France to show “Shoah” in schools (and other articles)

September 22, 2004


1. France's government distributes Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" to schools
2. In the International Herald Tribune yesterday: American Jews' "poisonous" charges against France
3. Putin wishes Russian Jews a Happy New Year
4. New Zealand refuses David Irving entry
5. Germans divided over film showing Hitler "with a human side"
6. Yemen to open Jewish community center for first time. [Prior to 1948, one-third of Yemen's population was Jewish. Now 750 Jews remain.]
7. Four Israelis sue John Ashcroft over 9/11 detentions. [Allege they suffered frequent beatings, anti-Semitic jibes, at hands of prison guards.]
8. China welcomes back Jews, hoping for prosperous ties. [Will also spend $3.2-million to renovate main synagogue, and will spruce up Asia's "largest Jewish cemetery".]

[Note by Tom Gross]

The items in this dispatch concern contemporary attitudes to, or treatment of, Jews or Israelis. They relate to France, Russia, Germany, New Zealand, Yemen, the US, and China.

I sometimes incorporate articles about positive and negative changes in governmental attitudes to Jews on this email list, since these often bear direct background relevance to international efforts to play a constructive role in Middle East diplomacy.

All the items below are follow-ups to items in previous dispatches on this email list. Because most of them are short, I have not summarized them.

-- Tom Gross


France to distribute copies of 'Shoah' film in anti-hate drive
September 16, 2004

France's Education Ministry is distributing DVDs with excerpts of the classic Holocaust film "Shoah" to its 5,500 lycees this week, in another step Paris is taking to fight growing anti-Semitism. Director Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-hour opus features interviews with Holocaust survivors and death camp guards, watched parts of the 1985 film with pupils and Education Minister Francois Fillon at a central Paris lycee yesterday.

The copies of "Shoah" – the word is Hebrew for Holocaust – will be accompanied by anthologies of texts pupils will be asked to read to better understand the problems of racism and anti-Semitism, Fillon said at the secondary school.

Lanzmann said Paris had to stress long-term education against hatred if it wanted to roll back a new wave of anti-Semitic attacks, which official statistics say have doubled to tripled over the past year.

"We've seen all too often that, when an anti-Semitic act is committed somewhere, the government immediately calls a meeting of the ministries involved, like a Pavlovian reaction, and everybody asks 'what should we do?'," he said. "This needs a much longer-term approach," he told France-Info radio.



Tom Gross adds in relation to the above item "France to distribute copies of 'Shoah' film in anti-hate drive":

Yesterday the New York Times-owned International Herald Tribune ran as their top-of the page, main comment piece (with a large photo, giving it twice the space usually reserved for a comment piece), an article titled "A poisoned 'j'accuse' from America."

The piece, specially translated from French by the IHT, was written by Jean Daniel, the co-founder and director of the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. Earlier this year Daniel was presented with a special award for his contribution to "the Humanities."

The piece did not run in the New York Times, but does follow in a long tradition by the Jewish-owned (but often giving the appearance of Jewish-hating) family (some of whom have converted to other religions) that owns the New York Times of denigrating Jews and downplaying anti-Semitism. (The most notorious example being the downplaying by the New York Times of anti-Jewish measures in the 1930s and of the Holocaust in the 1940s. Over half a century later, the family that owns the New York Times offered a semi-apology for this cover-up.)

In his article, Daniel suggests that the idea that there is increasing and widespread anti-Semitism in France is due to "certain ultra-Zionist camps of French Judaism... [making] their concerns known in Tel Aviv and New York, where they were hijacked for use against France."

(Daniel neglects to mention that Jerusalem and Washington are actually the capitals of Israel and the US. He neglects to mention that a large increase in anti-Semitism throughout France has been admitted by French government ministers. He neglects to cite a single example of the hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks carried out in France in recent years. He neglects to mention that thousands of French Jews have fled to Israel, Canada, Florida, New York and elsewhere in the last four years.)

Daniel goes on to argue that the French population cannot be anti-Semitic because they only handed over one third of their Jewish population to their death in Nazi camps. (He neglects to mention that among these were thousands of young children.) "Two out of three!" he writes in his piece (the exclamation mark is his) in relation to those French Jews who didn't die, citing this as what he appears to consider to be a good record proving non-anti-Semitism.

"It was not a Frenchman who killed the great Yitzhak Rabin," he adds for good measure, as if this bore any relevance to French anti-Semitism.

Deliberately employing a word associated with WW2 Germany, he refers to the "Bush-Putin-Sharon axis."

With less news than usual emanating from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza at present, and with news dominated by particularly bloody clashes and beheadings in Iraq during recent days, as well as on-going massacres in Sudan, the IHT again chooses on its comment pages to instead lead with misinformation about Jews.

