Weekly News Update 
WASHINGTON, D.C. March 18, 2016

TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties
FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO

Dear Friend,

This week marks the second anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning the continued occupation of Crimea and suppression of dissent and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in Crimea by Russia. It reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to a united, independent Ukraine and urged Russia to return Crimea.

On March 15, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on U.S. support for governmental reforms in Ukraine. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Department Victoria Nuland testified at the hearing, emphasizing the need for Ukraine’s leaders to work together to implement the reforms mandated by the Maidan revolution. While Nuland emphasized the important progress Ukraine has made, she warned that without unity in leadership, “Ukraine will slide backwards once again into corruption, lawlessness, and vassal statehood.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited Russia this week, where he met with President Vladimir Putin and with the local Jewish community. Both leaders praised Russia and Israel’s close bilateral ties, which Putin said “are based on friendship and mutual understanding.” It was also announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would visit Russia in the near future for security and trade talks.

As I highlighted in the last update, the annual Waffen SS march scheduled for this week took place in Riga on Wednesday. Several hundred ultranationalists participated, including several far-right members of the Latvian parliament.

The United States this week urged European governments to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism, during a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism in Berlin. U.S. Department of State Special Envoy Ira Forman explained that anti-Semitism is “evolving into new, contemporary forms of hatred, racism, and political, social, and cultural discrimination against Jews,” one aspect of which is “criticism of Israel as a pretext for anti-Semitism.” Forman urged Europe’s governments to adopt a working definition that specifically includes language on how anti-Semitism relates to criticism of Israel.

Finally, NCSEJ once again this week expressed concern to the Ukrainian government about a recent desecration at the Babi Yar memorial, where unknown vandals burned a wreath earlier this month that had been placed by the Israeli Minister of Justice. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated that the main task of the police is to prevent such crimes from happening and that the government will do everything it can to ensure that future desecrations do not take place.

Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Washington, D.C. March 18
, 2016

Second Anniversary of Russia's Attempted Annexation of Crimea
By John Kirby, Assistant Secretary and Department Spokesperson, Bureau of Public Affairs
U.S. Department of State, March 15, 2016

Today, as Russia’s occupation of Crimea enters its third year, we reaffirm our commitment to a united, sovereign Ukraine. The United States does not recognize Russia’s "referendum” of March 16, 2014 or its attempted annexation of Crimea, which violates international law.

We remain deeply concerned by the situation in Russian-occupied Crimea, where occupation “authorities” suppress dissent and where ethnic and religious minorities -- especially Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians -- face serious and ongoing repression. Nongovernmental organizations and independent media are still being silenced or driven out, and international observers are still denied access to the peninsula.

We will not accept the redrawing of borders by force in the 21st century. Sanctions related to Crimea will remain in place as long as the occupation continues. We again call on Russia to end that occupation and return Crimea to Ukraine.

Ukraine: Fear, Repression in Crimea
Rapid Rights Deterioration in 2 Years of Russian Rule
Human Rights Watch, March 18, 2016

Russian authorities have created a pervasive climate of fear and repression in Crimea in the two years since it has occupied the peninsula, Human Rights Watch said today. It is crucial for key international actors to keep Crimea’s drastically deteriorating human rights situation high on their agendas.

“Crimea’s isolation has made it very difficult to conduct comprehensive human rights monitoring there,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “But serious human rights abuses in Crimea should not slip to the bottom of the international agenda.”

Since Russian forces began occupying Crimea in early 2014, the space for free speech, freedom of association, and media in Crimea has shrunk dramatically. In two years, authorities have failed to conduct meaningful investigations into actions of armed paramilitary groups, implicated in torture, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, attacks and beatings of Crimean Tatar and pro-Ukraine activists and journalists.

Polish president opens museum for Righteous among Nations
JTA, March 18, 2016

WARSAW — Amid a public debate about Poland’s Holocaust-era record, the country’s president attended the opening of a museum for non-Jews who saved Jews’ lives during the genocide.

