WASHINGTON, D.C. September 23, 2016
TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties
FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Last Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Russia resulted in an overwhelming victory for the ruling United Russia party. The voter turnout was low, especially in urban areas where support for opposition candidates tends to be greater, which helped the United Russia party to gain more seats. Analysts said that despite economic difficulties Russia is experiencing, the results indicate a clear popular support for President Putin and his administration.
I want to highlight a New York Times opinion piece by Timothy Snyder included in the weekly update about the Kremlin’s efforts to discredit democratic values domestically and abroad.
On Wednesday, during the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the governments of the United States and Belarus entered into an agreement on the preservation of cultural properties. Lesley Weiss, Chair of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad (and NCSEJ’s Deputy Director), signed the Agreement for the United States and Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei signed for the government of Belarus.
The agreement commits the two governments to protect and preserve cemeteries, memorials, historic sites, places of worship, and archives related to all peoples, with a focus on those who were victims of genocide during World War II. This was the first agreement between the United States and Belarus in two decades. It is the twenty-fifth agreement the U.S. has entered into with the nations of eastern and central Europe and the Caucasus “to ensure the free exercise of religious beliefs and to preserve the cultural heritage of Americans.”
Also this week, NCSEJ Chairman Daniel Rubin and I participated a number of meetings with heads of states and high-level officials representing the countries of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including with presidents of Ukraine, Estonia, Belarus, and Turkey.
Last week, more than 120 rabbis, World Union for Progressive Judaism staff, and Jewish community leaders from congregations across Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine came together in Minsk to celebrate 25 years of World Union activity in the FSU, and honor the 90th anniversary of the World Union.
Next week, NCSEJ is leaving for a leadership mission to participate in the Babi Yar commemorative events in Kyiv, Ukraine. In addition to attending the commemorative ceremony, the delegation will meet with Ukrainian government officials and Jewish community leaders from Ukraine and other countries in the region.
Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
NCSEJ WEEKLY NEWS BRIEF
Washington, D.C. September 23, 2016
Holocaust victims included in Belarus-US pact preserving cultural heritage of ethnic groups
JTA, September 22, 2016
Belarus and the United States signed an agreement to preserve and protect the cultural properties of all ethnic groups, including those of Holocaust victims.
Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makai and the chair of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, Lesley Weiss, signed the agreement Wednesday at the World Jewish Congress headquarters in New York.
“Each party will take appropriate steps to protect and preserve properties that represent the cultural heritage of all national, religious, or ethnic groups that reside or resided in its territory, including groups that were victims of genocide during the Second World War,” the agreement reads. Read the full article here.
U.S. House Approves Lethal Weaponry For Ukraine
RFE/RL, September 22, 2016
The U.S. House of Representatives has backed legislation that calls for supplying Ukraine with lethal weaponry in its fight against Russia and separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
Тhe bill, which passed unanimously on a voice vote on September 21, is the latest effort by Ukraine's staunchest supporters in Washington to bolster its military forces.
European Jewish Congress at the 10th "Jahad" – Forum of Estonian Jewry
EJC, September 20, 2016
EJC Executive Vice-President Raya Kalenova visited the Jewish community of Estonia and took part in the 10th Forum of Estonian Jewry “Jahad” that took place in Pärnu on September 16-18th, 2016.
Prior to joining in the “Jahad” Raya Kalenova toured all the community facilities and applauded the team of the Jewish Community of Estonia led by its long-time President Alla Jacobson on their remarkable and fruitful efforts in revitalising the Jewish communal life in the county.
Passing energy bills, Ukrainian MPs clear path for new EU loan
By Natalia Zinets and Alexei Kalmykov
Reuters, September 22, 2016
The Ukrainian parliament passed two bills on Thursday aimed at prising open the domestic energy distribution market to more competition, a reform demanded by the European Union in exchange for a 600-million-euro ($674.10 million) loan.
The first bill will allow more companies to compete in the local distribution market - at present controlled by regional monopolies. The second measure creates an independent electricity commission responsible for setting power tariffs.
