgment.

Twenty years ago, Misha Defonseca penned “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years,” which detailed how her parents were deported by Nazis when she was 6 years old, as well as her subsequent journey across Belgium, Germany and Poland to find them. The book described how she survived by clinging to a pack of wolves.

Defonseca and her ghostwriter in 1998 won $32.4 million in a lawsuit against U.S. publisher Mt. Ivy Press, which allegedly hid profits from book sales. Subsequently, as part of the appeal of that verdict, documents were discovered revealing that during the time Defonseca claimed to be living with wolves, she was actually “enrolled in a Brussels school in 1943,” reported Courthouse News.

Moreover, Defonseca’s original name was Monique De Wael, and she is not Jewish. The author, now a Massachusetts resident, eventually admitted her story was fabricated.

Judge Marc Kantrowitz ruled April 29 that Defonseca must pay back her publisher for the money she was awarded in the 1998 lawsuit.

Coming to Terms

Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida Lebenstein (right) and Agata Kulesza as Wanda Gruz in the Polish fiIm “Ida.” (Courtesy photo)

Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida Lebenstein (right) and Agata Kulesza as Wanda Gruz in the Polish fiIm “Ida.” (Courtesy photo)

After Reburying the bones of her parents in a neglected Jewish cemetery, a soon-to-be Polish nun quietly crosses herself with earth-covered fingers.

A devout and introverted young woman, Ida Lebenstein had learned only days earlier that her parents were Jews who were murdered by Polish Christians. As she knelt in her nun’s habit among headstones inscribed with Hebrew lettering, the gesture of Catholic devotion is the character’s reflexive way of responding to the recent revelation of her true origins.

This surreal scene appears in “Ida,” a new Polish feature film that will premiere next month in the United States.

One of several recent films that have forced Poles to confront their complicity in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust, ”Ida” has helped counter the myth long perpetuated by communist leaders that all Poles were victims who suffered equally under the Nazis. Other films on the subject include ”In Hiding,” “Pawel” and “Aftermath,” which examines the murder of hundreds of Jews in the village of Jedwabne in 1941.

“In recent years, Polish cinema has taken a leading role in getting Poland to focus some attention on the complexities of the World War II era, and complicity,” said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi.

The process has not been free of controversy. “Ida” premiered in Poland amid an ongoing government campaign to venerate non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews — a campaign that critics charge has glossed over the sort of frank reckoning with the past in which Polish filmmakers have been engaged.

“The multitude of commemorations does not contribute to serious reflection on the attitudes of Poles during Nazi occupation,” the Polish historian Jan Grabowski wrote in an article last week on the website of Krytyka Polityczna, a left-leaning journal. “That complacency has replaced substantive national debate over one of the most painful aspects of Polish history.”

Among the commemorations of the righteous in Poland was the establishment of 2014 as the Year of Jan Karski, the man who alerted the allies to the Holocaust, as well as the planned erection of no fewer than three monuments honoring non-Jewish Poles. One of the monuments, opposite the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, spurred a protest last month from Jewish historian Bozena Uminska-Keff and Helena Datner, a former president of the Jewish community of the Polish city.

The monument would “chase away the ghost of the Jewish narrative, which is inconvenient for the majority, in favor of a narrative consistent with historical policy and ideas of the majority,” they wrote in an open letter published in Krytyka Polityczna.

Some critics connect the emphasis on victimhood with Poland’s slowness in advancing restitution of privately owned Jewish property. Poland has drawn intense criticism as the only European country occupied by the Nazis to not enact substantial private property restitution laws.

“Poland sees itself as a victim of war, which is true, but the same can be said of other countries, such as Belgium, which regulated the issue of restitution,” Baroness Ruth Deech, a British lawmaker, said last month during a debate in the House of Lords in which Poland was singled out for lagging on restitution.

Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, notes the development of two competing narratives about the Holocaust in Poland today — one emphasizing collaboration with the Nazis and the other celebrating rescuers of Jews.

