Weekly News Update 
WASHINGTON, D.C. September 29, 2017

TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties

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

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft concluded his service in Moscow this week. I would like to commend and congratulate Ambassador Tefft on his long and distinguished career in the foreign service. Ambassador Tefft has been a great friend to NCSEJ and the Russian Jewish community. I recommend reading an op-ed he wrote for The Moscow Times on the eve of his departure.

In this week's update, there is an interesting report on the current state of Birobidzhan's Jewish community in the Russian Far East. Since 1931, Birobidzhan has been the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, a region created by Stalin for the resettlement of Soviet Jews, no more than 50,000 of whom actually moved there. A small community remains there to this day.

In Ukraine, the debate over language rages on. President Poroshenko recently signed legislation making Ukrainian the only official language of public education in the country while a percentage of Ukrainians continue to speak Russian as their primary language. The legislation and an article from the Kennan Institute's new Focus Ukraine initiative highlight how difficult it is to forge a cohesive national identity in Ukraine today.

The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews received the EU's Europa Nostra prize for its commitment to the preservation of cultural heritage, education, research, training, and conservation. 

We wish you all g'mar chatimah tovah this Yom Kippur and good wishes in the New Year.


Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Washington, D.C. September 29, 2017

On the Day of My Departure          

By Ambassador John Tefft

The Moscow Times, September 28, 2017

When I first joined the diplomatic service, working on the Soviet desk in the 1980s, our relationship with Russia was at a low point. The Soviet Union had just shot down a Korean Airliner, with almost 100 Americans including a Congressman on board. There was a lot of anger in America.

Today, as I prepare to leave Russia, our relationship has reached another low point. Americans are concerned and angry about Russian interference in our elections and by the Russian authorities’ refusal to accept their responsibility for it.

As Secretary Tillerson said, we need to rebuild trust between our two countries and move our relationship to a different place. The American people want the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world to have a better relationship. From the earliest days of this Administration we have said time and again that we would prefer a constructive relationship with Russia based on cooperation on common interests. We remain prepared to try to find a way forward.

Revival of a Soviet Zion: Birobidzhan celebrates its Jewish heritage

By Shaun Walker

The Guardian, September 27, 2017

In front of Birobidzhan’s railway station, loudspeakers blast out Yiddish-language ballads while hundreds of schoolchildren in ersatz folk costumes dance circles around the menorah monument that dominates the square.

Across town, labourers are building a kosher restaurant, the city’s first. A two-storey building under construction next door will house a mikvah, the ritual pool in which religious Jews must bathe.

The Jewish renaissance in Birobidzhan is the latest chapter in the surreal tale of this would-be Siberian Zion, founded nearly a century ago.

Nestled on the border with China, seven timezones east of Moscow and a six-day journey away on the Trans-Siberian railway, the region was first settled en masse during the early 1930s as part of a plan to create a Soviet homeland for Jews during the rule of Joseph Stalin.

Read the full article here.

Russian defense minister to make rare Israel visit for talks on Syria

By Judah Ari Gross

Times of Israel, September 24, 2017

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu will visit Israel next month to discuss the two countries’ ongoing security coordination in Syria, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s office confirmed on Sunday.

It will be Shoigu’s first official visit to Israel, and the first visit for a Russian defense minister to the Jewish state in many years.

According to Liberman’s office, the two defense ministers will “discuss the continuing coordination of the two militaries, the cooperation between the two countries and Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, in which the Iranians are transferring advanced weapons to Hezbollah through Damascus.”

Liberman’s office would not give a specific date for Shoigu’s trip, but said it would take place sometime in mid-October.

Read the full article here.

The Moscow-Tehran Axis is a Coalition of the Weak

By Frederick W. Kagan

Mosaic, September 25, 2017

The excellent essay in Mosaic by Michael Doran and Peter Rough articulately lays out the challenges facing American national security in the Middle East and the flaws of U.S. strategy in the region over the past decade. The authors accurately assess the strength of the Russo-Iranian coalition, rightly dismissing the chimerical notion that the U.S. can somehow leverage Moscow to contain or control Tehran. And, again rightly, they ascribe the ascendance of that coalition to the efforts by President Obama to realign the U.S. against our traditional partners in the region as well as to his decision, accepted in turn by President Trump, to focus singlemindedly on the fight against Islamic State before seeking to address the Russo-Iranian challenge, particularly in Syria.

To account for the strength of the bonds between Moscow and Iran is a necessary and important task. No less necessary and important, however, is to avoid the trap of believing that the U.S. is so helpless before their power that we must accept whatever they insist on lest we provoke a conflict we cannot win.

Read the full article here.