Ukraine must adopt a series of reforms to secure tranches of aid money from its various international donors, which include the EU and the International Monetary Fund, as part of a phased $40 billion aid package.
Some 300,000 Russian pilgrims visit Israel in space of year - Patriarch Kirill
Interfax, September 20, 2016
The number of Russian pilgrims visiting Israel has grown, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia said.
"The flow of pilgrims has seriously increased today. I do not know your statistics, but our figures indicate that some 300,000 people visited Israel in the space of one year. The role of the religious factor in relations between our countries and peoples is growing," the patriarch said at a meeting with Israeli Ambassador to Russia Zvi Heifetz in Moscow on Tuesday.Read the full article here.
Poroshenko Lambasts Russia Over Conflict In Eastern Ukraine
RFE/RL, September 21, 2016
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has criticized Russia for being "the instigator and major participant" in the ongoing deadly conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko told the UN General Assembly on September 21 that Russia was financing, sponsoring, and coordinating "terrorist groups which have committed countless crimes against my compatriots."
He added that "the terrorist component of the undeclared hybrid war that Russia wages against Ukraine is evident."
More than 9,600 people have been killed since separatist forces and Ukrainian government troops began fighting in April 2014. Read the full article here.
Vladimir Putin Tightens Grip on Russia’s Parliament With Election Rout
By Neil MacFarquhar
New York Times, September 19, 2016
President Vladimir V. Putin leveraged his popularity to assert even greater control over Russia’s already malleable Parliament in national elections, with nearly complete results released on Monday showing the ruling United Russia party gaining an absolute majority of seats.
The landslide was made possible, in some part, by a record low voter turnout of just under 48 percent in elections on Sunday for the 450-seat State Duma, or lower house of Parliament.
Voters in the largest cities, where opposition to Mr. Putin is concentrated, tended to stay home, while many rural voters, a bastion of support for the president, went to the polls. United Russia actually won far less votes this time than in the previous parliamentary election, in 2011, but it gained more seats because of the low turnout. Read the full article here.
For the Kremlin, winning a supermajority in the Russian parliament was the easy part
By Andrew Roth
Washington Post, September 20, 2016
Now that United Russia, the party founded by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has won a landslide constitutional majority in parliamentary elections, the Kremlin has gained the ability to wield virtually full control over the legislature during a period of economic downturn.
Never in post-Soviet Russian history has a ruling party so dominated the State Duma. With 343 seats in the 450-member parliament, United Russia will be able to change the constitution by way of a strict party vote — and there will be no openly critical voices to contend with.Read the full article here.
Russia’s Election: Every Choice Was a Bad One
By Masha Gessen
New Yorker, September 21, 2016
Suppose you had to choose between eating nothing at all and eating something that would immediately make you throw up. Or, say, between walking on hot coals and standing naked in an icy rain. Or between sleeping on a bed of nails and under a blanket of wood screws. The Russian language, honed over centuries of impossible choices, has a colloquial expression for that: oba khuzhe, meaning “both are worse.”
Oba khuzhe describes the range of choices available to Russians during a legislative election held on Sunday. Or at least “election” is what it was called. In some ways, it did resemble an election: for the first time in more than a decade, some of the seats in the lower house of parliament—two hundred and twenty-five out of four hundred and fifty—were selected through direct voting. (The upper house is entirely appointed.) The other half are selected by party list, whereby voters choose among parties and the parties select their representatives to fill the seats. Only parties that the Kremlin allows are on the ballot. As for individual, directly elected candidates, their ability to campaign is determined by the amount of access they have to state-controlled media, which, for the few candidates who are not themselves state-controlled, is none. And then there is the issue of plain old ballot fraud, which is prevalent in most regions of the country.
Skeptical of Russia, Clinton seen going toe-to-toe with Putin
By Warren Strobel and Matt Spetalnick
Reuters, September 20, 2016
When Hillary Clinton attended her first major White House meeting on Russia in February 2009, the new secretary of state insisted that she wanted to play a leading role in President Barack Obama’s effort to "reset" U.S. relations with Moscow.
