As Nato Meeing Approaches, Light Shines on Handling of Jewish Issues

Later this month, seven nations will clear a crucial hurdle toward full membership in NATO.

But as they embrace a military alliance that seemed unimaginable during the Soviet era, these nations — Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia — will remain under close scrutiny to ensure they follow through on promises regarding “value issues,” including how they handle Jewish affairs.

Jewish leaders are divided on how the nations will behave after they are formally invited to join the military alliance during the Prague Summit on Nov. 21.

NATO demands that candidate countries establish high standards in treating their ethnic and religious minorities.

NATO membership is not a foregone conclusion for the seven aspirant nations. Though invitations will be extended in Prague, nothing will be final for another 18 months.

During that time, the legislatures of all 19 NATO members states — including the U.S. Senate — must approve the additions.

During the past decade, Jewish leaders and the U.S. State Department have used NATO membership as leverage to encourage the aspirants to confront their Holocaust history. That includes politically sensitive issues like local collaboration with the Nazis, property restitution, Holocaust education and commemoration and the prosecution of war criminals.

“There will be a greater effort to keep these countries” moving on such issues “than ever in the past,” said Bruce Jackson, executive director of the U.S. Committee on NATO, a nonprofit group that tracks value issues among aspirant nations.

“The pressure to make good on reforms will be pronounced,” he said. “They’re young, fragile democracies, and there’s a feeling we have to encourage them to continue the reforms they have promised.”

Jackson regards the handling of the 1999 NATO entrants — the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary — as a mistake. World leaders failed to anticipate a slowdown in reforms after the three joined NATO, he says.

In Hungary in particular, he said, leaders were surprised when politicians there reverted to nationalist themes in elections and tolerated anti-Semitic remarks by far-right leaders.

Meanwhile, the seven latest aspirants have taken a number of steps in advance of the Prague Summit:

Estonia declared a national Holocaust Day in its public schools after two years of stalling;

Slovakia ended six years of negotiations by agreeing to establish a $19 million restitution fund for its Jewish community;

Lithuania ended years of controversy in January by giving some 300 prewar Torah scrolls to Jewish officials for distribution to communities around the world. It also established a commission to address the long-ignored issue of property restitution; and

After years of international pressure, Romania finally removed remnants, such as statues and street names, of its revered fascist leader Marshall Antonescu.

“We have seen some very real progress. There is no doubt things are happening because of the run-up to the Prague Summit,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, international director of the American Jewish Committee. “But without question, the full attention of these countries might not be with us after Prague.”

Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai Brith International, doesn’t expect much to change after the summit.

“It isn’t as if the clock stops on Nov. 21. For us, this period goes on through ratification,” he said. “It gives us the time we need to resolve major outstanding issues.”

Outstanding Jewish-related issues include communal and private property restitution in Romania and the implementation of Lithuania’s communal property legislation.

There also are concerns about Estonia’s ability to address the issue of local collaboration in the Holocaust.

Eastern European leaders acknowledge the importance of Jewish issues, but decisions are largely unpopular with local populations, most of whom — due to Soviet propaganda — were never educated about their nations’ Holocaust history.

Jewish officials consider the Baltic states absolute failures when it comes to the prosecution of local war criminals, not one of whom has served jail time since the post-Communist nations regained independence in 1991.

At a Holocaust conference in the Balkans last month, Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, warned that once Baltic and Balkan nations are admitted to NATO, their motivation to prosecute war criminals likely would disappear.

“Once these countries are in NATO, I fear that their willingness to cooperate on Jewish issues might be severely reduced,” Zuroff said this week.

A “very intelligent case can be made for extending the transition period,” he added.

Despite such concerns, the center does not actively oppose NATO enlargement. But the Israel-based Association of Lithuanian Jews, which closely follows events in the Baltics, is a staunch opponent.

“When Lithuania gets in NATO, they won’t care anymore. They are the biggest anti-Semites,” said Joseph Melamed, chairman of the association and a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto who witnessed Lithuanians kill thousands of Jews before the Nazis arrived.

“I think the conditions to get into NATO should be very strong. But the Americans want the Lithuanians in NATO whether we like it or not,” he said. “After NATO, everything will stop. NATO is not a school. They aren’t teaching anything.”

Melamed acknowledges that the atmosphere in Lithuania has improved recently. But he also knows the Lithuanian public often erupts with blatant anti-Semitism after controversial, Jewish-related news stories.

He also questions the sincerity of public officials, saying, “They know public relations is one of the most important things.”

Melamed justifies his accusations by pointing to the much-publicized return of Torah scrolls, all of which were looted from prewar synagogues in Lithuania.

The Lithuanian government returned many scrolls in January but still hasn’t parted with dozens of others, which officials have declared part of Lithuania’s “national heritage.”

Giedrius Cekuolis, Lithuania’s chief negotiator for NATO entry, insists that the nation’s actions on Jewish issues are sincere.

Lithuania is not acting on human rights and Holocaust issues for NATO, he said: “We are doing them for ourselves.”

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