The abuses of reporting by the New York Times and even more by the International Herald Tribune about Israel and Jews are too numerous to cover on a daily basis.

For more details, see:
"All The News That’s Fit to Print? The New York Times and Israel"



Putin wishes Russian Jews a Happy New Year
The Jerusalem Post
September 15, 2004

The office of the Russian President presented the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar with a letter from President Putin on Wednesday, congratulating Russian Jews on the Jewish New Year.

"Today, Russia is experiencing difficult and dramatic times," the letter reads. "I am sure that the people of Russia must oppose the terrible threat of terrorism with unity, solidarity, civil responsibility and, of course, super-human spiritual values, revered by people of all nationalities and religions."

"During the days of Rosh Hashanah, it is usual to not only recall the year that has just passed, but also to look ahead with plans for the future. I want to extend a traditional wish to the Jews of Russia: Have a Happy and Sweet Year!"



New Zealand blocks Holocaust denier's visit
By DPA (German Press Agency, Deutsche Presse-Agentur)
September 18, 2004

Holocaust denier David Irving was barred from boarding a New Zealand-bound Qantas flight in Los Angeles, the Dominion Post newspaper reported this morning.

Qantas staff told Irving he could not board without an entry visa from the New Zealand embassy in Washington. Associate Immigration Minister Damien O'Connor said Irving had been refused entry because he was a prohibited person having been convicted of an immigration offense in Canada.

But Irving said that in denying him entry the New Zealand government was "stamping on free speech." The newspaper reported Irving as saying he would take legal action over his ban from New Zealand and that Prime Minister Helen Clark had made "a serious mistake."

Irving had planned to speak at the National Press Club in Wellington. He has been denounced by a British court as pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic and a Holocaust denier, angering Jews by labeleing the Holocaust "a legend."

Tom Gross adds:

This item should be in particular been seen in the context of recent revived anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in New Zealand. See, for example, the articles titled "Second major anti-Semitic attack in New Zealand in 3 weeks" and "Who would have imagined New Zealand could change so much?" in the dispatch of August 6, 2004 titled New Zealand, France, Canada, Uzbekistan, Winston Churchill, & other items.



Germans struggle to digest new Hitler film
September 17, 2004

Germans struggled to digest a powerful new film about Adolf Hitler that opened in cinemas on Thursday amid a raging debate about whether the dictator can be portrayed as anything less than the world's greatest evil.

"The Downfall" drew mixed reviews from German film critics and ordinary cinema-goers, with many applauding its gory depiction of the final 12 days of the Nazi regime but others objecting to some scenes showing Hitler having a human side.

"It's a masterpiece," wrote Bild, Germany's top-selling daily. "It's the film of the year, a German film about the eternal ghost of German history. Hitler: human, monster, mass-murderer. Confused, raging, insane."

Told from the point of view of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries in his Berlin bunker, "Der Untergang" as it is called in German is also based on eyewitness accounts from a book of the same name by leading German historian Joachim Fest.

"I think it's good that a German filmmaker is confronting Hitler, but I don't like the way Adolf comes off like such a human being," said Hans Joachim Drewell, 70, a Berlin pensioner. "It was too much to take. They should have showed more of his evil side, his fanaticism, and not so much of this human side."

Played superbly by Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, Hitler's hypnotizing outbursts of rage at his generals' failure to stop the Soviet advance are mixed with scenes in which he is kind to his female staff, his fiancee Eva Braun and even his dog.

"We've seen Hitler before as a madman but twisting spaghetti around his fork or crying?" wrote Berliner Morgenpost film critic Hanns-Georg Rodek. "We've seen him as a clown before, but as a newlywed planting a kiss on the mouth of Eva Hitler?"

At one of the first screenings in Germany at Potsdamer Platz, just a few hundred meters from the bunker where Hitler committed suicide, many Germans wept at scenes showing Joseph Goebbels' wife icily poisoning their six children.

"Some parts were really creepy," said Marie-Louise Hellblau, 14, who saw the film with her classmates. "Hitler was totally brutal and evil. He only wanted everyone to die with him."

The film, one of the first German productions to wade into the darkest chapter of their own history, has received mass media coverage, with Hitler's visage making it onto the cover of both major weekly newsmagazines, Der Spiegel and Stern.

It was showing on 400 screens in Germany, one of the biggest releases of the year. Costing 13.5 million euros, "The Downfall" is one of the most expensive productions in German history.

"So close to Hitler – is that okay?" asked the Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper. "Is it right to make a film in such detail about the dictator responsible for millions of crimes?"

