WASHINGTON, D.C. July 1, 2016
TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties
FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
This week in Lithuania, archeologists discovered an escape tunnel at the Holocaust-era Ponar Forest massacre site, which is today in a suburb of Vilnius. Researchers used a non-invasive technique to document the tunnel, so as not to disturb human remains. Between 70,000 and 100,000 people were killed at the site between 1941 and 1944, primarily Polish and Lithuanian Jews.
In Israel, the Reform Movement’s headquarters in Jerusalem held a groundbreaking ceremony at its Hebrew Union College campus, now named in honor of philanthropist Tad Taube, a loyal friend and supporter of NCSEJ. The Taube Philanthropies’ $15 million donation to HUC is its largest ever to a Jewish organization, and will fund capital improvements on the campus and an enhanced focus on the Jewish community of Poland.
In Ukraine, as part of an ongoing nationwide campaign to change Soviet-era public place names, the city of Dnipropetrovsk renamed a street after Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (z”l). The Rebbe was born in Ukraine and grew up in Dnipro, where his father was the chief rabbi. The street is adjacent to the Ohr Avner Jewish day school.
In Russia, the Duma passed a series of “anti-terrorist” laws that will in effect even further restrict civil liberties, in the name of fighting “extremism.” The laws contain a number of troubling provisions, including a section that appears to limit freedom of religious expression for non-Orthodox Christians.
This week, Kazakhstan won an election for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, beginning in January 2017. Kazakhstan’s first ran for the seat in 2010, and its election will make it the first Central Asian nation to serve in the Security Council. Kazakhstan prides itself on its stances on nuclear non-proliferation and religious tolerance, which it promises to make key parts of its agenda during its two-year tenure on the Council.
The update this week also includes a number of stories on the impact of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (the “Brexit”) on the region, particularly the potential effect on Russia and Ukraine. Many commentators are saying the victory helps President Putin by weakening European unity.
Finally, I want to draw your attention to a Washington Post article that chronicles Russia’s increasing harassment of U.S. diplomats in Moscow and in several other European capitals. The harassment, sometimes breaking into outright violence, severely breaches international norms. Secretary of State Kerry raised the issue of diplomats' treatment with President Putin in March, seemingly to no avail.
Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
NCSEJ WEEKLY NEWS BRIEF
Washington, D.C. July 1, 2016
U.S. Proposes Closer Ties with Russia on Syria
Moscow Times, June 30, 2016U.S. President Barack Obama has set out a possible new agreement on military cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in Syria, the Washington Post reported Thursday.
The agreement would see the two countries cooperating more closely in the fight against the Islamic State if Russia agrees to stop the Assad government from bombing U.S-backed rebel groups, an unidentified White House official told the newspaper.Read the full article here.
Dnep Renames Street in Honor of the Rebbe
By Dovid Margolin
Chabad, June 24, 2016
Pulling down on a light-blue tarp, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki and Rabbi Mayer Stambler unveiled a brand-new street sign this morning in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine: Menachem Mendel Schneerson Street, 1. The newly renamed street, which honors the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—is where the city’s Ohr Avner Levi Yitzchak Schneerson Jewish Day School is located, and is also adjacent to the Dnipro-Arena, home of the area’s popular soccer team, FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
“It is a remarkable event for the whole city and the whole country,” Kaminezki, chief rabbi and head Chabad-Lubavitch emissary of the Dnepropetrovsk region, said at the event. Stambler is director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine and heads the city’s Beis Chana Women’s Seminary.
The Rebbe was born in Nikolayev, Ukraine, but raised in Dnepropetrovsk, then known as Yekatrinoslav, where his father served as chief rabbi until his 1939 arrest by Soviet authorities. That it is the Rebbe’s hometown has long been a point of pride within the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community—something that, according to Kaminezki, is now being recognized by the general population.
Tunnel used by Jews in Lithuania to escape Nazis uncovered
JTA, June 29, 2016
A tunnel in Lithuania used by Jewish prisoners to escape the Nazis has been uncovered by an international research team near Vilnius.
The Israel Antiquities Authority in a statement Wednesday announced the discovery of the 100-foot-long tunnel at the Ponar Forest massacre site.
Ponar prisoners used the tunnel, which was located with a new technology called electrical resistivity tomography, an imaging technique used to find underground structures.
Some 100,000 people, of whom 70,000 were Jews from Vilnius and the surrounding area, were massacred and thrown into pits in the Ponar forest near the Lithuanian capital during World War II.