To Kadlcik, films such as “Aftermath” reflect a willingness to portray the darker chapters of Polish history. But the multitude of commemorations are an effort “to push the image of the righteous as a way of countering the discussion about immoral actions,” he said.

Unlike “Aftermath,” which focused entirely on the actions of non-Jews, “Ida” has a strong Jewish character: Ida’s aunt and last living relative, Wanda Gruz, is an alcoholic judge who survived the war as a communist resistance fighter.

The cynical Gruz, who is struggling not to drown in her own grief over the loss of her only child during the Holocaust and her regrets over her actions as a communist judge, takes Ida on a journey to find the bodies of their relatives. For both women, the trip profoundly shakes their belief systems.

In one scene, Gruz grills a villager on what he knows about the Lebensteins’ fate. When he asks if they were Jews, she snorts and says, “No, they were Eskimos.”

“She drives the whole movie forward and is the character the viewer is likeliest to identify with,” Pawel Pawlikowski, the film’s director, said of Gruz.

Pawlikowski is frustrated by what he sees as attempts to hijack a character-driven film to score political points. Polish nationalists, he said, have criticized him for portraying the murder of a Jewish family by a Pole rather than by the Germans.

“I hope the film goes beyond generalizations about Poles or Jews or nuns and just look at some stories that connect to our faith in utopias, religions, our tribes, the people around us — all the things we believe to make sense of the world,” said Pawlikowski.

Right Footing

Australian protesters rally against Dutch politician Geert Wilders in Sydney in 2013. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Australian protesters rally against Dutch politician Geert Wilders in Sydney in 2013.
(Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Standing in front of a giant flag, a tall blond politician asks his excited followers whether their country should have greater or fewer Moroccans.

When they are done chanting “fewer,” the speaker, Geert Wilders of the far-right Dutch Party for Freedom, promises his listeners that he will “take care of it.”

Wilders was speaking at an event here to celebrate his party’s strong showing in the March 19 local elections, and he chuckled as supporters cheered his pledge.

A fierce critic of Islam who has compared the Koran to “Mein Kampf” and called the Prophet Muhammad the devil, Wilders had steered clear of slurring specific Muslim communities, instead peddling a unique brand of populist conservatism that eschewed the kind of Nazi-inflected, anti-Jewish rhetoric popular among far-right groups elsewhere in Europe.

But his “fewer Moroccans” comment has generated a furious backlash because it was seen as the first time he had engaged in open racism that targeted an entire group as undesirable by definition. The statement has cost him much of the sympathy he enjoyed in some quarters of the Dutch Jewish community and blurred the lines that had separated him from other European far-right leaders.

“This is different from his past statements,” the pro-Israel journalist Ratna Pele wrote on the website RepubliekAllochtonie.nl. “Before it was about Islam or Moroccan criminals, now it’s about the entire group that he says is unacceptable and needs to get out of the country.”

Dutch Jews never voted en masse for the Party for Freedom, though Wilders’ strident support for Israel and anti-Islamist posture did make him a star among certain Jewish constituencies in Holland and abroad. But the statement on Moroccans has been seen as a final straw in a gradual estrangement that began in 2011, when the Party for Freedom was key to the Dutch parliament’s adoption of a ban on ritual slaughter — a measure reversed in 2012 by the senate only after vigorous lobbying by Jewish groups.

Wilders’ decision to cooperate with France’s National Front and Austria’s FPO — parties long viewed as Nazi sympathizing by the Jewish community — also was seen as a reversal of an earlier pledge not to band with anti-Semitic parties or politicians. Wilders and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen have agreed to form an anti-European Union bloc in Brussels after the May 22 European Parliament elections.

“Wilders used the Dutch Jewish community for his political needs domestically and then stabbed them in the back repeatedly now that they are of no use to him as he sets his sights on international politics,” said Wim Kortenoeven, a former Party of Freedom lawmaker who resigned in 2012.