An opinion poll by the Forsa institute said that 69 percent of Germans answered that question with "yes."

Phillip Boyes, a 19-year-old student from London and a Polish national, said the film was upsetting, though done well. "It shows Germans as the sufferers," he said. "It's hard to accept, portraying Nazis as human beings. It's hard to see."

A Chinese student studying in Berlin said he thought there was nothing wrong with Germans making a drama about Hitler. "It showed another perspective, that Nazis could be ordinary people too," said the student, aged 36. "Sixty years on, I think it's important that Germans can show another side of Hitler even if there's a danger some will say 'Hitler wasn't so bad after all.'"



Yemen to open Jewish community center for first time
By Yoav Stern
September 17, 2004

Yemen is slated to open its first Jewish community center, part of a work plan drawn up by the Ministry of Labor and Welfare for this coming year.

The center will be established in the Amran district, located 110 kilometers north of the capital city of Sana'a. One of the center's objectives will be to train Jewish women in handicrafts such as sewing and embroidery as well as household planning.

Prior to 1948, one-third of Yemen's population was Jewish. Many of them immigrated to the newly-established State of Israel in Operation Magic Carpet between June 1949 and August 1950.

In the 1960s, Yemen's then-leader Imam Yehiyeh order the capital city's remaining Jews evicted to the Amran district. According to an Arabic-language website, some 750 Jews live in the Amran district.

Yemen's treatment of its remaining Jews has been a central issue for years between the southern Arabian Peninsula nation and the United States. Ties between the U.S. and Yemen have tightened in recent years.

Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih visited the U.S. this summer and met with President George W. Bush. The U.S. has in the past pressured Yemen to warm its relations with Israel. In the 1990s, Israel and Yemen had unmediated contact and Yemen permitted Israeli tourists to visit its territories.



Four Israelis sue Ashcroft
By Tovah Lazaroff
The Jerusalem Post
September 14, 2004

Four Israelis arrested in the United States on September 11, 2001, have filed a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit in the US District Court in New York against United States Attorney-General John Ashcroft and wardens of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The suit, filed Monday, alleges that their two-month detention was illegal and that during that time they were physically abused and their civil rights were violated.

The Attorney General's Office said it would only comment on the case in court.

According to their Israeli attorney, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, Israelis Yaron Shmuel, Omer Gavriel Marmari, and Silvan and Paul Kurzberg were working for a New Jersey moving company when their truck was stopped by police near the George Washington Bridge. Upon seeing that they held foreign driver's licenses, the officer arrested them as suspects in the September 11 attack.

"The four plaintiffs claim that they were held incommunicado without access to attorneys or family, subjected to rough interrogations, physically assaulted, deprived of sleep and subjected to racist taunting by guards," said Darshan-Leitner.

In the post-September 11 panic, their basic rights were ignored even though they signed papers agreeing to immediate deportation and had plane tickets, said New York attorney Robert Tolchin. According to the complaint, some 1,200 men from the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere who were not US citizens and who appeared to be Arab or Muslim were held on suspicion of being terrorist.

Their detention was "often based on vague suspicions rooted in racial, religious, ethnic, and/or national origin stereotypes rather than in hard facts," according to the complaint. Non-Muslim or non-Israeli detainees were not treated so harshly.

"They were never charged with a crime, they were detained so that the FBI could investigate whether maybe they had done something," said Tolchin.

Four pages of the complaint list the abuses the four Israelis suffered in detention, including failure to be provided with adequate food, medical attention and toiletries. They were held in solitary confinement and denied religious expression.

"Plaintiffs were disciplined for attempting to pray in their cells. Plaintiff Yaron Shmuel was forced out of his cell, thrown against walls and placed in a cell without a mattress, sheets or blanket as a punishment for having prayed out loud," alleged the complaint.

"One of the defendant guards told the plaintiff Yaron Shmuel that he should commit suicide because 'we need to kill all the Jews.'

"The plaintiffs were often beaten by the defendant guards, including cuffing hands behind the plaintiff's backs, twisting arms, kicks to the ribs, and sitting on the plaintiffs while they lay on a metal bed," alleged the complaint.

"The plaintiffs were subjected to a game that the defendant guards called 'Ping Pong,' in which the guards would throw inmates between each other and against walls."

In this case, "the abuse started from the top," said Tolchin.

The suit blames Ashcroft for authorizing and condoning "the unreasonable and excessively harsh conditions under which the plaintiffs were detained" in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

According to the suit, the four should not have been held because Israel is a close ally of the United States. "As Israelis and as Jews, plaintiffs themselves are sworn enemies of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden."