But while Clinton became implementer-in-chief for one of Obama’s signature first-term initiatives, she was consistently more skeptical than most of his top aides about how far Russian leader Vladimir Putin was prepared to go in turning the page, according to current and former U.S. officials.
That stance is indicative of how she would go about dealing with Moscow if she is elected U.S. president on Nov. 8, aides to both Clinton and Obama told Reuters.
With U.S. relations with Moscow already plumbing post-Cold War lows, the aides and veteran Russia watchers said she would likely take a harder line than Obama or Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has praised Putin as a strong leader. Read the full article here.
‘70% of European Jews won’t go to shul on High Holy Days despite heightened security’
By Tamara Zieve
Jerusalem Post, September 20, 2016
A poll released on Tuesday claiming that 70% of European Jews won’t go to synagogue on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur due to security concerns, has been met with skepticism by prominent Jewish leaders.
The online survey, conducted last week by the European Jewish Association and the Rabbinical Center of Europe had 78 respondents, who the EJA says are a representative sample of 700 capital cities and peripheries throughout Europe – spanning from Britain to Ukraine.
The pollsters explained that while the number of respondents is far lower than the number of communities represented, each respondent speaks for multiple communities, as within certain cities and areas, many communities have similar characteristics.
Ethnic street signs raise old tensions over identity in Lithuania
By Andrius Sytas
Reuters, September 21, 2016
The Lithuanian language sign in Vilnius's former Jewish quarter reads "Jewish Street" and below hangs a Hebrew version, with Star of David. Not far away, in Cyrillic letters, is the plaque announcing Russia Street, and then there is Warsaw Street.
A rash of new foreign language signs has appeared in Vilnius's narrow thoroughfares honouring ethnic minorities that have inhabited the city, not least a Jewish community destroyed by Nazi occupiers. But government is determined to banish them in a dispute mirroring tension over the Baltic state's identity.
Lithuania's battle for independence from Moscow, culminating in a failed Soviet Army bid to crush secessionists in 1991, raised questions of ethnic and cultural identity suppressed over decades of Soviet rule.Read the full article here.
Gov't Help for Israelis Visiting Rabbi’s Grave in Ukraine Sparks Protest
MFA will provide special services for pilgrims to grave of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav in Uman.
By Ilan Lior
Haaretz, September 21, 2016
Interior Minister Arye Dery has announced that the Foreign Ministry will keep the Israeli Embassy in Ukraine open around the clock for a few days after Rosh Hashanah (October 3-4), so Israelis visiting Uman who lost their passports can have them restored. The state will also provide free transportation from Uman to the embassy in Kiev.
The Population, Immigration and Border Authority has already boosted its telephone hotline to help all those planning to travel to Uman, the burial place of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.
Thousands of Jews, particularly Bratslav Hasidim, travel to Uman every Rosh Hashanah to spend the holiday at the grave of Rabbi Nahman, who according to tradition promised to intercede in heaven for those who prayed at his grave on the holiday.
25 Years Together in the Former Soviet Union (FSU): Celebrating Progressive Judaism
World Union for Progressive Judaism, September 22, 2016
More than 120 rabbis, professional staff, Netzer staff and community chairs from congregations across Russia, Belarus and Ukraine came together in Minsk on September 15-18 for the FSU biennial convention of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). Special guests included World Union Chair Carole Sterling, President Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, and Vice President Emeritus of International Development Rabbi Joel Oseran.
The conference opened with greetings from Charge D'Affaires for the State of Israel in the Republic of Belarus Olga Slov. In his opening remarks Dr. Alexander Kagan, FSU Director at the WUPJ, asked participants to put present politics and tensions between countries aside for the duration of the conference, which they did, creating a very warm, friendly and familial atmosphere throughout the weekend. All participants noted that this conference was the best event that had taken place thus far in terms of the quality of organization, educational content, and spiritual services.
