NATO and the Jewish Question

To gain admission to the alliance, Eastern European countries have had to pay recognition to the Holocaust. Some critics see their steps as mere lip service.

Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg

After discussions and debates for nearly the entire 12 years since the fall of the Communist bloc, several Eastern Europe countries have recently made important decisions concerning their attitude toward the Holocaust and, more especially on such sensitive subjects as Nazi collaborators and the return of plundered Jewish property.

For example, the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) established commissions of inquiry to probe the issue of collaboration during the period of the Holocaust. The rehabilitation processes under way vis-?-vis war criminals, based on the concept that collaborators were patriots who fought together with the Nazis against the Communist regime, were halted. The three countries also decided on holding an annual day of commemoration marking the Holocaust.

Some of the events took place in the past year. Lithuania agreed - again, following discussions that went on for years - to hand over 300 Torah scrolls and other sacred volumes to Jewish representatives in January 2002. In a well-publicized event, a delegation from Israel, headed by Rabbi Michael Melchior, then deputy foreign minister, arrived in Lithuania aboard a special flight to take possession of the books.

Romania, for its part, has begun to remove statues and street signs that perpetuated the memory of Marshal Ion Antonescu, the Fascist ruler who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

Slovakia has established a compensation fund for looted Jewish property that was looted though Jewish organizations were scathingly critical of the minuscule size of the fund (only $19 million).

It was no coincidence that all these events took place in the past year. They were closely connected to another historic event in 2002: the special meeting of the NATO member-countries in Prague, in November, which decided to accept seven new members from Eastern Europe into the alliance. Prominent on this list were the Baltic states, Romania and Slovakia, as well as Bulgaria and Slovenia. (Three years earlier, in 1999, NATO accepted three other countries from the former Communist bloc, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, whose level of Westernization was greater than that of the others.

While the admission of the seven new members still requires ratification by the parliaments of the veteran NATO countries, Prague stood as a milestone for Eastern Europe in the process they have long coveted: the transition from the old Warsaw Pact, which signified their Communist partnership, toward the West.

Hollow apologies

The "Jewish demands," nearly all of which had to do with the Holocaust, were part of the price exacted from the East European countries for entering NATO. Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish Affairs in the Office of Government and International Relations of the American Jewish Committee, who coordinated the Jewish lobby on this subject, explains, "Even though this is a security partnership, the terms of entry to NATO were not defined solely in security terms. After all, a country such as Lithuania does not have much to offer NATO from the military standpoint. The terms of entry were therefore defined at the civil level as well, in terms of a "partnership of values" - that is, in the direction of democracy and a free economy, including a "confrontation with the past," especially in the context of the Holocaust period. That includes education to heighten awareness of the Holocaust, combating anti-Semitism, putting a stop to the rehabilitation of war criminals and returning property, at least community property [referring to buildings that belonged to the Jewish communities, such as synagogues and ritual baths].

Baker was officially invited to monitor the progress being made in the reforms and to report on his findings at various forums convened to discuss the membership in NATO of the aspirant countries such as the Prague conference and a previous meeting in Bucharest in March 2002.

It is important to emphasize that even though the "Jewish terms" were formally put forward by all the NATO members, in practice the only country that took a substantive interest in this subject was the United States. The U.S. administration set the criterion of democratic values as one of the conditions for admission to NATO.

American ambassadors in Eastern European were instructed to monitor the development of democracy in general and, within that framework, "confrontation with the past," and some of them cooperated with Jewish representatives on this subject. In fact, subjects related to the return of property came up in political talks that U.S. President George Bush held with leaders of Eastern European countries, such as the president of Lithuania.

Clear proof of the American dominance on this issue can be found in the fact that in the parallel process - the admission of Eastern European countries to the European Union (in which the U.S. is not a member, of course) - no similar requirements were made: the criteria there focused on the economic sphere.

The spokesman of the EU representation in Israel, David Criff, explains this discrepancy by noting that the candidates for membership were required to accept the founding charters of the 15 member-states of the EU. "Because the restitution of Jewish property, for example, is not mentioned in those charters, the new members were not required to adopt commitments in that connection."

However, even in connection with NATO, some Jewish organizations maintain that the "Jewish terms" set for the Eastern European countries were not sufficiently serious. The requirements were not enforced in any meaningful way. Consequently, a historic opportunity was missed to induce the Eastern European countries to reform.

One official who holds this view is Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Israeli branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which specializes in hunting down Nazi war criminals and collaborators.