At a ceremony attended by approximately 2,000 people, Andrzej Duda on Thursday spoke of anti-Semitism as not only hateful to Jews, but also disrespectful to the memory of those who risked their lives to save them.

The Markowa museum’s opening is one of several new government initiatives to commemorate the Righteous, including plans and funding for a monument to be located next to the All Saints Church on Warsaw’s Grzybowski Square. Another monument, which is controversial for its location, is planned near the Museum of the History of Polish Jews at what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto.

US Diplomat: Ukraine Must Clean Up Corruption, Liberalize Economy
VOA News, March 15, 2016
Ukraine’s greatest challenge remains the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula and the restoration of sovereignty in the eastern Donbas region through full implementation of the September 2014 and February 2015 Minsk agreements, according to a top U.S. diplomat.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Victoria Nuland says these agreements remain the best hope for peace in eastern Ukraine. She told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday the United States is continuing to work in close coordination with Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France to see them fully implemented.

Nuland said Ukraine’s government and parliament must come together behind reform program that delivers what the Maidan Revolution demanded - clean leadership, justice, an end to backroom deals, and public institutions that serve Ukraine’s citizens rather than impoverishing or exploiting them.

All those who call themselves reformers must rebuild consensus in support of aggressive measures “to clean up corruption, restore justice and liberalize the economy,” she added.

Read the full article here.

Report: Russia Closing UN Human Rights Office in Moscow
VOA News, March 14, 2016
Russia’s diplomatic mission in Geneva reportedly has confirmed that the United Nations’ human rights office in Moscow is being shut down – a development the U.N.'s top rights official feared would happen.

A report on March 12 by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency said the Russian diplomatic mission in Geneva confirmed a decision was made to close the mission in Moscow of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

There was no immediate comment from the OHCHR about the report, which comes in the midst of a growing crackdown in Russia against rights activists, independent journalists and public debate.

Russian Ambassador Aleksei Borodavkin said the OHCHR has helped to create human rights institutions in Russia and "we do not see anything extraordinary" about the Moscow office being closed, according to RIA Novosti.

Read the full article here.

Russian chief rabbi slams court ruling on organ harvesting by default
JTA, March 18, 2016

Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia, protested a recent high court ruling that by default allows medical authorities to harvest organs from cadavers.

The March 9 ruling by Russia’s Constitutional Court was on a motion by relatives who opposed the harvesting without notice of organs from the bodies of their loved ones, the news site www.jewish.ru last week reported. The ruling states that relatives opposed to this custom must alert medical authorities ahead of their loved ones’ demise of their objection to the practice. In all other cases, cadavers are to be harvested for organs immediately after death.

“We understand the need for organs for transplants,” Lazar wrote in a March 11 statement explaining his unusually strong-worded objection to the ruling. “But it is unthinkable to take them from a person against the will of their family and loved ones!” Separately, Christian faith leaders also protested the ruling.

Netanyahu decides not to close Israeli embassy in Belarus
JNS.org, March 16, 2016
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided not to close the Israeli Embassy in Minsk, Belarus, according to a statement released on Wednesday.

The decision was made following a number of discussions and consultations with senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials and with Minister of Immigrant and Absorption and Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin.

Earlier this month, the Conference of European Rabbis said in a letter to Netanyahu that the decision to close the embassy would negatively impact Israel's relations with the Jewish community of Belarus, which has the third largest Jewish community in the former Soviet Union.

Israel announced the original closure in January along with the closure of four other foreign mission offices as part of a budget-saving measure.

Putin: Netanyahu to visit Kremlin for defense talks
Israeli president meets counterpart in Moscow after Syria pullout from announced
By Raphael Ahren
Times of Israel, March 16, 2016
Hosting Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Moscow on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would also visit soon for regional security and trade talks.

Putin said Russia and Israel “have a large number of questions to discuss linked with the development of bilateral trade and economic relations and questions of the region’s security,” according to Russian reports. “I hope that we’ll be able to discuss them in the short run with the Israeli prime minister with whom we have made arrangements for a meeting,” he added.

