Sunday, September 1, 2013

Restitution and Renewal

My drash at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, NJ, this Shabbat ...

Shabbat shalom.

So, there I was, about a year ago, in downtown Vilnius, Lithuania.
And I was standing with a small group in a communal building courtyard.
Around us were several huge apartment buildings, several hundred apartments in all. Nearly all owned before the war by Jews. Now all owned by Lithuanians.

We had a Lithuanian-Jewish tour guide who, uniquely for most Lithuanian Jews actually spoke Lithuanian as his mother-tongue and not Russian.
And it was particularly useful to have a Lithuanian-speaker with us, to translate those interesting moments that otherwise we may have missed.

For example, standing in that courtyard, we noticed two fourth-floor windows opening on each end of the courtyard. Two neighbors shouting hello to each other, some forty feet above us.
And looking down on this small group of American Jews, they waved to us.
And what did they say to each other?
Our guide translated: “Look,” said one to the other. “The Jews are here, coming to take back your apartment.”

It took me a few minutes to realize the history behind that comment.
The Jews are here. Coming to take back your apartment.

So that was Lithuania.

And a couple of weeks ago, I visited the Hungarian Jewish community. I’ve been there before. I seem to find myself at least six or seven times a year in currently communist or former communist dictatorships.
And in Hungary I found an interesting continuation of that Lithuanian story.

In 2010 the opposition center-right party – Fidesz - received 53% of the vote. But because of the electoral system they got 2/3 of the seats in the Hungarian Parliament.

Here’s where it got interesting: the Constitution allowed for a 2/3 majority in parliament to make changes – but no one ever thought that one party would receive that kind of a majority.
And they have made good use – or bad use – of that majority. They have changed the courts, the constitution, the election system. All of this in ways that smack of corruption, nepotism and one-party dictatorship.

What frightened everyone at the time wasn’t the massive 2/3 Fidesz victory – even though it should have. Instead, what frightened people was the surprising rise of the far-right Jobbik party, which succeeded on a xenophobic and racist platform in gaining 17 per cent of the vote.

And on the surface, being afraid of the far-right party seemed like a legitimate conclusion.
Jobbik excelled in making scapegoats out of Jews and Roma – what we used to call Gypsies.

One of the reasons that the far-right in Hungary is so much more viciously anti-Semitic than its counterparts in other European countries is that there’s no real Moslem presence in Hungary.
But there are some 120,000 Jews and maybe 700,000 Roma.
So Jews and Roma are basically the only visible and identifiable minorities in Hungary.

And if you live in a country like Hungary, with high unemployment, almost zero economic growth, and a traditional tendency to blame your troubles on others … then the Jews and the Roma are perfect for your needs.

There was a famous case last winter where one of the heads of the Jobbik party, Marton Gyongyosy, stood up in Parliament and said ‘now is the time to make a list of all those Hungarian Jews who are too loyal to Israel and not loyal enough to Hungary.’

It’s important to note that the issue of lists for the Hungarian Jewish community is particularly sensitive.
The Shoah, the Holocaust, in Hungary only lasted six weeks.

From May to July 1944, the Nazis rounded up hundreds of thousands of Jews and sent them to Auschwitz.
A Hungarian Jew living in the countryside in 1944 had less than a ten percent chance of surviving the following 12 months.

And how did they succeed in killing so many, so fast?
They took the lists of Jews from the Jewish community. Which is why the issue of lists is so sensitive.

So the problem last year wasn’t so much the noise of a few far-right fascists in Partliament who called for a list of Jews.
The problem was that the 2/3 majority government party said nothing.

And the reason for that is, in some ways, the real challenge ahead of us.

For Hungarian Jews, the Soviets were liberators in 1944.
When the Soviet Red Army overthrew the Nazi regime, Hungarian Jews were quite literally saved by the Soviet Union.
Without question.

But for most Hungarians, who weren’t affected by the Shoah or by Nazi repression, the opposite was the case: the Soviets were evil foreign invaders, and clearly unwelcome.

So … in a case like this, when the issue of reparations – the restitution of stolen property from the Jewish community comes up, there are two layers to the conversation.

Because: in many cases the government is working to restitute property that was stolen from Hungarians by the Soviets.
This was property that was “nationalized” and stolen from Hungarians.
But … some of these same Hungarian “victims” were themselves the beneficiaries of the same property that was “aryanized” maybe ten or twenty years earlier when it was stolen from Jews.

And sometimes they themselves were the ones who stole it from those Jews!

So …let’s review:
A significant number of Hungarians supported the Nazis. They saw the Soviet occupation as unwelcome. The Jews, on the other hand, saw the Soviets as liberators and life-savers.
So … there's an actual debate in Hungarian society on whether fascist rule and communist rule were essentially “the same” in terms of their moral depravity.

I was walking through a museum in Budapest and looking at some really shocking attempts to make a direct equivalence between German Nazi rule and Russian Communist rule. Particularly striking was a rotating set of two bodies, in fascist and Communist uniforms, meant to show how similar they were.
It was particularly graphic.
And completely unjustified.

It’s perfectly ok to insist that there were atrocities committed by the Communists, and to say that the lack of respect for human life in Communist times was appallingly low.
There were atrocities, and there wasn’t enough respect for human life.
But to jump from there to say that, essentially, there was no difference between the Fascists and the Communists, is too far.
To jump even further, and claim that Hungary was the victim of foreign occupation is also morally unacceptable. It ignores the dedication and enthusiasm of so many Hungarians from the right and left to turn to evil.
And it helps you understand, I think, why there is a tendency in some of these countries to feel that they have no personal or national responsibility for what happened.
Why, for example, they aren’t standing up against a small fascist growth in Parliament to stand up for minority rights.
And this is happening far too much around Europe today.

Because what you have here is a sleight of hand.
First you equate Fascism with Communism, and then you say that both are foreign intrusions.
Hungary has no responsibility.
Lithuania had nothing to do with it.
Austria was innocent.

This is the challenge that the organized Jewish community faces today.
If the Holocaust Death Camp is “the same as” the Communist Gulag  - then there’s not only a moral failure here, there’s also never going to be a genuine move to full reparation of stolen Jewish property and a decent reckoning with their past and responsibility.

And why is this still so important today?
Because there’s a very clear and – when you think about it – a very obvious – reason for why so many Jewish communities are so weak and so under-developed.
It’s because they had everything stolen from them.
By the Nazis and by the Communists.

And once you start restituting that property, bringing it back to the community – then you can start to see the beginnings of revitalization.
Because you can renovate restituted property, and turn it, for example, into rental apartments or gyms or retail stores.

And with the monthly income you can start to build community centers, and leadership programs, and send kids to summer camp and Sunday school.

But only if you get that first step started.
So, therefore ... two conclusions:

First, sometimes the enemy of democracy isn’t always what it appears to be.
Sometimes it can be much stealthier and quieter than what you’d expect.
Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.

And second, the weight of history can be so burdensome, so awful, that it will take us a very long time to recover, and correct the evils of the past.

But we know how to get there.

Thank you.
Shabbat shalom.

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