A similar suit in the same court has been filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Ibrahim Turkmen and other Muslim men similarly held. Tolchin said their case is likely to be viewed in light of decisions made in the Turkmen case.



A home for Jews in China
By Mark Magnier
Los Angeles Times
September 21, 2004

Harbin welcomes back "smart, rich" former residents, hoping for prosperous ties. The visitors, now elderly, are drawn by nostalgia.

Esther and Paul Agran look over Harbin's rather dowdy Xinyang Square, see the mud and the snarled traffic, then count the buildings from the corner. "One, two, three – that's it!" says Esther, 80. "That's the building where we had our wedding reception! It was a beautiful building. I think it rubbed off – we've been together 56 years."

A half-century after most of the Jewish community fled Harbin, pushed out by an increasingly unfriendly Communist government wary of "imperialist capitalists," former residents are venturing back for a nostalgic look. Many were born and lived their early lives in this once-booming city in China's northeast.

Now, after years of not being welcomed, they are returning to a city that is eager to see them. Harbin recently announced a $3.2-million renovation of its main synagogue, and it is stepping up efforts to preserve other historically significant buildings and sprucing up the Jewish cemetery, Asia's largest.

For the Chinese, it's less a warm and fuzzy embrace of the old days than a fairly blatant bid to spur the struggling local economy. Last month, at an international conference on "Jewish History and Culture in Harbin" that was attended by nearly 100 former residents and their families, officials gushed about the "always smart" and "always good with money" Jews who might help return Harbin to its former glory.

"We haven't heard such compliments since the days of Moses," says Yaacov Liberman, 81, a Harbin native now living in San Diego. Liberman was on his first trip back since his family left China in 1948.

Although most people don't tend to associate Jews with China, Harbin was an enclave of relative tolerance in the first half of the 20th century, as chaos, war and revolution raged in a troubled world. Jews, mainly from Russia, came to see it as a sanctuary and a land of opportunity.

The first Jew reportedly arrived in Harbin around 1899, leading what would eventually be three waves of immigration, says Li Shuxiao, vice director of Jewish research at the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences. The first group, in the early 20th century, came in search of opportunity after the opening of the Russia-China railroad. The second fled the 1917 Russian Revolution. A third sought to escape a Russia-China border conflict in 1929. The peak was around 1920, when the local Jewish population reached 20,000.

"Most Russian Jews came to China without money and worked hard," says Pan Guang, a history professor at the Institute of European and Asian Studies in Shanghai. "It paid off, and they became solidly middle-class."

Many of those now returning for a visit to Harbin, once known as the "little Paris of the East," recall a privileged life with Chinese and Russian maids, a whirl of social events and winters crossing the Songhua River on Russian telhai, sleds pushed by an attendant.

"It was 30 below zero," recalls Hannah Muller, who left China for Israel in 1949 and hadn't been back since. "It was wonderful. We were all wrapped up in bearskins."

Harbin wasn't always enthusiastic about having them come back. For much of the last decade, officials feared that the returnees would demand reparations for the factories, houses and personal effects that were expropriated after Mao Tse-tung came to power in 1949. But relations picked up after that didn't happen.

Fifty-seven people reportedly still have property claims not covered by bilateral treaties, which, theoretically, they could pursue. But most of those in their 70s and 80s who have recently returned say they can't be bothered.

"What's past is past," says Harbin-born Bernard Darel, 75, an import-export businessman now living in Tel Aviv whose family's button factory and apartment were taken over by the Communists in 1949. "It's a long time ago, a long way to Tipperary."

For most of the prosperous returnees, who were bantering in Russian, English and Hebrew, the real draw was the chance to catch up with long-lost friends and relive memories of what many see as a golden era.

For Esther and Paul Agran, Harbin is more than a hometown – it's the birthplace of their lifelong romance. Esther was popular and good-looking, from a wealthy family that owned a cosmetics factory just behind the synagogue. "In school she was unreachable," Paul recalls. "I didn't think I had a chance."

One cold November day, however, she came to his uncle's fur shop, and their eyes met. In a few months, they were married in a gala wedding with 400 guests.

"She had great legs in those days," says Paul, 82, looking at a black-and-white photo. "Hey, she still has great legs today."

On one rainy evening during the group's weeklong stay, Jack Lieberman weaves across Harbin's torn-up Tongjiang Street past head-high piles of sand and dirt and into a hulking, 70-year-old building housing a rail car manufacturer.

"What are you doing? This is a business!" a rattled security guard barks as Lieberman leads a stream of visitors past him.

It is anything but that to the group of foreigners from Israel, the U.S., Canada, Australia and other faraway places. They try to ignore the chipped green paint and harsh lights as they remake the interior in their minds.