The two leaders hailed ties between Russia and Israel in a joint press conference ahead of their meeting.

During Rivlin’s two-day trip to Russia, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries, the president will also meet with the local Jewish community and visit Russian and Jewish cultural sites.

Read the full article here.

Nazi Waffen SS veterans join ultranationalist march in Latvia
JTA, March 16, 2016

Several hundred ultranationalists, including seven veterans of Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS, marched through Riga on the independence day of the Baltic nation of Latvia.

The march Wednesday, a controversial affair that is Europe’s only annual event by Waffen SS veterans, drew a handful of counterprotesters from Latvia’s Jewish community and about 40 anti-fascist activists, including 20 Germans, Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JTA by phone from Riga.

Latvian authorities detained five Germans who crossed over to Latvia from Lithuania and prevented another one from boarding a plane bound for Latvia, Zuroff said. Several far-right Latvian lawmakers also participated in the march, he said.

Ukraine PM scrapes through crisis but uncertainty remains
By Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams
Reuters, March 16, 2016
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has scraped through the biggest challenge to his leadership so far, lawmakers said on Wednesday, but still faces an uphill battle to achieve reforms that Western backers demand.

The comments by several MPs to Reuters showed how the political winds were blowing after weeks of turmoil that saw Yatseniuk survive a no-confidence vote and face down repeated calls for him to resign.
The United States and other Western powers have urged Kiev's leaders to stay united in order to pass reforms needed to secure a further $1.7 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund and keep its war-torn economy afloat.

But Washington and the IMF have become increasingly impatient with the Ukrainian government's patchy performance, especially in tackling endemic corruption. The IMF has warned it could stop aid altogether it matters don't improve.

If Yatseniuk manages to hold on, Ukraine will continue to be run by a prime minister whose personal popularity ratings are at 1 percent and whose leadership is opposed by the majority of lawmakers, likely prolonging the current instability.

Ex-Professor Upsets Ukraine Politics, and Russia Peace Accord
[Profile of Rada deputy speaker Oksana Syroyid]
By Andrew E. Kramer
New York Times, March 18, 2016
With her own fast burn of ambition, ferocity and style, Ms. Syroyid of the center-right Self-Reliance party, a former law professor, has shot to the top of Ukrainian politics. A political insurgent, she has made a signature issue of derailing a peace agreement with Russia and, in the process, may have eclipsed the former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, as the most powerful female politician in Ukraine.

A 39-year-old native of the Lviv region in the country’s nationalist west, Ms. Syroyid talks boldly about Ukraine acting in its own interests, not those of outside powers. “We need to stop thinking of how to counter Putin, or how to please all our partners,” she said in a recent interview.

The question many here ask is whether Ms. Syroyid, a relative newcomer, can somehow master the byzantine structure of Ukrainian politics and emerge as the one to lead the country out of the morass of corruption and government dysfunction that threatens its future. Or, is she just another in a line of ambitious upstarts causing Western governments their latest headache in Ukraine and, possibly, taking the country down with her?

US says Europe needs 'working definition' of anti-Semitism
By Sam Sokol
Jerusalem Post, March 17, 2016
The US encouraged European governments to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism while condemning the conflation of Diaspora Jewry with the State of Israel, during an international forum in Berlin this week.

Speaking at the third Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism in Berlin on Tuesday, State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman welcomed the European Commission’s recent move to appoint its first coordinator on combating anti-Semitism and called upon individual member states to follow the continental body’s example.

Explaining that anti-Semitism is “evolving into new, contemporary forms of hatred, racism, and political, social, and cultural discrimination against Jews,” Forman lamented that “one virulent aspect is... conflating Jewish communities with Israel, using criticism of Israel as a pretext for anti-Semitism.”

Citing several occasions in which apparently anti-Semitic incidents were downplayed as being merely anti-Israel, including the scrawling of swastikas in Sweden and the firebombing of a synagogue in Germany, Forman said that it is vital to “define anti-Semitism clearly to more effectively combat it.”

