Rabbi Sees Mixed Blessing
Power vacuum may rekindle anti-Semitism, says Moses Rosen; danger signs in E. Europe. POST-CEAUCESCU ROMANIA
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA — FOR most Romanians, the overthrow of hated despot Nicolae Ceausescu was a cause for rejoicing. But for Moses Rosen, Romania's chief rabbi, the event evoked mixed feelings. ``I fear a vacuum of power,'' the 77-year-old rabbi told the Monitor. ``More often than not, Jews are the victim.''
Throughout Eastern Europe, Jews are wary about the anticommunist revolution. Like Rabbi Rosen, they fear that lifting the lid of totalitarianism could result not just in a new enthusiasm for liberal democracy, but also in a wave of xenophobic nationalism - and anti-Semitism.
Danger signs already have appeared:
When Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland's first noncommunist prime minister, took office in September, his first major test came over the controversial Carmelite nunnery at the Auschwitz death camp. After Jews criticized the presence of the nuns, Cardinal Josef Glemp, the Polish primate, caused an international scandal, criticizing Jews for putting themselves above other people and controlling the news media. (The nunnery is set to be moved.)
In Hungary, where the largest East European Jewish community lives, anti-Semitism is a major topic in the present election campaign. A nationalist opposition party has accused Jews of playing too prominent a role in the old Communist Party and in the new liberal democratic movement.
In East Germany, the revival of a neo-Nazi movement along with mounting public anger against the ruling Communists has the country's small Jewish community worried. ``I'm scared; you begin to attack the communists,'' says Irene Runge, a Jewish leader, ``and you could end up with the Jews.''
These examples explain the anxiety of Rosen and his 20,000-member Romanian Jewish community. Before Romania became Communist, the fascist Iron Guard movement carried out anti-Jewish pogroms here. Rising right-wing nationalism, visible among the budding opposition parties, particularly among the revived National Peasants Party, could once again turn against Jews.
``I look at the Peasant Party with great fear,'' Rosen says. ``We must remember that democracy is weak in Romania, that the fascists could return.''
Romania's Jews may be vulnerable for another reason: their long collaboration with the Ceausescu regime. Over the years, Rosen picked up the nickname ``Red Rabbi'' for his willingness to work with the former dictator.
In his own defense, Rosen argues that his actions won the right for hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate to Israel. In Israel, Romanian Jews make up the largest foreign-born group after Moroccans. While all other East-bloc countries broke relations with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, Romania kept its ties with the Jewish state. Ceausescu even saw himself as something of an ``honest broker'' between Israel and its Arab enemies.
Jews who stayed behind in Romania, meanwhile, were protected. While aid programs sponsored by Western Jews were shut down elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the programs were allowed to fund numerous activities in Romania. Jews enjoy their own nursing home, kosher restaurant, full freedom of culture.
``If I had to deal with Hitler to save Jews, I would deal with Hitler,'' Rosen says. ``Ceausescu wasn't my friend, but we had to deal with him.''
``Dealing'' meant ignoring the regime's most glaring human rights abuses and lobbying abroad for Ceausescu. Rosen became Romania's true ``ambassador'' in Washington. For almost three decades, he has come every year to the United States to plead for continuation of most-favored-nation trading status for Romania.
He was successful in convincing American Jews to back him. The American Joint Distribution Committee now spends $4 million a year in Romania, more than in any other single country.
``Rabbi Rosen has walked a tightrope,'' explains Zvi Feine, director of the American Joint Distribution Committee Office for Romania. ``He has been put in a difficult, difficult situation and what he has accomplished for this community has been incredible.''
The cold, calculating, tightrope-walking diplomat-politician-rabbi was born in the little Bukovian town of Suceava. His small, plump figure camouflages a man of remarkable energy. His long white beard of an orthodox Jew hides a man of considerable secular knowledge who speaks numerous languages and is comfortable in the modern world.
Before taking up rabbinical studies, he trained as a lawyer. After experiencing firsthand a violent anti-Jewish pogrom in Suceava in 1940, he moved to Bucharest. There he barely escaped another pogrom by hiding in a synagogue.
He became chief rabbi in 1947. Under pressure from the regime, he joined the Communist-front Peace Committee and endorsed the party line in its attacks on ``Western imperialism.'' But he resisted pressure to condemn the new state of Israel.
During the Stalinist anti-Zionist purges, police placed him under virtual house arrest. His phone was tapped. Unless he relented and criticized Israel, police warned him of ``serious personal consequences.'' He tried to resign. ``No one resigns in Romania,'' the police warned him. ``He disappears.''
After Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, Rosen received his first concessions on emigration. He also was able to begin to repair synagogues, establish a Jewish museum, and start a bimonthly Jewish review.
``Stalin's death saved me,'' he says. ``I asked myself: Was I foolish to try and work with such people? But there was no choice.''
In the age of glasnost (openness), some Jews here feel that the need for such Realpolitik may have passed. Another type of leader, a man of unchallenged principle and morality, may be needed to guide the community into the post-communist age.
``Rosen's a product of another era,'' argues Eitan Ben-David, an Israeli journalist based in Bucharest. ``Someone new is needed, somebody without any ties to Ceausescu.''
But most criticism of the ``Red Rabbi'' is muted. The venerable leader, many community members say, has guided them through difficult waters before, and only he can do it again.
``The rabbi has done so much good for Jews,'' says Martin Weisman, a community member. ``I doubt there will be a revolt against him, and in any case, I don't see any possible successors.''
Rosen himself says he would have liked to step down long ago. When he declared his readiness to leave Romania permanently, however, he discovered that there was nobody to step in. Almost two-thirds of the Jewish community is more than 50 years old. Most young people leave for Israel. Three decades ago, there were 300 rabbis. Today, there only are three. choOnce, Rosen says, he sent a potential successor to France for rabbinical training, only to see him settle there. to here
Besides, ``what crazy man would want to come here and take over this community?'' he asks.