Statements from Dutch Jewish groups confirmed the community’s widespread outrage. CJO, the umbrella group of Dutch Jewish communities, released a statement that spoke of the group’s “horror” at Wilders’ comments about Moroccans. Summing up the general sentiment, the Dutch Jewish weekly New Israelite Weekly last month averred, “Dutch Jewry is fed up with Geert Wilders.”

Wilders’ association with the Jewish community has roots in his youth, when he volunteered for a year at Moshav Tomer in the West Bank.

He repeatedly has referred to Jews as role models for Europe and been a vociferous supporter of Israel.

Last year, during a speech in Los Angeles before the American Freedom Alliance, he called for the relocation of embassies in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Let us fly the flags of all the free and proud nations of the world over embassies in Jerusalem, the only true capital of Israel and the cradle of our Judeo-Christian civilization,” said Wilders.

Such unabashed pro-Israel rhetoric meant that Wilders could count on some Jewish support even as he tested the boundaries of free speech with rhetoric many considered xenophobic. In 2010, the year his party won 24 seats out of 150 in parliament, Wilders placed Kortenoeven, a former researcher for the pro-Israel group CIDI, on the party ticket. Within two years, Kortenoeven was gone, citing leadership issues and the party’s support for the ritual slaughter ban. In 2012, Kortenoeven traveled to the United States to warn Jewish leaders against supporting Wilders.

Kortenoeven recalled a tense meeting with Wilders in 2011 in which he warned Wilders that he was “entering a collision course with the Jewish community that would ultimately force him to also oppose ritual circumcision.” Kortenoeven said Wilders was nervous and chain smoking during the meeting but claimed he could not oppose the ban because it had already become party policy.

Wilders did not respond to requests for an interview. A party spokesman, Michael Heemels, said the allegations by Kortenoeven were “total nonsense.”

Wilders still has supporters in the Jewish community. Gidi Markuszower, who Wilders once endorsed as a parliamentary candidate, said the Moroccan comment had nothing to do with race but only with immigration quotas “that would per se reduce the number of Moroccans.” Markuszower also said that Wilders’ alliance with other far-right groups was aimed at curtailing the EU and was “born out of necessity.”

But elsewhere, Wilders’ turn has proven costly. Four Party of Freedom lawmakers — two in the Dutch parliament and another two in the European Parliament — resigned in protest over the Moroccans comment, and hundreds of citizens filed police complaints alleging incitement to hatred.

Yet, Wilders has not backed down, bolstering his position with crime statistics suggesting that Moroccans are frequent lawbreakers — statements that generated even more furious reactions from the Dutch Jewish community.

“Even Wilders’ support for Israel — the basis of the support he used to receive from Dutch Jews — is counterproductive,” Kortenoeven said, “because anything he touches is tainted.”

Open Borders

An Israeli passport (Wikimedia Commons)

An Israeli passport (Wikimedia Commons)

The State Department is responding to pressure from Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill and is reviewing its policy on granting tourist visas to Israeli citizens.

Julia Frifield, the department’s assist- ant secretary for legislative affairs, announced on April 17 the formation of a working group with the Department of Homeland Security and Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The working group will “help Israel move toward eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program,” Frifield wrote in response to several members of Congress.

The Visa Waiver Program was developed to allow citizens of countries within the program to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without needing to apply for a tourist visa. Israel has not been admitted to the program because the rate at which the U.S. refuses a country’s visa applications must be below 3 percent. Israel’s visa refusal rate was 9.7 percent in 2013, up from 5.4 percent in 2012. The State Department has also objected to Israeli security actions, such as preventing entry to travelers deemed security risks, it says have needlessly affected Palestinian and Arab Americans.

Frifield said the working group would strive for a “reduction of the overall refusal rate.”

“This is a goal of both the United States and Israel, and it would make travel easier for citizens of both countries,” she wrote, adding that a follow-up report will be provided in July.

