Amid protest, building of controversial statue begins

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Members of the Jewish community were among the demonstrators protesting the construction of a controversial monument to the Hungarian victims of the German occupation during World War II.

Work on the statue began Tuesday in downtown Budapest, according to Klubradio, a news station known to be critical of the government. The protest was held that evening adjacent to the U.S. Embassy building with protesters carrying signs saying the memorial is “a falsification of Hungary’s history.”

The Freedom Square monument, due to be completed in May, will pay tribute to “all Hungarian victims with the erection of the monument commemorating the tragic German occupation and the memorial year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust,” according to the Hungarian Government Information Center.

The Jewish community has argued that the memorial removes any responsibility from the Hungarian government of that time for the death of Hungarian Jews.

Alan Gross goes on hunger strike

041114_world-briefsAmerican-Jewish contractor Alan Gross has launched a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment in a Cuban jail and the lack of American assistance.

“I began a fast on April 3 in protest of the treatment to which I am subjected by the governments of Cuba and the United States,” Gross said in a statement issued Tuesday.

“I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal,” he said. “Once again, I am calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this standoff so that I can return home to my wife and daughters.”

Gross, 64, a subcontractor for the State Department on a mission to hook up Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet, was arrested in December 2009 as he was leaving Cuba. The Maryland resident is serving a 15-year sentence for “crimes against the state.”

French Jewish group fined for defamation

France’s largest Jewish organization defamed a pro-Palestinian charity by accusing it of financing Hamas, a French court ruled.

The ruling against the CRIF umbrella group handed down by the Nancy Court of Cassation last month was first reported Sunday by the news site

CRIF staff were ordered to pay the equivalent of $4,140 to the Committee for Charity and Support for the Palestinians, or CBSP — a group that CRIF researcher Marc Knobel in 2010 wrote “collects funds for Hamas.”

Is UNRWA an Obstacle to Peace?

Students in an UNRWA school in Gaza react enthusiastically to a teacher’s question. (UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan)

Students in an UNRWA school in Gaza react enthusiastically to a teacher’s question. (UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan)

As the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process grabs the latest headlines, a growing group of organizations are calling attention to what they believes to be a major obstacle in fostering understanding between Israelis and Palestinians: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

David Bedein, bureau chief of the Israel Resource News Agency and director of the Nahum Bedein Center for Near East Policy Research, claims that the U.N. group, which is responsible for administering schools in Palestinian refugee camps, indoctrinates students against the Jewish state through the use of incendiary textbooks and works closely with persons affiliated with known terrorist organizations in the region. According to figures provided by UNRWA, the United States government is its biggest funder, contributing slightly more than $233 million in 2012; the agency’s two-year budget for 2012 and 2013 amounted to $1.3 billion.

Bedein, who has worked on the issue for 25 years, and the Bedein Center launched an international tour that included screenings of the organization’s “Camp Jihad” documentary, which highlights the purported indoctrination of Palestinian children. Its claims are backed by studies done by Jonathan D. Halevi, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and Arnon Groiss, director of research at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance.

Last month, the tour came to Washington, D.C., with two events at the National Press Club and the offices of the Baker Hostetler law firm.

According to attendees at the Press Club event, UNRWA’s Washington liason officer, Chris McGrath, and others from the office were present. McGrath reportedly argued that the scenes from the film were fabricated and refuted the examples Groiss referred to in textbooks used by the Palestinian Authority.

“UNRWA uses the textbooks that are used in host-country schools, including the PA textbooks in Gaza and the West Bank that were created with the full support of the United States and the European Union,” McGrath told Washington Jewish Week. “In addition, UNRWA enhances its curriculum with additional teaching regarding human rights, tolerance and nonviolent conflict resolution.”

According to Bedein, his organization also gave presentations to staff of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee and various aides at the House of Representatives.

“One of the questions they did ask was, ‘How do we get an objective analysis of the books?’” said Bedein. “I gave the example of former Vatican ambassador Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who conducted an investigation of the schoolbooks,  and his conclusion was rather shocking. He said, ‘These were war manuals.’”

Bedein said that he believes children at UNRWA schools are being told that the only end to the conflict would be for them to resettle to the areas that are now part of Israel, which sets an unrealistic expectation.