"This was our synagogue," Lieberman says. "The men sat there. The women were up in the balcony there. The ark would have been up there, at the end and to the right," he says, referring to the place where the temple's Torah was kept. "It was a really beautiful place."

As he reminisces, Teddy Kaufman, an 80-year-old Harbin-born Israeli and an impetus to bringing the group together, walks by.

"Were these pictures originally here?" someone asks Kaufman, pointing at a dusty mural of bears cavorting in the wild. "There are no pictures in a synagogue," Kaufman responds emphatically, "especially none of bears."

Amid the grime and exposed wiring are hints of the building's former splendor. A once-grand chandelier still hangs in the entryway, its graceful, cut-crystal arcs now brown with smoke and stains. Worked into the window grilles and chipped floor are images of the Star of David.

"This was the second synagogue in town," says Paul Conway, 58, now a resident of Australia. "That's because Jews always have to say, 'Oh, that other synagogue, I wouldn't be caught dead there.'"

Across the street is a former mosque, a testament to a time when, at least in Harbin, the two communities coexisted peacefully.

"My father was Russian and Tatar, a Muslim, and my mother was Jewish," says Mara Moustafine, 50, who was 4 when the family immigrated to Australia in 1959, one of the last to leave. "That's the kind of city it was."

Harbin managed to prosper through much of the early 20th century under ever-changing authority. Czarist Russia, Nationalist China, imperial Japan, Soviet Russia and Communist China exerted control over this strategic, resource-rich area in the midst of the three countries. In general, most of the governments were relatively tolerant, even encouraging, of the Jewish enclave into the 1940s.

That changed after the Communists came to power.

"Rapid changes in China made it difficult to continue living here," says Xu Xin, a professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing University. "There was a huge exodus through the early 1950s."

For David Udovitch, 84, it came down to soup and labor unions. The former owner of a paint factory in Harbin recalls returning home from work in 1953 and learning that a union representative had stopped by, looked in the family's soup pot and asked why they were eating meat when workers hadn't had any in months.

"That's when I knew it was time to leave," he says, standing near his mother's grave in the Jewish cemetery.

A few hundred Jews, mostly those too old to leave or lacking overseas sponsors, lingered for a decade, with the last one, an elderly woman, reportedly dying in the mid-1960s.

Many are in the graveyard, moved to the outskirts of town in 1958. For the local government, the cemetery and the memories it holds are a potential gold mine, starting with tourism, it hopes, then spreading to trade and investment.

Many who left formed social groups in their new homes to help one another. Over the years, most retained strong emotional ties to China even though their lives in Harbin were often quite insulated from Chinese society.

"We were kosher, so I never even tried Chinese food until I was 17," says Leana Leibovitch, 81, who looked for her old house but learned that it had been demolished sometime after her 1948 departure for Australia. "Now, of course, I love it."

Kaufman, since the early 1970s the leader of the Tel Aviv-based Assn. of Former Residents of China, took the lead in arranging the rapprochement. When he approached Harbin's leaders in 1992 about building links, he recalls, they didn't even know what a synagogue was, let alone that there once were two of them in the city.

"For them, history started with the Communist revolution in 1949," he says. "They'd thrown away the pages" of history.

He got their attention on a return trip two years later by pointing out that Harbin lagged far behind Shanghai and Beijing, where foreigners were welcomed with more open arms and minds.

A trip to Israel by local officials a few years later – and the promise of Israeli aid for reconstruction to keep Jewish history alive – made them even more receptive.

"They're quite open about it – getting the rich Jews to invest," says Moustafine, author of "Secrets and Spies: The Harbin File," a book about her family's experiences.

"My view is, if we can preserve the buildings and get China to open up the archives while former residents are still alive, it's all for the good."

Now the government is on board from the top of Heilongjiang province on down, with Gov. Zhang Zuoyi welcoming returnees with a call to invest and set up joint ventures.

"Sure, it's public relations. Everyone understands that," Kaufman says. "The mention of rich Jews isn't meant as an insult. Many people in Asia think all Jews are smart and rich – and if you're rich, you must be a Jew."

There are limited signs that the Harbin strategy is paying dividends.

"I need to buy four or five containers of blankets, a few containers of diapers and I'm interested in buying some coal," Tel Aviv resident Darel, sporting a lapel pin with entwined Chinese and Israeli flags, tells his Chinese hosts.

"I don't need to do business here," he adds later. "In a lot of ways, it's easier in Guangzhou. But my memories are very good, and I feel like doing it because it's the old hometown."

(Magnier was recently on assignment in Harbin. Lijin Yin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.)

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.