Weekly News Update 
WASHINGTON, D.C. July 28, 2017

TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties

FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Dear Friend,

The House passed a bill sanctioning Russia, North Korea, and Iran this week 419-3 after the Senate, which passed its version of the bill 98-2 last month, corrected an error that barred the bill from House consideration. The bill is expected to reach President Trump's desk in the coming days. It is still unclear whether or not the President will sign the bill, though Congressman Marco Rubio stated that in the event of a veto, he is confident Congress will override it and pass the legislation. In retaliation for the sanctions, the Kremlin announced this morning that they are directing the United States to decrease the number of diplomats working in Russia and that it will seize control of two U.S. diplomatic properties.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday considered a State Department funding bill that includes a mandate requiring the Department to submit for Congressional review a determination on whether it would “maintain…each currently existing Special Envoy.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had previously testified to Congress that Special Envoy positions, such as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, might be cut, a move Jewish groups including NCSEJ have strongly protested.

Many such Special Envoy positions are still vacant, but in a welcoming move yesterday, President Trump nominated Kansas Governor Sam Brownback to fill the position of Ambassador at Large on International Religious Freedom. NCSEJ has had a long relationship with Governor Brownback regarding issues of religious freedom and the Jewish communities we represent, going back to his tenure as both a Congressman and Senator for Kansas.

On Wednesday, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum along with Spanish company Musealia announced that artifacts from the Nazi death camp will go on a seven-year, international exhibition tour, the first of its kind. 

We also share with you two pieces regarding Israel's engagement in the Caucasus and Central Asia, including an article about the visit of Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to Armenia, the first visit from a high-ranking Israeli Minister in five years.


Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Washington, D.C. July 28, 2017

House passes Russia sanctions bill, setting up veto dilemma for Trump

By Michael DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian

Washington Post, July 25, 2017

The House on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to advance new financial sanctions against key U.S. adversaries and deliver a foreign-policy brushback to President Trump by limiting his ability to waive many of them.

Included in the package, which passed 419 to 3, are new measures targeting key Russian officials in retaliation for that country’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as sanctions against Iran and North Korea in response to those nations’ weapons programs.

Members of the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have resisted the congressional push — in particular a provision attached to the Russian measures that would require Congress to sign off on any move to relieve those sanctions.

The legislation was revised last week to address some administration concerns, including its potential effect on overseas oil and gas projects that include Russian partners. But the bill passed Tuesday retains the congressional review requirement.

Read the full article here.

New U.S. Sanctions Damage Ties with Europe

By Judy Dempsey

Carnegie Europe, July 25, 2017

As if transatlantic relations weren’t bad enough already. U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionist policies and his decision not to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change were more than enough to rattle Washington’s European allies and expose fundamental differences in the transatlantic relationship.

But now, a sanctions bill agreed by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives aimed at punishing Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has further exacerbated ties and is leading to a nasty dispute. In reality, the bill punishes European companies working with Russia.

This row is not just between Washington and Brussels. It is also between EU member states. The big risk is that if the bill is passed when lawmakers vote on July 25, it could break the unity that Europe and the United States forged in imposing and rolling over sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its subsequent invasion of parts of eastern Ukraine. Russia could end up as the main beneficiary of this latest transatlantic spat. European companies and European unity would be the losers.

Read the full article here.

Russia to seize US properties in retaliation over sanctions

By Laura Smith-Spark, Alla Eshchenko, and Yon Pomrenze

CNN, July 28, 2017

Russia's Foreign Ministry demanded Friday that the United States cut the number of diplomatic staff it has in Russia and said it would seize two US diplomatic properties, in a sharp response to a new sanctions bill passed by the US Congress a day earlier.

The order -- which affects the US Embassy in Moscow and consulates in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok -- would reduce the number of US diplomatic and technical staff to 455, the same number Russia has in the US, by September 1.

Russia is also suspending the use of a US storage facility in Moscow and a country house, or dacha, outside of Moscow by August 1.

In the statement, the ministry says: "Any new unilateral actions by the US authorities to reduce the number of our diplomats in the United States will be met with a mirror response."

Read the full article here.

U.S.-Russia Relations Six Months into the Trump Administration

By Steven Pifer

European Leadership Network, July 24, 2017

Donald Trump’s election raised expectations for change in the U.S.-Russia relationship. During the campaign, he had spoken highly of Vladimir Putin and said he would bring relations with Russia out of their post-Cold War nadir. Six months into the Trump administration, however, little has changed. Instead, the White House labors under a cloud of allegations about possible collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russians.

Secretary of State Tillerson quickly emerged as President Trump’s point-person on relations with Moscow. He described a step-by-step approach: try to take the edge off tensions, make progress on smaller questions, and then move to more challenging issues. He reportedly told Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that the Ukraine-Russia conflict posed the largest impediment to restoring a more normal relationship.

Read the full article here.