Taube Family Campus Named at Groundbreaking of Jerusalem Campus of HUC-JIR
Taube Philanthropies, June 29, 2016 Today, The Taube Family Campus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was named during a groundbreaking ceremony honoring Tad Taube, founder and chairman of Taube Philanthropies. Taube Philanthropies’ $15 million grant, its largest grant ever to a Jewish organization, will enable the Reform Movement’s headquarters in Israel to update, enhance and beautify its Jerusalem campus as a vibrant academic, cultural and spiritual center welcoming the larger Israeli community and visitors from around the world.
“Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is doing groundbreaking work in training the next generation of Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit leaders, for Israel and the Jewish people as a whole,” said Tad Taube, Chairman of Taube Philanthropies. “Its Jerusalem campus, Jewish professional leadership development, brilliant faculty, and ambitious students deserve a beautiful, modern campus that matches the institution’s lofty goals. We are honored to be a part of this community as it achieves new heights in Jewish and rabbinical education.”Read the full article here.
Russian Governor Arrested For Bribery Starts Hunger Strike
RFE/RL, June 30, 2016Nikita Belykh, a Kirov regional governor and Kremlin critic who was detained on bribery charges this week, has started a hunger strike, his lawyer announced on June 29.
"Belykh officially notified the [Lefortovo] prison administration that he is beginning a hunger strike to protest his indictment and because he has not been allowed to see his second lawyer," Olga Mikhailova, said attorney Vadim Prokhorov.
Belykh categorically denies taking any bribes, he said, adding that the governor "really doesn't look healthy and his condition is highly unstable."
Belykh has been known in the past as a Kremlin critic and was formerly a leader of the liberal opposition party, Union of Rightist Forces, along with slain politician Boris Nemtsov. Read the full article here.
Russia Opens First Criminal Case Against 'Foreign Agent' NGO
Moscow Times, June 28, 2016The Zhenshchiny Dona foundation — an NGO that defends children’s rights in Russia's southern Rostov region — has been accused of non-compliance with the country's “foreign agents” law.
A criminal case has been opened against it, the RBC news agency reported Tuesday. It is the first criminal case launched against an NGO declared a foreign agent.
The foreign agents law was passed in 2012. It obliges NGOs that receive funding from abroad and engage in loosely defined political activities to register as “foreign agents,” which leads to additional scrutiny and inspections by the authorities.
Consequently, a number of NGOs have shut down, not willing to work under the label that has had espionage connotations since Soviet times. Others gave up foreign funding and went bankrupt. There are now more than 80 NGOs listed as foreign agents in Russia.Read the full article here.
Armenia Ratifies Joint Air-Defense With Russia
RFE/RL, June 30, 2016Armenian lawmakers have approved the cabinet's decision to join Russia's air-defense system amid protests by the opposition.
The government's decision was approved on June 30 by 102 lawmakers, while eight members of the parliament voted against it.
Armenia and Russia, along with the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Moscow has stepped up military cooperation with its CSTO partners as its relations with the West worsened quickly after it forcibly annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and subsequently backed separatists in Ukraine's east. Read the full article here.
Putin Extends Food Embargo Until 2018
The Moscow Times, June 28, 2016The document was published on the government's legal information website Wednesday.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev proposed prolonging the embargo last month after the G7 group of world leaders agreed to extend their anti-Russian sanctions until the Minsk agreements were completely implemented.
Russia introduced the food embargo in August 2014. The measures were aimed at countries which had imposed sanctions on Moscow over the country's annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Ukrainian conflict.
The ban initially applied to meat, poultry, fish, cheese, milk, fruit and vegetables from the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia and Norway. In 2015, Albania, Montenegro, Iceland and Liechtenstein were added to the list.
Read the full article here.
Ukraine marks 75th anniversary of Nazi German invasion in WWII
UA Today, June 22, 2016 On Wednesday, June 22, Ukraine marks the Day of Mourning and Commemoration of the World War Two victims.
On early June 22, 1941, Nazi troops and its allies - without an official declaration of war - launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, followed by massive strikes on military and strategic sites and cities.
Thus, Nazi Germany started nearly four years of war that killed more than 20 million Soviet citizens, including 5.5 million Ukrainian civilians and 2.5 million (some say 4 million) Ukrainian soldiers.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko led a memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in capital Kyiv, laying a wreath in memory of World War Two victims. He was joined by other Ukrainian officials and World War Two veterans.Read the full article here.
Moldova: Former PM Sentenced in Billion-Dollar Bank Fraud Case
OCCRP, June 30, 2016
After seven months in custody, former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat was sentenced to nine years in prison on corruption charges in a billion-dollar case that shook the nation’s economy. The theft from three banks amounted to about 13 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product.
The case, however, is far from over; both Filat’s lawyer and the case prosecutor vowed to appeal the court’s decision.
Last October, Moldova's Parliament lifted Filat’s immunity so that he could be investigated in a case involving the disappearance of more than US$ 1 billion from three Moldovan banks. A total of 79 lawmakers out of 101 voted to lift the immunity. Filat was later arrested by the National Anti-Corruption Center.