Why Ukraine’s Desperate Struggle Gives Me Hope
Contrary to popular belief, Ukrainians are turning the tide in their fight for democracy.
By Ilya Lozovsky
Foreign Policy, September 21, 2016
If you believe — as I do — that democracy is humanity’s best hope, these are discouraging times. China, the world’s next superpower, thinks it’s found a different path forward. The liberal nations of Europe and North America are gnawed by self-doubt, beset by problems of their own making. Moreover, they now regard their past enthusiasm for nurturing new democracies in the world’s unlikeliest places with an air of embarrassment. In fact, in recent decades, democracy promotion has nearly disappeared from the higher echelons of U.S. foreign policymaking.
But there’s one country that, through its example, offers hope — and some crucial lessons. That country is Ukraine.
I fully realize how unlikely this sounds. Having won its independence from Moscow 25 years ago, the country spent most of them sinking into oligarchy and stagnation. Its first major effort to move forward — 2004’s Orange Revolution — ended in abject failure: The corrupt system swallowed it whole. The Euromaidan revolution of two years ago began more hopefully. But it too, has disappointed in many ways. A panel of experts who were recently asked whether the country had “turned the corner” gave discouragingly ambiguous answers. Read the full article here.
Belarus, United States sign intergovernmental agreement on cultural property protection
BelTA, September 22, 2016
Belarus and the United States have signed an intergovernmental agreement on the protection and preservation of certain cultural properties, BelTA learnt from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The signing ceremony took place on 21 September during the visit of Belarus' Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei to New York. Partaking in the event were representatives of the World Jewish Congress and the United States Department of State.
The agreement was signed by Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei and Chairperson of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad Lesley Weiss. Read the full article here.
State Department to run 2 sessions on combating anti-Semitism in Europe
JTA, September 22, 2016
The State Department is including two sessions at a conference on religion on how best to combat anti-Semitism throughout Europe.
The sessions, led by Ira Forman, the department’s envoy to combat anti-Semitism, will take place next week in Washington, D.C., during the department’s inaugural conference on religion and diplomacy. Outside experts, including from the World Jewish Congress and the U.S. Holocaust memorial museum, will be among the panelists.
The conference will bring together “government leaders, academics, scholars, religious practitioners and community activists,” a statement said, as well as State Department staff.Read the full article here.
How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election
By Timothy Snyder
New York Times, September 20, 2016
The president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe.” But the political thinker who today has the most influence on Mr. Putin’s Russia is not Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Communist system, but rather Ivan Ilyin, a prophet of Russian fascism.
The brilliant political philosopher has been dead for more than 60 years, but his ideas have found new life in post-Soviet Russia. After 1991, his books were republished with long print runs. President Putin began to cite him in his annual speech to the Federal Assembly, the Russian equivalent of the State of the Union address.
To complete the rehabilitation, Mr. Putin saw to it that Ilyin’s corpse was repatriated from Switzerland, and that his archive was returned from Michigan. The Russian president has been seen laying flowers on Ilyin’s Moscow grave. And Mr. Putin is not the only disciple of Ilyin among the Kremlin elite.Read the full article here.
In Ukraine, Jews witness historic echoes in pogroms against the Roma
By Julie Masis
Times of Israel, September 23, 2016
Pogroms have returned to Ukraine, but this time the violence is not directed at the Jews.
At the end of August, about 10 Roma families numbering approximately 80 people were forced to flee from the village of Loshchynivka, about 250 kilometers from Odessa, in an incident which was described in the Ukrainian media as a “Gypsy pogrom.”
An amateur video captured the August 27 incident in which a crowd of men threw rocks at windows and broke doors, as police watched but did nothing. The next day, about eight homes were destroyed — the walls knocked down with tractors, one home burned, another was left without a roof. Inside, television screens were smashed, mattresses ripped, a kitchen stove was thrown on its side.
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Founded in 1971, NCSEJ represents the organized American Jewish community in monitoring and advocating on behalf of the estimated 1.5 million Jews in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including the 15 successor states of the former Soviet Union.