Court and Politburo: Putin’s Changing Inner Circle

By Konstantin Gaaze

Carnegie Europe, September 22, 2017

Of all the allegories tossed around to describe the Putin regime, “Politburo 2.0” may be the most apt. The term was coined by Minchenko Consulting in a 2012 report that discarded the concept of a “collective Putin” in favor of a system that regards Russia’s power structure as a network of delegated power akin to the Soviet Politburo.

Yet this concept harking back to the Soviet era coincides with one from Russian imperial times. Putin evidently also has a “court” consisting of figures who do not have government positions but still exercise great power. How do these two models work in practice?

The Politburo 2.0 is not a formal structure. Its members don’t gather in the Kremlin’s Walnut Room, as their predecessors did, or adhere to the formal procedures of the Soviet Politburo. Instead, the Politburo 2.0 encompasses the most influential and independent centers of power in Russia―a club of select government officials and businessmen that have the president’s trust.

Read the full article here.

Russian TV series claims Jewish Trotsky masterminded bloody 1917 revolution

By Julie Masis

Times of Israel, September 28, 2017

Trotsky portrayed as a butcher in the upcoming Russian television series bearing his name. (Courtesy)

A hundred years after the Russian revolution, the Russians are claiming that a Jew was behind it — at least according to a new television drama.

An eight-episode series entitled “Trotsky” argues it was Jewish revolutionary Leon Trotsky — and not Vladimir Lenin — who masterminded the revolution that brought the communists to power. The film also blames Trotsky for the execution of the Russian royal family.

The upcoming televised drama will be screened on Russian TV in the beginning of November, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Read the full article here.

U.S. Military Chief Says Recommends Providing Ukraine with Lethal Defensive Aid

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 27, 2017

The top U.S. military commander has said he recommended that the United States provide lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine to help the country "protect [its] sovereignty" amid a conflict with Russia-backed separatists.

General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 26 that a proposal to provide lethal aid to Ukraine was awaiting a decision from the White House.

"In my judgment, from the military perspective, Ukraine needed additional capabilities to protect their sovereignty," Dunford said when asked why he supported the provision of lethal weapons.

In particular, Dunford said, "we felt [that the] ability to stop armored vehicles would be essential for them to protect themselves."

Read the full article here.

Ukrainian Leaders Blame ‘Sabotage’ for Huge Blast at Munitions depot

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 28, 2017

Ukrainian leaders said "sabotage" was behind massive explosions at an ammunition depot in central Ukraine that prompted the evacuation of more than 30,000 people and the closure of airspace over the region on September 27.

The blasts late on September 26 sparked a massive blaze at the depot near Kalynivka in the Vinnytsya region, some 270 kilometers west of Kyiv, which the country's defense agency said had been brought largely under control late on September 27.

"We have to learn to defend our strategic facilities from sabotage groups," President Petro Poroshenko said during an emergency evening meeting with his top military commanders on the incident. "We will no longer put up with these events."

The Language Issue in Ukraine, Again

By Mykhailo Minakov

Kennan Institute Focus Ukraine Blog, September 26, 2017

On September 25, 2017, the Ukrainian president signed off on the Law on Education, which had been approved by the parliament twenty days before. This law, which had long been anticipated as a means of launching educational reform and somewhat prematurely praised by the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, has caused a scandal because of its clear assimilative policy: secondary education is to be accessible only in Ukrainian, with some options for “indigenous peoples” (Crimean Tatars, Karaites, and Gagauz). This critical linguopolitical norm was amended during the approval process in the Verkhovna Rada: from more inclusive approach taken in the draft, the law was changed to require basically monolingual education for all students, despite Ukrainian bilingualism and minority diversity. The veteran politician and governor of Zakarpattya oblast (Transcarpathia) Hennady Moskal has compared this law to the Soviet policies on minorities, which seemed to him to have been more humane and “correct.”

Read the full article here.

Museum of Polish Jewry honored with EU’s top heritage award

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, September 28, 2017

The Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews was recognized with a top honor from the European Union for a project promoting Jewish cultural heritage.

The Europa Nostra Prize, or Our Europe, was presented Wednesday at a ceremony at the Warsaw museum. Twenty-nine laureates from 18 countries were honored.

The project was made up of some 3,500 events.

“Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the events we organized, and millions of people did it through the internet,” said the director of the museum, Dariusz Stola.

Read the full article here.

Poland’s President Offers New Path to End Court Crisis

By Rick Lyman

New York Times, September 25, 2017

Two months after vetoing laws to restructure the Polish court system that had drawn sharp rebukes from the European Union and brought thousands of protesters into the summer streets, President Andrzej Duda on Monday offered his own draft versions of the legislation.

But his proposals contain provisions likely to upset all sides in the bitter debate.

