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Behind the Headlines: NATO Expansion Seen As Positive Move for Former Soviet-Bloc Jews

July 9, 1997
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Is there a Jewish stake in the expansion of NATO?

Jewish leaders from Eastern and Central Europe see the expansion as a way of anchoring their countries within the West, strengthening overall democratic development and providing a more secure base for a viable Jewish future.

“With membership in NATO and especially with [eventual] membership in the European Union, people will be able to migrate freely, and I think Jews would settle here, and our population would grow,” Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, said in an interview.

“We expect that after the enlargement of NATO, we will get new immigration from the former Soviet Union,” he said.

Those Jews “are seeking not only political refuge, but higher economic standards,” Kraus said. “They’ll settle in our country, knowing that it is militarily secure from the Russians and economically stable.”

Meeting in Madrid this week, leaders of the North American Treaty Organization countries officially invited the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to become the first wave of former Soviet bloc states to join the western defense alliance.

Some 4,000 Jews live in the Czech Republic, as many as 100,000 Jews live in Hungary and 10,000 or more live in Poland.

Further eastern expansion of NATO is expected.

The expansion, less than a decade after the collapse of communism, formally erases the Cold War’s East-West divide.

It creates a broader, more seamless, European landscape and verifies former Easternbloc states as members of the European political mainstream.

“It’s a sort of confirmation of our identity, of being a part of what we always felt a part of, and were rarely recognized as,” Michael Zantovsky, a leading Czech political figure who is of Jewish background, told the Associated Press.

The move has parallel ramifications for Jews.

Since the collapse of communism, a renaissance of Jewish life has taken root in countries throughout the former Soviet bloc states.

No longer “captive Jews” behind the Iron Curtain, these Jewish communities now are demonstrating a growing self-confidence in their identity and are demanding recognition as full-fledged members of the Jewish world.

“Of course we need and appreciate cooperation with all the international Jewish organizations,” Warsaw Jewish representative Stanislaw Krajewski told attendees at a recent conference in Strasbourg on “Strengthening Jewish Life in Europe.”

“But being partners means we should not be ignored.”

Poland’s Jewish leadership was particularly blunt on the issue last month.

Jerzy Kichler, the newly elected 49-year-old president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, issued a statement backing Poland’s entry into NATO.

In doing so, he categorically rejected attempts by the World Jewish Restitution Organization to link NATO entry to Warsaw’s handling of the restitution of Jewish property.

Polish officials fear that such opposition could harm the chances of securing the U.S. congressional approval needed to ratify the admission of new members to NATO.

“We believe that Poland’s entry to NATO serves the interests of our country and of all its citizens, including Polish Jews,” Kichler’s statement said. “It can only improve the situation of Jews in Poland.”

Half a century after 3 million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the Polish Jewish community, though numbering only in the thousands, is trying to re-establish a viable presence as an integrated part of Polish society.

Kichler’s election in May put community leadership firmly in the hands of a post-Holocaust generation.

This generation’s aim is to create a Jewish life that fits the nature of present-day Polish Jews — Jews who, as one community member put it, are “as Polish as French Jews are French.”

Kichler’s statement backing NATO membership demonstrated the community’s growing desire to make its voice heard — and heeded — on issues relating to the future of both the community and Poland.

At the Strasbourg conference, Krajewski called a threat by the WJRO vice chairman, Naphtali Lavie, to lobby against Poland’s entry into NATO as a means of pressing the Polish government on the restitution issue a “slap in the face” to Poland’s Jewish leaders.

But according to Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of the WJRO executive, the WJRO has not taken a position on the issue.

“There was discussion, but it never came to any vote,” he said.

Singer added that while Poland’s position on restitution is not “an issue to keep them out of NATO,” it should be “encouraged to behave like other countries,” such as Hungary, which have moved faster to address restitution of Jewish property.

Meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee’s board of governors, meeting in New York last month, also passed a resolution supporting Poland’s entry into NATO.

“We have expressly pointed out that it is wrong to couple” the “issue of restitution and the issue of support for Poland’s entrance into NATO,” Jeffrey Weintraub, director of the AJCommittee-linked Center for American Pluralism, said during a fact-finding trip to Poland last week.

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