He said that his organization’s primary goal is to raise awareness of the issue among politicians, journalists and diplomats worldwide to reassess their support of UNRWA.

“The important thing is that there is going to be an expiration of the UNRWA mandate at the end of June, and we’re hoping to tack on some very important conditions for the renewal of UNRWA [funding],” he said. “Why should a United Nations agency, which is supposed to be promoting peace, have a curriculum that is basically a war curriculum?”

UNRWA has come out strongly against the claims in the film. In a statement last fall, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness flatly denied the allegations in the film, calling the claims “baseless” and “patently false.”

“UNRWA has conducted a lengthy and detailed investigation into the film, and we categorically reject the allegations it contains,” said Gunness. “The film is grossly misleading, and we regret the damage it has caused to UNRWA and the United Nations.”

Gunness, however, condemned statements made during an interview featured in the film, saying that UNRWA suspended its “relationship with the third-party organization, pending a review.” contributed to this story.

Moving Right

Protesters light memorial candles at a rally in Budapest against a government plan to erect what they say is a statue presenting Hungary as an innocent victim of Nazi occupation. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Protesters light memorial candles at a rally in Budapest against a government plan to erect what they say is a statue presenting Hungary as an innocent victim of Nazi occupation.
(Cnaan Liphshiz)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — A lone heckler tried to disrupt him, but Hungarian lawmaker Janos Hargitai was undeterred as he spoke earlier this month at a memorial day gathering in Hungary commemorating the 1848 revolution there.

The holiday marks Hungary’s attempt to break free from the Austrian Empire, and Hargitai, sandwiched between two Hungarian flags, was celebrating his nation’s independence and the full exercise of its sovereignty.

But in so doing, Hargitai employed a trope about foreign financial interests that has been gaining traction here and which critics regard as thinly veiled anti-Semitism.

“They give us dictates,” Hargitai said at the Budapest event. “In 1848, it was the Rothschilds and now it’s the International Monetary Fund. Hungarian independence compromises the Rothschilds’ interests.”

Such statements from elected officials have become commonplace here since the ultranationalist Jobbik party entered parliament in 2010,
despite — and arguably because of — its antagonism toward Jews. Infamously, a Jobbik parliamentarian in 2012 called for registering Hungarian Jews as threats to national security.

But Hargitai is no Jobbik man. He is a lawmaker for the ruling Fidesz party, and his statements are reflective of what political analysts say is the party’s creeping nationalism and increasing aggression toward the Jewish community as it scrambles to maintain its lead over Jobbik ahead of next month’s general elections.

“Fidesz increasingly has been using Jobbik rhetoric as a direct response to Jobbik’s growing popularity in an attempt to weaken Jobbik and take over their voters by first taking over their programs,” said Eva Balogh, a historian and author of the Hungarian Spectrum blog.

Recent polls predict Jobbik will remain the third largest party in the April 6 election, taking anywhere from 14 to 19 percent of the vote — a handsome increase over the 11 percent of parliamentary seats it currently holds.

The same polls predict Fidesz, a center-right party, will take 36 to 38 percent of the vote — enough to remain the country’s ruling force but still a substantial loss from 2010, when it garnered approximately half the ballots cast.

As Fidesz’s popularity wanes, party bosses have become increasingly inclined to abandon efforts to present a moderate face and have indulged in the sort of nationalistic bravado that has fueled Jobbik’s ascent.

The shift was evident last year in the decision to display photos of classic anti-Semitic texts at a Fidesz-sponsored cultural festival and in a plan by the mayor of Budapest, Fidesz member Istvan Tarlos, to name a street after an anti-Semitic author.

More recently, analysts have seen evidence of a rightward tilt in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s clash with Hungarian Jewry over commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Hungary.

The conflict erupted last month when the Mazsihisz Jewish umbrella group said it would boycott some government-led events because of a planned memorial statue that was seen as glossing over the pro-Nazi Hungarian government’s prominent role in the murder of 568,000 Jews toward the end of World War II. The statue depicted Hungary as an angel attacked by an eagle.

One senior party figure accused Mazsihisz of aligning with the left, while Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, voiced a warning at a news conference.

“They issued an ultimatum to the government, and this is causing more anxiety than a positive impact on the coexistence of Jews and Hungarians,” said Lazar.

