5760: Global Jewry faces crises old and new


NEW YORK, Aug. 20 (JTA) — The year 5760 was another active one for international Jewry, with its share of crises new and old.

Zionist show trial in Iran. Perceived government meddling in Jewish affairs in Russia. Right-wing resurgence in Austria. And the Falash Mura still in limbo in war-torn, famine-wracked Ethiopia.

There were, however, also victories.

A landmark court verdict against British Holocaust-denier and revisionist historian David Irving. Acceptance of Israel into the Western European grouping of the United Nations, finally ending Israel’s second-class status in the global body. And more revelations about — and restitution for — Europe’s looting of Jewish property and assets during the Holocaust.

Yet from the Jewish perspective, the international news that grabs headlines is the persistent, age-old story of “Jews in distress” — and the general plight of minorities worldwide. That it continues unabated has most American Jewish leaders scratching their heads.

A decade ago, most had bought into President Bush’s prediction that the collapse of communism would usher in a “New World Order.” Today, though, they wonder what progress, if any, has been made.

“Instead of the promise of New World Order, what we’re getting is old world disorder,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“If you look at the number of irredentist or religious- or ethnic-based conflicts around the world today, it’s remarkable. And the fact is, much of the world is insensitive to this. Sixty years after the Holocaust, we can’t say the world is a much more caring place.”

As the 1990s unfolded, American Jewry no longer sensed an existential threat to Israel. Attention then turned to nurturing — the communal buzz word was “continuity” — U.S. Jewry itself as well as the Diaspora Jewish communities that reside in the 100-plus nations around the globe.

In Central and Eastern Europe, for example, where Jewish life was virtually dormant for anywhere from 40 to 70 years under the yoke of atheistic, anti-clerical communism, American Jewish groups and philanthropists continue to make enormous contributions to resuscitating those communities.

But in recent years, there is a dawning realization that Diaspora Jews are as vulnerable as ever. Unlike the past, however, the main threat is not physical. Rather, aside from the tumult of warfare — which, for example, has significantly depleted the small Jewish population in the Balkans — it is the process of globalization that may unravel numerous Jewish communities.

Scores of developing nations around the world are either experiencing the growing pains induced by globalization, or paying the economic and social price for trying to ignore globalization.

Many of these countries also have little or no tradition of democracy or respect for human rights. So when instability strikes, and charismatic rabble- rousers look to assign blame, it’s typically immigrant workers or Jews or other minorities who serve as convenient scapegoats.

And Jews, unlike most of their compatriots, often have somewhere else to go, whether it be Israel or to join relatives in the West. So they emigrate.

Jews continue to stream out of places like Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, South Africa, Venezuela, even Mexico.

“With the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a feeling that there would be much more respect for minorities and human rights, and that we would be rebuilding Jewish communities rather than protecting Jewish communities,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“This year was a wake-up call: A lot of things have changed, but they have not changed that much. We thought we would no longer have to mobilize and go to the streets. But Iran reminded us there’s still a need to stand in solidarity in defense of Jews.”

In early 1999, 13 Jews in Iran were jailed and later accused of spying for Israel. Behind the arrests, analysts say, was a calculated move by Iranian hard-liners, who face domestic pressure to liberalize society and warm economic relations with the West. The hard-liners, goes the reasoning, correctly assumed the arrests would provoke international outrage and stunt rapprochement.

American Jewish leaders were not optimistic. Since its Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has executed 17 Jews on espionage charges.

Still, their blend of quiet diplomacy and occasional street prayer vigils likely spared the prisoners from the gallows.

On July 1, 10 of the Jews were convicted of various crimes and sentenced to terms ranging from four to 13 years. As the appeals process grinds forward, Jewish activists report another surge in emigration among Iran’s roughly 25,000 Jews.

American Jewish leaders were also quick to denounce two other disturbing developments in Europe.

In February, the far-right Freedom Party of Jorg Haider, notorious for his harangues against immigrants and praise for SS veterans and certain Nazi policies, was included in a coalition government. Most Jewish groups joined in the international chorus to isolate Austria.

Then in June, Jewish observers were alarmed and critical of actions taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, police arrested the president of the Jewish community, media magnate Vladimir Goussinsky, ostensibly on a business-related matter. Then, in an intercommunal dispute about who should be chief rabbi of Russia, Putin appeared to interfere by throwing his support behind the challenger, a Lubavitch rabbi.

Meanwhile, some 26,000 Falash Mura continue to languish in Ethiopia. Immigration to Israel of the Falash Mura, whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity, has dragged on as Israeli officials debated the tricky questions of their Jewishness — and whether the emigration of some would bring many more thousands out of the woodwork.

During the spring there was talk of welcoming in a few thousand Falash Mura, but the ensuing government crisis seemed to put that plan on hold.

Looking to the year 5761, it’s unclear where in the world will be the next flashpoint that imperils Jewish communities. American Jewry will continue to closely monitor the most likely suspects: Iran, Russia and Germany, where a recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents has Jewish leaders worried that not enough is being done to halt this scourge.

But a wary eye is also on South Africa, where spiraling crime spurs emigration among whites in general, and Jews in particular; Yugoslavia, where analysts have long predicted a civil war will dislodge the despotic leader, Slobodan Milosevic; and South America, where countries with large Jewish communities, like Argentina and Brazil, face grueling economic recoveries.

Regardless, 5761 surely won’t be a “quiet year,” and American Jewry will be prepared to speak out, said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.

“There’s no such thing as a quiet Jewish year,” said Steinberg.

“The volume may be a little louder or a little lower. The mistake is assuming the noise either goes away, or that it isn’t there. The fact is it will always be noisy. That’s what it means to be Jewish. The question is how Jewish institutions will deal with the noise.”

Recommended from JTA