On Monday, a court in the capital city Chisinau found Filat guilty of abuse of office and corruption and sentenced him the same day, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He denied any wrongdoing and claimed the case was politically motivated.
Kazakhstan Wins Seat on UN Security Council
By Catherine Putz
The Diplomat, June 29, 2016
Kazakhstan has long been on a quest to be recognized internationally as a leading country. The initiative comes from the very top: President Nursultan Nazarbayev has worked consistently to frame Kazakhstan as economically dynamic and politically savvy. The government’s strategies, outlined in several grand-scale narratives–the 100 Concrete Steps to achieve the Five Institutional Reforms and Nurly Zhol, the Bright Path–are, in brief, a scheme to bring Kazakhstan into the ranks of the top-30 world economies and give Astana a seat next to Washington, Brussels, Beijing, and Moscow in the geopolitical realm.
Astana’s pursuit of a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council is yet another brick in this road. It took two rounds of votes, but Kazakhstan proved victorious over Thailand for the seat. Kazakhstan will sit on the UNSC for two years starting January 1, 2017.
“No organization has a greater global responsibility than the United Nations Security Council,” Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last week. Laying out Kazakhstan’s case, Idrissov trotted out the usual highlights: the country’s sterling nonproliferation credentials, efforts to further conflict resolution globally, and embrace of multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious harmony.
How Brexit is a win for Putin
By Michael McFaul
Washington Post, June 25, 2016
When Vladimir Putin worked in Dresden, he watched helplessly as Soviet ally East Germany slipped out of Moscow’s orbit, united with West Germany, and joined the democratic side of Europe. Soviet-dominated multilateral institutions in Europe — the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), the Soviet command economy trade organization — also disappeared. Putin then witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an event that he later described as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. Former Soviet allies and parts of the Soviet empire peeled away, also joined the democratic side of Europe and eventually became members of NATO and the European Union. For nearly three decades, the West was consolidating as the East was disintegrating. The momentum toward a Europe whole and free was so powerful that earlier Russian leaders even flirted with joining as well.
That trend has now reversed. The decision by a majority of British voters to exit the European Union was not the first event in this reversal but maybe the most dramatic. Europe is now weakening as Russia, its allies and its multilateral organizations are consolidating, even adding new members. Putin, of course, did not cause the Brexit vote, but he and his foreign policy objectives stand to gain enormously from it.
What Brexit Means for Ukraine
By Andreas Umland
Atlantic Council, June 27, 2016
After British voters approved a referendum to leave the EU on June 23, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister for European Integration Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze said: "We respect the British citizens' decision, but Ukraine feels sorry for these events. To my mind this will weaken the EU and it will have to concentrate on its own problems."
The minister’s consternation and worries are right. For Ukrainians, the British vote is difficult to understand. They have fought and are still fighting for their “European choice.” Initially in a revolution, then in a highly intense hybrid war, and now in low-intensity warfare, they are defending their right to freely associate with and eventually join the EU.
Klympush-Tsintsadze’s words also indicate the main problem that Brexit entails for Kyiv. European politicians, diplomats, journalists, and experts will be even more distracted from Ukraine’s internal developments and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Russia’s leaders are happy about Brexit, but it won’t help the regime much at home
By J. Paul Goode
Washington Post, June 29, 2016
Before last week’s “Brexit” vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that Vladimir Putin (and the Islamic State) “might be happy” if the United Kingdom left the European Union. Putin responded that Russia had no interest in the U.K.’s internal affairs. But he added that Britons clearly were dissatisfied with the government’s military policy, which was encouraging migration – apparently referring to the U.K.’s airstrikes and other efforts in Syria.
Nevertheless, Russia’s political establishment clearly relished the Brexit victory. Among them, Russia’s small business ombudsman Boris Titov exclaimed on Facebook, “it seems it has happened: UK out!!!” He continued that the vote meant “the independence of Europe from the USA.”
But was it really a triumph for the Kremlin? Does it help Putin’s regime?
Turkey Says Airport Bombers Were From Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan
By Ceylan Yeginsu and Rukmini Callimachi
New York Times, June 30, 2016The three suicide bombers who killed 43 people at Istanbul’s main international airport this week have been identified as citizens of Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Turkish officials said Thursday.
Turkey, which has blamed the Islamic State for the attack, carried out raids across the country on Thursday, detaining 13 people, including three foreigners, in connection with the attack at Istanbul Ataturk Airport on Tuesday night.
There were 238 people wounded in the attack, and 94 of them were still in the hospital, the governor of Istanbul, Vasip Sahin, said Thursday.
No group has claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack.Read the full article here.