An Israeli diplomat who could not speak on the record confirmed the existence of the working group to the Washington Jewish Week, saying that Israel is interested in the program and that the two countries are taking concrete steps to move the process forward. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ze’ev Elkin will head the Israeli delegation.

Israel’s exclusion from the visa program surprised many on the Hill, who believe that the close relationship between the two countries warrants Israel’s membership in the program.

The refusal rate has increased in recent years due in large part because U.S. consular officials responsible for approving or denying individual visa applications began looking closer at applicants considered a high risk for overstaying their tourist visa. Young Israelis, who customarily travel abroad following their military service, have drawn particular scrutiny.

According to a Jan. 25, 2010, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv published by WikiLeaks, officials were investigating large-scale visa fraud
“in the U.S. Dead Sea cosmetics and skincare industry since 2007, when it became a noticeable problem.”

The cable went on to describe a vast underworld economy that many young Israelis have chosen to participate in to make quick money, working at mall kiosks throughout the U.S. selling “Dead Sea” products and other under-the-table jobs.

“Moreover, it is culturally acceptable for post-army Israelis to work illegally in the United States,” wrote Wendy Vincent, a consular official at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. “Aside from the criminal aspects of this fraud, a key implication is the increased visa revocation/refusal and denial of entry rates for post-army Israelis, which among other things, complicate Israel’s high-profile desire to join the Visa Waiver Program.”

Some members of Congress say that just because some Israelis came here for illegal purposes, the U.S. shouldn’t discourage others from coming. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) is one of the legislators tackling the issue head on.

“In late February or early March, the State Department had denied that there was a problem,” she said in an email. “They asserted that 83 percent of Israelis who applied for visitor visas aged 21 to 30 received them. This was when I decided to get involved, because I felt that those numbers were not telling the whole story. So I wrote to Secretary [of State John] Kerry asking for more specific numbers. I asked for statistics of tourist visas — a subset of visitor visas — for the smaller age range of 21 to 26.”

In her letter to Kerry, Meng, a member of the Middle East subcommittee, wrote that she was concerned that the “current, apparent presumption of nefarious intent on the part of young Israelis seems unfair” and urged the department to end the practice.

Frifield’s response to Meng acknowledged the problem and said that 32 percent of visa applications by Israelis 21 to 26 were denied in 2013, up from 16 percent in 2009.

Another provision that Israel must meet is reciprocity toward all American citizens. This poses a difficult question for Israel, which has applied strict scrutiny and restrictions on visas for Palestinian and Arab Americans.

“Israel doesn’t have visa requirements for American citizens, but there has been a long history of special treatment of Arab-American citizens and that has raised strong objections by the Arab-American community,” said Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. “I think that the U.S., for good reason, believes that American citizens are American citizens without reference to their racial, ethnic or religious origins and that all are entitled to be treated equally by foreign governments as they are here and that no stigma or suspicion should apply to those American citizens because of their ethnic origin or race.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on April 22 that Israeli officials said they were willing to end their restrictions on Arab Americans upon entering the waiver program.

Asked whether this was something the State Department could accept, spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed that the department wouldn’t budge on the requirement for nations to adapt their policy prior to joining the waiver program, instead of after.

Congress does have the power to override some of the requirements and last year U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) introduced the Visa Waiver for Israel Act of 2013 that is currently being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), has also taken a strong stance against exempting Israel from the Visa Waiver Program’s standards.

“As longtime friends and allies, the United States and Israel benefit significantly from travel and tourism between the two countries,” Goodlatte wrote. “I believe that countries wishing to participate in the Visa Waiver Program must first satisfy the requirements for participation under the Immigration and Nationality Act for admittance to the program. Once Israel satisfies these requirements, I would warmly welcome their participation in the program, so that we can further bolster the strong relationship between our countries.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com
JNS.org contributed to this story.