Around the Jewish World: Romania’s Jews Encouraged by Newly Elected Government

Pinched between their drive for justice and the specter of an anti-Semitic backlash, Romania’s Jews are seeking to maintain their traditionally warm relations with the newly elected government in Bucharest.

Leaders of the rapidly aging 14,000-member Romanian Jewish community have three leading goals.

They are determined to recover properties seized by the wartime fascists and then by the communists.

They also hope to receive financial assistance for the country’s approximate 1,000 Holocaust survivors and to receive political support to counter the country’s active, anti-Semitic fringe.

They now appear to have a strong ally for their cause.

In a major swing away from its Communist past, Romania’s voters swept the center-right alliance of President Emil Constantinescu into office last month.

As part of his campaign, Constantinescu, who was sworn in this week, had vowed to chart a course toward European integration with major democratic and economic reforms.

Among the preconditions for joining NATO and the European Union is a demonstrated regard for human rights, which includes restitution of communal properties that were confiscated from minorities and nationalized.

The recently deposed leftist government, led by former Communist Ion Iliescu, advanced the restitution process slowly amid counter-pressures from the right.

“This new government wants to get into the E.U. and NATO, and you can’t do this if you are chauvinistic and nationalist,” said Romanian writer Janos Szasz, an ethnic Hungarian who is Jewish.

“It would be in their best interests to have good relations with all of Romania’s ethnic minorities.”

No one knows the importance of such relations better than Romania’s Jewish community.

After the Holocaust, during which half of Romania’s 800,000 Jews perished, the community’s survival instinct led it to forge closer ties with the fledgling Communist regime.

It paid off under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu: Some 320,000 Jews — many of whom reportedly paid about $5,000 apiece — emigrated to Israel and elsewhere, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Jewish community was also allowed to maintain kosher restaurants, Hebrew classes and a Jewish newspaper.

After Ceausescu’s execution in December 1989, Romanian Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen kept relations running smoothly with Iliescu.

But today, as always, Jewish leaders here know they must tread carefully.

If they are too vocal or ask for what seems to be too much, it will provide more ammunition for extremists.

Throughout the recent presidential campaign, Romania’s right-wing press assailed the government for alleged favoritism toward the Jewish community.

Even the respectable opposition press got into the act, alleging that U.S. Ambassador to Romania Alfred Moses, who is Jewish, was working back-room deals with Iliescu on behalf of the Jewish community.

Now, as the Jewish community seeks restitution for communal properties, Iulian Sorin, secretary of the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities, said it is nearly impossible to put a price tag on all the assets lost.

During the Holocaust, 510 Jewish communities were wiped out, the only sign they ever existed being the cemeteries left behind.

The federation is currently focusing its restitution efforts on 295 demolished synagogues and for expropriated assets that include 165 schools and 31 hospitals or nursing-care facilities.

But, Sorin points out, it would be best if the community did not act on its own.

“We, as a Jewish community, cannot act in a vacuum; we’re in the same boat as the (ethnic) Hungarian, Greek and Turkish minorities,” said Sorin, who also heads the Commission for Restitution of Communal Property, which represents Romania’s 18 ethnic minorities.

“If we act with others, we have more power and can be more successful. But if we act alone, it could be the basis for a wave of anti-Semitism.”

An equally powerful fear for the Jewish community is what might happen if the new government fails to revive the moribund economy and boost the quality of life.

Despite the tiny number of Jews, conspiracy theorists may blame future economic woes on the Jewish community, particularly on the returning Romanian Jewish emigres and on Israeli businessmen, said Romania Chief Rabbi Yehezkel Mark, who replaced Rosen last year after Rosen’s death in 1994.

“If the government succeeds, and the citizens of Romania are happier than before,” Mark said, “there’ll be no need for scapegoats.”

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