Lazar’s statement, which some saw as threatening the Jewish community and implying that Jews are not Hungarians, was met with condemnation this week from Mazsihisz President Andras Heisler.

“We have learned that nowhere in the Diaspora should Jews, or any other minority, blindly trust the prevailing power,” said Heisler.

On Sunday, a crowd of 200, mostly Jews, stood for two hours in the rain and lit candles for the dead at a rally at Freedom Square protesting the monument.

Matyas Eorsi, a Jewish former lawmaker for the SZDSZ Liberal Democratic Party, said that Lazar’s comments were “scandalous” and denied that Jews were meddling in the elections.

“The allegation that Mazsihisz is meddling in campaign politics is absurd,” said Eorsi. “The government, not Mazsihisz, decided to unveil a revisionist monument during an election year.”

The Hungarian government denies the statue reflects any antipathy toward Jews. Officials repeatedly have ack-nowledged their country’s complicity with the Nazis, most recently in January, when Hungary’s U.N. ambassador, Csaba Korosi, apologized for “the Hungarian state’s guilt during the Holocaust.” In October, Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics, also a Fidesz member, acknowledged his country’s “responsibility” for the wartime deaths of Hungarian Jews.

The government insisted on the monument because “respect has to be expressed for all victims,” said Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesman. “This is a question of humanity, and not one of politics or party affiliation.”

Kumin denied that Fidesz was trying to court right-wing voters with its rhetoric.

“Even if this desire existed, doing so would be counterproductive because whatever we would gain on the right flanks, we would lose much more from the center,” he explained. He also cited new laws against hate speech and promised the government would prevent any attempt to limit Jewish religious freedoms in Hungary.

But Istvan Rev, a professor of history and political science at Central European University, said the government resisted requests from Mazsihisz to consider alternatives for the monument that would have more clearly acknowledged Hungarian complicity.

“This is an election year,” said Rev, “and the government does not want to be seen as backing down before those bloody Jews.”

Mindful of its clash with the government, Mazsihisz criticized the decision by the Chabad-affiliated Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) to hold a conference in Budapest this week of hundreds of members of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe. A Mazsihisz spokesman said that his organization feared Fidesz would use the event to downplay Jewish concerns.

But EMIH head Rabbi Shlomo Koves, who credits the Orban government for its efforts to curb extremism, dismissed the concern, saying the event was nonpartisan and unconnected to the monument affair.

Three Years On

On Sept. 6, 2011, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, left, visits a company and battalion commander exercise in the Golan Heights. (Ori Shifrin, IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

On Sept. 6, 2011, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, left, visits a company and battalion commander exercise in the Golan Heights.
(Ori Shifrin, IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

March 15 marked the third anniversary of the beginning of unrest that led to the ongoing Syrian civil war. As the conflict drags on into its fourth year with no end in sight, Israel — which shares a contentious United Nations-patrolled border with Syria in the Golan Heights region — finds itself in a precarious situation due to new threats such as al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel terror groups as well as old foes such as Hezbollah, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“None of the sides are capable of a decisive victory to end the war and rule over the entire country,” explained Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Air Force general and former head of the military intelligence directorate of the Israel Defense Forces. “It has been a moral disaster.”

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the conflict has resulted in more than 146,000 deaths, and more than 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced, resulting in the worst humanitarian disaster of the early 21st century.

Despite the massive humanitarian toll and the use of chemical weapons against his own people, Assad has seen his fortunes improve over the last year, as Western and Arab countries have been unwilling to directly intervene in the conflict or to successfully end the conflict diplomatically.

Lebanese-born Middle East analyst Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, blamed President Barack Obama for indirectly strengthening Assad’s position with his handling of the chemical weapons situation last fall.

“The Obama administration, by brokering this chemical weapons deal, has strengthened Assad’s position,” said Badran, “because Assad now understands there is not going to be any threat of direct involvement of outside powers against him. It also validated him … and gave him free reign to pursue all avenues of destruction up to weapons of mass destruction.

“The direct threat to Assad that existed a year ago, thanks to the Obama administration policy, it has been taken off the table for now,” he added.