In real-life Anatevka, Ukraine’s Jewish refugees build a community
By Cnaan Liphshiz
JTA, March 15, 2016
At the age of 53, Sergey and Elena Yarelchenko fled their native city of Lugansk with three suitcases and moved into a wooden room in a muddy refugee camp outside Kiev.

Thanks to one rabbi’s unique project for Jewish refugees from the east, the Yarelchenkos are part of the nascent community of Anatevka, a small village that sprang into existence six months ago near the capital, where 20 families are now building a future based on Yiddishkeit and self-reliance.

Named after the fictional hometown of Tevye the Dairyman from the famed Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” – and the iconic Sholom Aleichem short stories on which it was based – Anatevka is a tribute not only to that town but to the real Jewish shtetls that dotted Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

Spread on a plot the size of three football fields, Anatevka features a wooden synagogue with two mikvahs. A rickety path made of splintered wooden pallets connects the three-story synagogue building to a dormitory-style residence with 20 apartments and a central kitchen. A ways off is a school newly built from concrete with 25 classrooms.

Read the full article here.

Russia’s surprise withdrawal resonates from battlefield to peace talks
By Michael Birnbaum and Hugh Naylor
Washington Post, March 15, 2016
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s snap decision to pull warplanes from Syria on Tuesday rearranged the lines of the grinding conflict — and solidified Moscow’s influence not only on the battlefield but also at the negotiating table.

Russian aviators lifted off from air bases in Syria and arrived in Russia to a hero’s welcome six months after the Kremlin’s stunning decision to send forces to help its key Middle East ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But Russia said it would leave powerful antiaircraft systems in Syria, giving it iron leverage in the region and preserving the option of a speedy return.

The surprise withdrawal — apparently taken without consulting with Assad — jolted the peace discussions underway in Geneva and unnerved Syria and its allies. Russia’s pullout will put significant pressure on Assad to work out a power-sharing agreement with the opposition, many analysts said, amid signs that the Syrian leader was being less accommodating to Putin than the Kremlin may have wished.

Read the full article here.

Why Record Numbers of Ukrainian Jews Are Fleeing to Israel
By Katie Engelhart
Vice News, March 16, 2016

In 2015, some 7,500 Jewish people left Ukraine for Israel: up from 6,000 in 2014, and following many years when the flow from Kiev to Jerusalem was little more than a trickle. Most fled from the conflict-ridden east of the country: first westwards, and then across the Black Sea to Tel Aviv.

Along the way, thousands passed through one of several newly and quietly constructed Jewish transit centers. For the Israel-bound migrants themselves, these shelters are primarily of practical import: modest buildings on modest streets where they can receive shelter and food and the occasional Hebrew class. For the volunteers who staff them, the centers are something more consequential; they are pieces of a larger, Israel-led mission to rescue Ukrainian Jews — and thus, more broadly, a reinforcement of Israel's raison d'être, as a refuge for Jews in peril.

Late last year, I travelled to eastern Ukraine to meet with Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, who had flown over from Jerusalem to oversee the organizations efforts in the area.

Building Connections Between Jewish Communities in the Former Soviet Union
JDC, March 17, 2016
More than 150 Jewish professionals from across the former Soviet Union recently participated in JDC's sixth annual Jewish Educators' Conference, held at the Hesed Eliyahu social welfare center in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The group represented educators and Jewish communal professionals representing 46 cities in seven countries. Over the course of five days, renowned lecturers from across the FSU and Israel spoke on a wide range of topics, like: anti-Semitism, Israeli cinema, symbolism in the Torah, satire in the Talmud, and more.

The summit also continued the cooperation between JDC in the FSU and JDC's Ashalim partnership in Israel, which works to support and protect at-risk youth through formal education initiatives, youth entrepreneurship and employment programming, alternative learning spaces, community-building models, and programs that will help engender safe home environments and healthy relationships between parents and children.

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.