Billionaire unjustly railed in Putin's Russia to represent Jewish ex-Soviet communities

JTA, July 26, 2017

Eight years after his release from wrongful imprisonment in Russia, the Israeli billionaire Mikhael Mirilashvili was elected to lead the World Jewish Congress Euro-Asian affiliate representing communities from Ukraine to Singapore.

Mirilashvili, who was released in 2009 after spending spent eight years in prison on trumped-up charges connected to his father’s abduction, was elected Monday to succeed the Austrian baking magnate Julius Meinl, the organization said.

Mirilashvili, a 57-year-old physician turned industrialist who was born in the Caucasian republic of Georgia, presented a relatively conservative agenda in his acceptance speech delivered in Ramat Gan, Israel, during the general assembly meeting of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. Participants include Jews in Ukraine, Russia, the former Soviet republics and Asia.

Read the full article here.

Relatives Sue Russian FSB for Details on Wallenberg's Death

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 26, 2017

Relatives of Raoul Wallenberg have filed a lawsuit against Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to provide uncensored documentation that could help determine the fate of the former Swedish diplomat and war hero.

Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from slaughter during World War II, was captured by Soviet forces in 1945 and died two years later in prison.

Russia has only said that Wallenberg died in 1947 in Moscow's notorious Lubyanka prison, which was run by the KGB security service, although details of the death remain unclear. The FSB is the successor agency of the KGB.

Read the full article here.

An outspoken researcher into Stalin's crimes fights for his own fate and freedom in Russia

By Sabra Ayres

Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2017

A small clearing in a dense northwestern Russian forest marks the site where, 20 years ago, Yuri Dmitriev discovered a group of mass graves containing victims of Josef Stalin’s Great Terror.

Using detailed documents uncovered in KGB archives, Dmitriev was able to piece together the location where Stalin’s execution squads killed and buried more than 9,500 people from 1937 to 1938. The documents contained the dates and names of those killed, as well as the executioners’ names. During the next two decades, Dmitriev worked meticulously to document every victim’s story.

Today, Sandarmokh, as the site became known, is a memorial to the people of more than 60 nationalities buried here, including those from Norway, Finland, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

But friends and family of Dmitriev, one of Russia’s most outspoken researchers of Soviet-era crimes, say he faces political repression for his work to shine a light on one of his country’s darkest periods.

Read the full article here.

Why Are There Crosses on Eastern Europe's Newest Holocaust Memorials

By Julie Masis

Forward, July 24, 2017

When school principal Ivan Timoshko decided to do something to mark the spot in his village where dozens of Jews were executed by the Nazis, he did it the only way he knew how: He built a cross.

Together with the children from his school in the village, he cut down an acacia tree, chopped away the branches and erected a 3-meter-high cross on the top of a hill, just above a ravine into which the bodies fell. He painted the cross bright blue, simply because that was the only color he had. To this cross he attached a wooden board with handwritten words: “Jewish families were executed on this spot by the Nazis.”

“We didn’t know that the Jewish custom is to put a six-pointed star on the grave,” he said. “We did what we could do by ourselves; we didn’t have any financial help.”

There are a few similar monuments in villages and small towns in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia — although the phenomenon has remained largely unknown until now. Experts who have glimpsed these rare memorials say they are created with the best of intentions, but some Jewish leaders in the former Soviet Union object to the crosses.

Read the full article here.

Trump taps Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as religious freedom envoy

JTA, July 27, 2017

President Donald Trump nominated Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who has a long history of cooperation with the Jewish community on religious freedom issues, as his envoy on religious freedom.

“While a member of the Senate, he worked actively on the issue of religious freedom in multiple countries and was a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998,” a White House statement released Wednesday evening said, referring to the law that created the office.

Brownback, a staunch conservative, has had a close relationship with the gamut of Jewish communal organizations. While in the Senate, he chaired the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the parliamentary body that monitors human rights abuses, and was outspoken in identifying anti-Semitism overseas. He was one of the leading pro-Israel voices in the Senate and an early advocate of expanded sanctions targeting Iran. He made support for Israel a central plank of his short run for president in the 2008 race.

Read the full article here.

Tillerson faces fights on eliminating envoys

By Nahal Toosi

Politico, July 26, 2017

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson moves to restructure the State Department, he wants to slash dozens of positions known collectively as special envoys — ambassadors-at-large, coordinators and others who deal with specific issues such as food security, labor and LGBT rights.

That ambition, however, is running into a fact of Washington life: the power of interest groups and members of Congress willing to fight any threat to their favored causes.

On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider legislation that will give lawmakers a greater say over how special envoy jobs are filled. In the meantime, as word spreads that Tillerson has left certain envoy positions vacant or is mulling cutting them altogether, a slew of critics have emerged to protest.

Jewish organizations and many lawmakers are furious that Tillerson hasn't yet named a new special envoy to combat anti-Semitism. Digital gurus are unhappy that Tillerson may chop the slot focused on cyber issues. Tillerson's attempt to discard the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan spurred such an outcry among South Asia watchers that he went ahead and named someone to the role temporarily.