Despite the massive civil war raging to its north, Israel has maintained a strict policy of neutrality in the conflict, not wishing to be drawn in like it was during the 15-year Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nevertheless, Israel has shown it is willing to become involved on a limited scale when its direct interests are threatened, such as when it reportedly launched airstrikes against advanced weapons convoys destined for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

“The way Israel has been involved in Syria up until now has been exclusively through the Iranian angle, specifically to the procurement and transmission of strategic weapons systems [from the Syrian government to Hezbollah],” said Badran.

But as the Syrian civil war has dragged on, al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups have become increasingly dominant within the rebel ranks, worrying Western and Israeli officials. The two main groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and its main competitor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have displaced the relatively moderate and secular Free Syrian Army as the main rebel group fighting the Syrian government.

Despite these concerns, southern Syria, even with the losses by the Syrian government, has not seen the large influx of jihadist fighters that have affected northern Syria.

“The only group in the south that might become a problem is the Jabhat al-Nusra, which has a limited presence in the area. However, the makeup of the groups down there is mostly locally oriented tribal groups that have ties with Jordanian and Israeli intelligence,” explained Badran.

Yadlin echoed Badran’s assessment, arguing that he does not yet consider the jihadist groups to be a serious problem for Israel.

“I don’t belong to the group that believes that the terrorist threat in Syria is very serious at this time. While it does pose a problem [for Israel], Israel knows how to handle terrorists, especially when it is coming from a well-defined border such as the Golan Heights,” said Yadlin, head of the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies.

Last month the IDF announced that it was deploying a new division to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights to maintain “operational readiness,” according to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz.

The newly created 210th Regional Bashan Division replaces the 36th Armor Division, which had patrolled the Syrian border for nearly 40 years and was designed to fight conventional military threats such as a Syrian land invasion.

But with the Syrian military severely weakened by the civil war and the loss of control of large swaths of southern Syria, the threat of a conventional ground war — as seen in previous conflicts such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War — has severely diminished, forcing Israeli military planners to recalculate the emerging threats in the region, such as terror groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.

Gantz said the restructuring of military forces in the Golan Heights is part of a shift toward providing a faster response from “air, sea and ground threats to Israel’s security.”

Yadlin said that Israeli military officials are on top of the ongoing changes in the area and are preparing the IDF to meet these emerging challenges: “Israel has a topographical advantage there [in the Golan Heights], very good intelligence and new highly trained military support in the area.”

Front Row Seat

A protest in Kiev last November. Of the Russian takeover of Crimea, an American rabbi who served there says, “I hope that Putin will want to prove that it will remain safe for Jews.” (Mstyslav Chernov / Wikimedia Commons)

A protest in Kiev last November. Of the Russian takeover of Crimea, an American rabbi who served there says, “I hope that Putin will want to prove that it will remain safe for Jews.” (Mstyslav Chernov / Wikimedia Commons)

While the crisis in Ukraine continues to unfold, Jews in the disputed region of Crimea have been caught in a battle over nationalism. Like many minority groups in the area, Ukrainian Jews fear for their safety and their future amid the heightened tension.

“The main action in Crimea was taking place right across the street from our synagogue,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Lipszyc, who has been a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, for more than two decades. “There were demonstrations with over 30,000 people. The protestors were pro-Ukrainian. But eventually the ones who took over were in the unidentified uniforms — they were obviously Russian military. There were Cossacks there too; for Jews that was a bit scary because of their history in the pogroms.”

Lipszyc, who was recently forced to leave Crimea with his wife, Leah, spoke about his experience during the protests, the Russian military occupation of the area and the state of the Jewish community there.

What has life been like in Crimea?
Rabbi Lipszyc: For the last 22 years under the Ukrainian government, everything has been going very well. When this situation began, it turned things upside down. We were told by Chabad headquarters to get out, and we barely made it out. My wife, in fact, got the last two tickets on a train out of Simferopol on the night before everything got sealed off by the Russians [Feb. 27].

Can you describe the political situation in Crimea?
When this whole thing started, a number of people were afraid. I would say that, and I’m not a political analyst, probably most of the people wanted to stay with Ukraine, because that was what they were familiar with.

But then when the Russians took over the media and propaganda switched the other way, within days we saw it swing toward being overwhelmingly pro-Russian. However, there were many still against Russia because they were afraid. From what I heard, when the referendum came, many people didn’t vote because it wasn’t legal and they were standing against it.

