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Romanian Jews fret over future

ROME, Dec. 4 (JTA) – Romanians go to the polls on Sunday knowing that their next president will either be one of Europe’s most notorious anti-Semites or an elderly ex-Communist long accused of corruption and resistance to democratic reform.

“The results could bring a turnaround in domestic and foreign policy and a reversal in international policies toward Romania,” Catherine Lovatt wrote in the Central Europe Review, an online magazine.

“A new pariah of Europe may be just around the corner.”

Sunday’s second-round vote pits Corneliu Vadim Tudor, leader of the ultranationalist Romania Mare, or Greater Romania Party, against Ion Iliescu, a former Communist who served as president from 1990 to 1996.

In first-round elections Nov. 26, the 70-year-old Iliescu came in first out of a dozen candidates with 36 percent of the vote. Tudor, 51, came in second with 28 percent.

Tudor’s success in particular sounded alarm bells among Romania’s 12,000 Jews. It raised worrisome questions about how Jews and other minorities would fare should he win. It has also prompted some Romanian Jews to rethink their decision to stay in Romania.

The results of the first round represented a crushing defeat for the liberal-centrist government that ruled the country for the past four years and left democratic-minded voters at a loss.

“For us, as Jews, there is no real choice: A nationalist Communist confronts a nationalist fascist,” said Ladislau Gyemant, a historian who directs the Jewish Studies Institute in the Transylvanian city of Cluj.

“I myself will not vote because there is no candidate for whom it is worth walking to the polls,” he told JTA.

The European Union imposed sanctions on Austria earlier this year when the Freedom Party of right-wing nationalist Jorg Haider entered the Austrian government. Israel protested by withdrawing its ambassador from Vienna.

The European Union has since lifted those sanctions.

There has been no indication so far of possible reprisals against Romania should Tudor win, even though since his days as a “court poet” to deposed and executed Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, he has long been under scrutiny by Jewish and other watchdog groups.

Holocaust scholar Randolph Braham calls Tudor a neo-fascist, and international Jewish groups describe Romania Mare as Romania’s “most nationalist and anti-Semitic” party.

“The Anti-Defamation League has long followed the career of Corneliu Vadim Tudor, and his record of propagating anti-Semitism and racism through his party newspaper,” a spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League told JTA.

“It is unfortunate that at a time when Romania is seeking a future of greater partnership with the West, so many Romanians voted for a party and an individual who preach an old message of scapegoating, exclusion and nativism,” the spokesperson said.

“We hope that in the next round of voting, Romanians will reject this message and work toward a more vibrant, tolerant and inclusive society.”

Tudor’s support in the first round of voting was spectacular, given that his party won little more than 2 percent in June’s local elections.

He promoted himself as untainted by the corruption, economic failures and political infighting that have characterized Romania’s governments during the past decade.

“What is really scary is when I hear people say that they will vote for Tudor because he is clean and therefore he should be given a chance to see what he can do,” said Marko, a Jewish sales executive in Bucharest who asked that his last name not be used.

Tudor in particular reached out to disaffected young people who see no future ahead of them in a country where nearly half the population exists on little more than one dollar a day.

“His ‘solutions’ are both radical and simplistic, particularly those blaming the current situation on Romania’s foreign ‘enemies’ and on its domestic ‘puppets,’ ” wrote Radio Free Europe analyst Michael Shafir.

Among those Tudor counts as “enemies,” he wrote, are “the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and an undefined, but obviously Jewish-led globalization drive.”

A Tudor victory could have a serious impact on the future of Romania’s Jewish community, most of whom are elderly. Fewer than 1,000 are under the age of 35.

For decades, the pattern of Jewish life in Romania was to encourage aliyah among young people. Thousands of Jews emigrated to Israel during the Cold War, making it one of the few Communist countries from which Jews could legally immigrate to Israel.

With the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the community now focuses on making sure that the elderly who would not or could not move to Israel live out their lives in dignity.

Even after the fall of communism, when Jewish communities in other post-Communist countries took advantage of new freedoms to begin upgrading Jewish education and fostering community development, little was done in Romania to change this pattern.

Only within the past year have new programs been implemented aimed at reaching out to the unaffiliated and bolstering Jewish involvement and education.

These initiatives include long-distance outreach and education projects aimed at Jews living in isolated communities.

The middle generation – which in Romania means anyone between 30 and 60 – was given particular attention in these initiatives.

But the initiatives also included compiling a computerized database of Jews aged 15 to 35 and establishing a new, nationwide youth organization whose aims include spotting, training and encouraging new communal leaders.

People involved in implementing these projects say the response so far has been encouraging.

But the prospect of an electoral victory by Tudor has prompted at least some Jews to reconsider their options.

“My brother and sister both made aliyah years ago,” said Marko, who is in his 30s.

“I stayed here in Bucharest because my parents are here. They are elderly and did not want to make the move to Israel. I also have to say that I wanted to do my part to help build up my country after Ceausescu.

“But the way I feel now,” he added, “is that it may be time to say goodbye to Mama.”

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