Read the full article here.

At Krakow festival, 'Lucky Jew' character plays on stereotypes to celebrate lost culture

By Penny Schwartz

The Times of Israel, July 28, 2017

KRAKOW, Poland — For four days this summer, a trio of artists and performers dressed in rabbinical-looking garb took turns sitting at a table behind an open air booth hawking good luck to passersby alongside a bustling street in the heart of Kazimierz, this city’s lively Jewish quarter.

Playing the character of the “Lucky Jew,” the actor sat at a desk laden with an accounting ledger, an old-fashioned inkwell and a quill pen in a small theatrical set designed to resemble a picture frame. The scene was a look-alike of a Polish folk painting depicting a traditional-looking Jewish man in a similar pose that is widely popular in post-Holocaust Poland.

With wry humor, warm conversation and theatrics, Jason Francisco, Michael Rubenfeld and Menachem Kaiser brought the mythical image to life, offering good fortune in exchange for a few Polish zlotys. Their street performance both poked fun at the stereotypical trope of Jews as money handlers while provoking serious questions about the lingering attraction of Polish folk figurines of archetypal Jews. Are they anti-Semitic or, as some Poles see them, a form of respect for Jews?

Read the full article here.

Auschwitz Artifacts to Go on Tour, Very Carefully

By Joanna Berendt

New York Times, July 26, 2017

WARSAW — More than 72 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the first traveling exhibition about the Nazi death camp will begin a journey later this year to 14 cities across Europe and North America, taking heartbreaking artifacts to multitudes who have never seen such horror up close.

The endeavor is one of the most high-profile attempts to educate and immerse young people for whom the Holocaust is a fading and ill-understood slice of history. The Anne Frank House, the Jewish Museum Berlin, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and others all find themselves grappling with ways to engage an attention-challenged world with a dark part of its past.

Yet anything that smacks of putting Auschwitz on tour instantly raises sensitivities. Organizers of the exhibition, which include the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum itself, took pains to explain that, yes, visitors would probably be charged to enter in at least some locations. But officials at that museum and the company behind the exhibition say that their intent is not to create a moneymaker out of the suffering of millions of Nazi victims.

Read the full article here.

Poland's President Vetoes 2 Proposed Laws Limiting Courts' Independence 

By Rick Lyman

New York Times, July 24, 2017

WARSAW — Andrzej Duda was a relatively obscure member of the right-wing Law and Justice party when the leader of the party and the most powerful man in the country plucked him from the chorus line to become its candidate for president in 2015. For most of the party’s first 20 months in power, he was a reliable proponent of the governing party’s nationalist initiatives.

On Monday, President Duda defied his patron, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and vetoed two bills aimed at placing Polish courts firmly under political control.

“It seems that the reality inside the ruling camp is more complex than we might think,” said Rafal Chwedoruk, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw, in an interview with the Polish Press Agency.

There were already whispers of growing friction between the two leaders, an apparent schism that reflects a broader divide that has split Poland. The country was once in the vanguard of the democratic change that swept the region after the collapse of Communism. But it has steadily moved toward light authoritarianism and strident nationalism under Law and Justice, which has systematically dismantled much of that progress.

Read the full article here.

Hanegbi makes highest-level Israeli ministerial visit to Armenia in years

By Herb Keinon

Jerusalem Post, July 26, 2017

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi met in Yerevan on Wednesday with Armenian Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, the first visit of a senior Israeli minister to that country since then-agriculture minister Orit Noked visited in 2012.

Hanegbi, who is frequently dispatched on trips abroad by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Karapetyan, “After years without a ministerial visit to Armenia, I came here as an emissary of the prime minister to give expression to the strong friendship between our countries.

We will continue to work actively to promote economic cooperation between us.”

The trip is part of Netanyahu’s overall efforts to improve relations and enhance cooperation with countries that Israel has not focused on in the past, according to officials in Jerusalem. Hanegbi’s visit concentrated on cooperation in the areas of tourism, agriculture, transportation and water.

Read the full article here.

Historical notes about Kazakh-Israeli cooperation
By Israel Mey-Ami
The Astana Times, July 23, 2017

I have served as ambassador of Israel to Kazakhstan twice, in the periods between 1996-2002 and 2008-2012. Thanks to this, I am able to analyse the changes that have taken place in Kazakhstan during this period. I should note that most of them are positive.

The changes include: the new course towards economic diversification, development of transport infrastructure, creation of regional economic unions within the framework of Eurasia, implementation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s idea of creation of a customs union between Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Modernisation also touched the Kazakh economy, development programmes and the institute of democracy. The growth of the country’s international influence was symbolised by anti-nuclear international initiatives of Kazakhstan and accession to international organisations. It is also important to note Kazakhstan’s non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council in 2017-2018.

Read the full article here.

[Link to pdf of full articles]
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Founded in 1971, the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry 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.