Yards From War, Miles From Peace
By Paul D. Shinkman
U.S. News & World Report, June 30, 2016
Most of the fighting here takes place at night, when deep thuds of artillery and the staccato sounds of gunfire routinely fill the air.
The Ukrainian army’s 128th Brigade occupies a former mine at this extreme front line of the war against separatist forces, connected to Ukraine-held territory by one road that bisects a dense anti-tank minefield designed to thwart pursuit if government troops were forced to retreat. The brigade has witnessed a steady rise in the aggressiveness of the fighting over the last two months.
The spike in hostility is drawing the world’s attention back to this simmering 2-year-old conflict, in which a shaky cease-fire has suppressed much of the outright combat between the nation’s army and pro-Russian rebel forces propped up by Moscow who wish to break away from Ukraine.
Read the full article here.
Russian FSB guard attacked U.S. diplomat outside Moscow embassy
By Josh Rogin
Washington Post, June 29, 2016In the early morning of June 6, a uniformed Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) guard stationed outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow attacked and beat up a U.S. diplomat who was trying to enter the compound, according to four U.S. officials who were briefed on the incident.
This previously unreported attack occurred just steps from the entrance to the U.S. Embassy complex, which is located in the Presnensky District in Moscow’s city center. After being tackled by the FSB guard, the diplomat suffered a broken shoulder, among other injuries. He was eventually able to enter the embassy and was then flown out of Russia to receive urgent medical attention, administration officials confirmed to me. He remains outside of Russia.
The attack caused a diplomatic episode behind the scenes that has not surfaced until now. The State Department in Washington called in Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak to complain about the incident, an administration official said.
The motive for the attack remains unclear.Read the full article here.
Russia Calls Former U.S. Ambassador 'Incompetent,' Complains Of FBI, CIA Harassment
By Mike Eckel
RFE/RL, June 28, 2016Russia's Foreign Ministry has launched a fresh volley in an increasingly ugly war of words with its U.S. counterparts, calling a former U.S. envoy incompetent and complaining that Washington was pressuring Russian diplomats.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova is known for her caustic remarks, but her June 28 comments, including allegations of high-level "incompetence," were unusually blunt.
U.S. officials have complained in recent weeks that American diplomats in Moscow and elsewhere have been subjected to harassment and increased surveillance.
The public spat comes with U.S.-Russian relations arguably at their lowest point since the Cold War, following sanctions imposed against Russia for its actions in Ukraine and NATO planning an increased military presence near Russian borders.Read the full article here.
Draconian New Russian Law Seen Driving Religious Believers Underground Just as in Soviet Times
By Paul Goble
Window on Eurasia, June 25, 2016The approval by the Duma of the so-called Yarova-Ozerov package of legislation will among other things drive many followers even of Russia’s “traditional” religions into the underground, leading them to ignore the official leaders of these faiths and opening the way to their radicalization, thus restoring the pattern of the late Soviet period.
And by so doing, Russia’s latest “anti-terrorist” effort is likely to lead to more terrorism rather than less, although some commentators are hoping that the provisions of this draconian new law will be mitigated in the usual Russian way by the impossibility of enforcing it or the unwillingness of officials to do so.
The Yarovaya-Ozerov packet attracted an extraordinary amount of attention mainly because of its provisions governing the Internet and NGOs with foreign funding.
But the provisions of the measure concerning religious organizations and especially the new limits on missionary activity may have the greatest consequence.Read the full article here.
'Finding Babel' Takes Jury Prize at Moscow Jewish Film Festival
By Ruth Moore
Moscow Times, June 28, 2016Last week Moscow's International Jewish Film Festival came to its close. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize was David Novack's "Finding Babel," a documentary combining Isaac Babel's fiction, archival footage and interviews with an ethereal animation technique. The result is a powerful exploration of the links between the life and works of the Ukrainian-Jewish author who fell afoul of Stalin's regime.
The documentary features Andrei Malaev-Babel, Babel's grandson, as he travels through Russia, Ukraine and France in a quest to link his grandfather's life with his fiction. Andrei, a professional actor, was recorded reciting Babel's works in geographically significant locations for the documentary.
In an interview with The Moscow Times, director Novack explained his decision to structure the film around Malaev-Babel. "My feeling as an artist, and Andrei's, was that by tracing Babel's stories and life, Babel himself would dictate the direction and emotion of Andrei's journey and a film would evolve from that experience," he said. "This is exactly what happened. What emerged is much more a narrative tale of the essence of the writer than a didactic documentary filled with facts."
Babel, who was born in Odessa, moved to St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) in 1915, where he worked as a journalist and writer. An astute observer of human behavior, Babel documented and filtered the reality around him into his fiction. He was in essence a journalist who could seamlessly transmute his experiences into his art.Read the full article here.
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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.