The earlier laws would have forced all Supreme Court justices to resign – a move widely criticized in Brussels and elsewhere as undermining judicial independence and the rule of law. Mr. Duda’s version institutes an age limit of 65 for high court judges, which would force the retirement of nearly 40 percent of the court’s 82 justices by year’s end.

And rather than giving the right-wing ruling party vast control over the selection of judicial candidates, Mr. Duda’s proposed measure would require that candidates get at least 60 percent of the vote in Parliament. That’s enough to force the ruling party, with its slim majority, to seek outside support.

Moldovan President Says NATO Liaison Office ‘Will Not Bring Peace’

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 26, 2017

Moldova's pro-Russia president has renewed criticism of plans for a liaison office of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the country, saying the ex-Soviet republic should stay clear of a "geopolitical confrontation" between Washington and Moscow.

Igor Dodon's comments in a September 26 interview came weeks after he accused his country's pro-Western government of trying to "add the Moldovan Army" to the alliance by sending a contingent of soldiers to NATO-led military exercises in neighboring Ukraine.

The planned NATO office in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, "will not bring peace" to Moldova and will hamper efforts to resolve the frozen conflict with the country's breakaway Transdniester region, Dodon said.

"We are a neutral state. Why would we need offices of military blocs in Chisinau?" he told RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service.

Read the full article here.

Shalom organization of Bulgarian Jews irked by ‘Patriots’ declaration on Rosh Hashanah

By Clive Leviev-Sawyer

The Sofia Globe, September 21, 2017

The Shalom Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria has responded with extreme concern to a declaration in Parliament by the nationalist United Patriots group, that used the occasion of Rosh Hashanah to take a sideswipe at “enemies” of Bulgaria over the events of 1943.

During the Second World War, the majority of Bulgarian society stood up to successfully resist the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the death camps of the Holocaust where more than six million Jews were murdered. In 1943, the planned deportations of Bulgarian Jews were postponed and never carried out.

However, Bulgaria allowed the deportation of more than 11 000 Jews from the “new territories” under its administration in northern Greece and Yugoslavia. All but a very few of these Jews were murdered in Treblinka within a few days of their arrival.

Read the full article here.

The Fight to Get Israel’s Holocaust Survivors Their Benefits

By Lee Yaron

Haaretz, September 25, 2017

Coka is fighting to get recognition for surviving the murderous regime at the World War II-era ghetto in the Romanian city Iasi; Tzila has fallen between the cracks and isn’t getting any money from the Poles or the Romanians; Polina is coping with a debt of 120,000 shekels (over $34,000) to Beilinson Hospital for a stay there; and Motke was forced to buy shoe inserts with all the money he gets from his survivor’s allowance.

They, like many other Holocaust survivors, are spending the last years of their lives fighting the Israeli and European bureaucracies to get benefits they’re entitled to. Many don’t even know what rights they have, even though these have been expanded considerably in the past few years, while others are aware but are having difficulty getting the funds because of a demanding bureaucracy that even younger people would have a hard time navigating.

These elderly people must download forms from the internet, find old documents that testify to previous citizenship and where they were located during the Holocaust; answer dozens of questions and obtain all the relevant information from government agencies in places like Poland and Romania – and have it approved.

Read the full article here.

Roma Holocaust survivors look to Jews as model for recognition – and reparation

By Julie Masis

Times of Israel, September 23, 2017

This September, about 70 Roma survivors of World War II in Moldova will receive compensation from Germany.

But the reparations given to these elderly people in Europe’s poorest country will not take the form of cash — only food and coal to use as fuel, and only for a few months. The budget is about $600 per person.

“These are people who never received any compensation before,” said Marin Alla, the director of the Voice of the Roma Coalition, an NGO that is distributing the aid from the Germany-based EVZ Foundation. “They are trying to survive. Some have a pension of 15 euros ($18) per month, others get 50 euros ($60) per month.”

He said there are now about 600 Roma who lived through WWII left in Moldova, but the funding from Germany is not sufficient to help all of them.

Read the full article here.

Following the Twists, Turns in Kyrgyzstan’s Presidential Race

By Bruce Pannier

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 26, 2017

There are no elections in Central Asia like Kyrgyzstan's elections, and the upcoming presidential election there is further proof of that.

As of early August, there were 59 people saying they would run for president. There are now 11 candidates left in the race and there will probably be even fewer by October 15, when the election is held.

Since September 17, two of the stronger contenders have indicated they are supporting the front-runners in an example of the political deal making we're likely to see much more of before mid-October.

There have been accusations of "administrative resources" being used to support the incumbent president's pick as his successor. And there have been complaints about some of the endorsements candidates are receiving, and accusations of biased coverage on TV.

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.