The situation is not good, especially for Americans like us. Americans are persona non grata for both Ukrainians and Russians at this time. For Russians it is because of the stance the American government has taken against Russia. While on the Ukraine side they are deeply disappointed that America is not doing enough to help them.

Oddly enough we had to leave there more because we were Americans and not because we were Jewish. The situation is still difficult. We are personally apolitical and there simply to help the Jewish community in any way we can.

Did you experience anything particularly noteworthy before you left Crimea?
One interesting story that occurred for us, that we consider a miracle, was when the area around our synagogue was taken over and cordoned off by the Russian military. You couldn’t get in or out by car or even by walking. We therefore moved the synagogue to our house, which was outside the cordoned-off area, but we still needed to retrieve the Torah from the synagogue.

We didn’t think we could get in at all. So my wife suggested that we approach the area and try to get as far as possible. We also wrote a note to the [late Lubavitcher] Rebbe, to ask for his help to get us through.

Believe it or not, when our friend reached the military checkpoint, he explained to them that we needed to retrieve the Torah out of the synagogue, [the Russian soldier] suddenly moved out of the way and removed the barriers to let him in. On his way out, the soldier actually apologized to him for the inconvenience, which was unheard of there. It was a miracle!

Do you plan to return to Crimea?
I hope to as soon as possible, but it is a little difficult for us because we are Americans. Our basic stance was that as soon as it stabilizes, we will go back. For us, it doesn’t matter who is in charge, Russian or Ukrainian, we are apolitical. We are there for the Jewish community.

With Crimea now under Russian control, do you think the Jewish community is safe?
As far as the record goes in Russia, the Jewish people have been able to practice and be Jewish without any major problems. Of course, there is anti-Semitism, but it isn’t state sanctioned. In Crimea, I hope that Putin will want to prove that it will remain safe for Jews.

The Jewish community in Crimea needs help. We have to prepare for Passover and need to raise a lot of money to help with the extra costs. We not only need extra security, but we have taken loses during the process.

For example, we were getting our kosher meat from Ukraine, we had ordered and paid for it, but they [Russian forces] didn’t let it through. We also paid for the matzos, but that didn’t get through either. We need to figure out how to get all our supplies through now. We are appealing to everyone to help out the Jewish community there.

Jewish man attacked in Paris

Two unidentified men wielding a stun gun assaulted a Jewish man near a Paris synagogue.

K. Sassoun, a 52-year-old Israeli, was identified as the victim of Monday night’s attack at a building next to a synagogue on Pavee Street in central Paris, according to Sassoun was not seriously hurt but required medical treatment after being knocked down from the stun gun.

“The perpetrators assaulted the victim for no other reason than his clothing and appearance, which identified him as being Jewish and the fact that he was near a Jewish place of worship,” the National Bureau for Vig-ilance Against Anti-Semitism said in a statement.

Sassoun filed a complaint for racial hate crime and assault with Paris police.

The site of the attack once was the center of Jewish life in Paris and is considered its historic Jewish quarter.

Egyptian Jewish leader buried

Nadia Haroun, the deputy head of Egypt’s Jewish community, was buried Tuesday. She died last Thursday from a heart attack at the age of 59. The funeral ceremony was led by Haroun’s sister, Magda, who is now the leader of the country’s small remaining Jewish community.

The burial was held in Cairo’s downtown Gates of Heaven Synagogue. During her life, Haroun was a lawyer and an architect. She was also the daughter of Egyptian politician Chehata Haroun, who was known for expressing anti-Zionist views and defending Egyptian Jews against accusations that they were more loyal to Israel than to Egypt.

Haroun is survived by a son and a daughter. Less than 40 Jews remain in Egypt, the Associated Press reported.

Anti-Semitic incidents on the rise in the Netherlands

A Dutch Jewish watchdog group reported a 23 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents last year in the Netherlands.

The Hague-based Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) recorded 147 anti-Semitic incidents in the Netherlands in 2013, compared with 114 in the previous year. CIDI’s annual report was released Tuesday.

Verbal assaults on Jews that involved a direct exchange rose to 21 from 14. Three incidents involved direct physical violence, and one case featured threats of violence.

“CIDI finds the increase all the more disconcerting because it is partly caused by frequent confrontations between victims and perpetrators,” the organization said in statement.