"A tremendous opportunity was lost here," says Zuroff. "The pressure on the countries in question was amorphous, which created an opening for responses that were not truly effective. Of course, no country that was a candidate for NATO membership failed to apologize publicly for the participation of its people in the annihilation of the Jews. But when it came to concrete activity, especially in areas in which public opinion in those countries is sensitive - such as property restitution or trying war criminals - hardly anything was done. It is incredible that there was not one serious trial of war criminals in any of the post-Soviet countries. The only post-Communist country that did hold a serious trial of this kind was Croatia, which, not coincidentally, was not under Soviet rule. In a high publicized trial there, Dinko Sakic [a commander of the Jasenovac concentration camp] received a 20-year prison term. Lithuania held two trials, but in both they meticulously delayed the proceedings until the defendants were no longer medically qualified to stand trial, so that in practice neither of them spent even one day in prison. The other countries did not even hold trials of this kind."

Zuroff cites events that occurred in Estonia last year to illustrate what he calls "hollow apologies": "Estonia did in fact establish a commission of historians to examine collaboration during the Holocaust. The commission reached the conclusion that Estonian soldiers collaborated in a mass killing of Jews in Belarus, but the Estonian media mobilized to refute the panel's finding. Estonia set an annual day of commemoration for the Holocaust, but surveys show that 93 percent of the public objects to this."

Empty gestures

Zuroff is especially critical of Rabbi Baker and the American Jewish Committee: "They adopted an extremely conciliatory policy toward the Eastern countries and made do with gestures of no value, such as apologies. In return, not only did they award these countries a prize of unequivocal support for their membership in NATO; they even volunteered to promote that process actively, at a press conference. Moreover, when I put forward unequivocal demands to place the war criminals on trial, I became the `enemy of the people' in the Baltic states. I was drawn with devil's horns, and a member of the Lithuanian parliament recommended that I be declared persona non grata. In the course of all this, Andrew Baker gave me no backing and said nothing about the attitude toward me, as a colleague."

Baker, for his part, says that we should look at what was achieved, despite everything: "Obviously, more could have been expected from each of the relevant countries, but from a historical perspective, we are definitely talking about progress, especially if we remember where these countries were at the beginning of the 1990s, when the Baltic states began rehabilitating war criminals who had been denounced in the period of Communist rule. Our aim was mainly to create a more positive atmosphere in those countries - toward the Jews, too - so that the communities living there in the present will feel at ease, and also in terms of the attitude of these countries toward Israel."

Baker is suggesting that the tangle of considerations and interests involved in this subject is far more complex than may appear: the Jewish communities in the Eastern European countries were not always enthusiastic about vociferous calls to settle outstanding scores from the past, for fear this would generate anti-Semitism and adversely affect their present situation. Similarly, the Israeli interest was not only on the side of the past: the distinctly American orientation that developed in Eastern Europe in the past decade, combined with hostility toward the Arab states, perceived as having been the allies of the Communist regime that collapsed, created a new situation in which Eastern Europe countries have become far more pro-Israeli than countries in Western Europe.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry was fearful of jeopardizing this development. The result, according to Zuroff, was that "apart from some rare statements - such as a forceful speech by Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur in the Lithuanian parliament [a speech that generated calls to have him also declared persona non grata and to expel him from the country], Israel mostly watched from the sidelines and let the U.S. and the Jewish organizations conduct the struggle."

That description is largely confirmed in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. Israel expressed support in principle for the demands that were put forward by the Jewish organizations, says a senior ministry official, but for the most part preferred to remain on the side and leave it to the organizations and to the local American ambassadors to ensure that the requirements were met.

At the same time, both Baker and the Foreign Ministry official say that in no case did Israel ask the Jewish organizations to moderate their demands so as not to anger the Eastern European countries.

The American interest was also complex. True, it was the Americans who from the outset stipulated the "moral" quotient as a criterion for admission to NATO, but they also had a deep interest in ensuring that the Eastern European countries join the alliance and thereby complete the process of joining the Western world. In addition, in a long-term consideration, the American orientation of these countries is important to Washington as a counterweight to the anti-American policy manifested by some Western European countries, as is now being demonstrated by the sharp opposition of France and Germany to a war in Iraq.

Still, an official in the Foreign Ministry has some reassuring things to say to those who, like Efraim Zuroff, are concerned that because of the tangle of interests, a historic opportunity was missed to right old wrongs. "In the conversations we held with the Americans," says the source, they raised the concern - which also came up in their talks with leaders in Eastern European countries - that too sharp a demand to `right the wrongs' would trigger an anti-Western and anti-American wave in these countries, and might even thwart their membership in NATO. On the other hand, we were promised that the very fact of their admission will not prevent the Americans from continuing to demand that the Eastern European countries fulfill the requirements in this sphere."

Some observers note that in another year-and-a-half, the admission process has to undergo ratification in all the parliaments of the NATO member-states as well as in the U.S. Senate, and it will then be possible to put forward reservations about the implementation of the requirements in the Jewish sphere. Even at that stage, however, the critics will have to overcome the interests and pressures for completing the process of Eastern European integration into the Western world and, as part of that process, to avoid steps liable to induce them to abandon their American orientation.