Jewish Roots Deepen Role For Albright
JERUSALEM — When Madeleine Albright arrived in town this week for her first visit as Secretary of State, Middle East leaders weren't the only ones eager to sit down and get acquainted.
Others were interested in meeting her on a more personal level - people like Haim Kurbel, her cousin who lives on a kibbutz a few hours north of Jerusalem, and whom she never knew.
But relatives and old friends who fled Ms. Albright's native Czechoslovakia for Israel were not included in the secretary's diplomatic peace mission.
"I think she wants to keep her private life out of the visit as much as possible and keep focused on peace process," said an Albright aide before her visit to Israel's museum memorializing the Holocaust, which killed three of Albright's grandparents.
But in the public eye, Albright's newfound knowledge of her Jewish ancestry - muted in her parents' generation as a way to escape persecution in Europe - keeps resurfacing as she grapples with the focus of US foreign policy: the Arab-Jewish conflict.
Israelis greeted Albright with a certain ambivalence. Would her roots make her partial to the Israeli side - and would that be for the best at a time when the Oslo accords lay in virtual ruin? Or would she try to prove her neutrality by heaping pressure on hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
Palestinians, for their part, felt as though their suspicions had been confirmed during the tone-setting first day of her mission. They viewed her single-issue agenda of security - demanding Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat crack down on Muslim militants but giving Netanyahu only gentle suggestions of what to do - as evidence that she was not about to treat the two sides equally.
In Israel, some newspaper columnists suggested Albright could use her office in the style of James Baker - who held her job under President Bush - to twist arms on both sides without being susceptible to complaints of anti-Semitism. The right-wing Women in Green tried to tug at her emotions with newspaper ads reading: "Hitler gassed and burned your grandparents and millions of others, because they were Jews. Arafat has the same virulent hatred of Jews!"
Another Israeli who would like to meet Albright is Avigdor Dagan, who worked with Albright's father when they fled to London after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. But Mr. Dagan says Albright's past doesn't mean she's expected to go easy on Netanyahu.
"I don't think we're asking for any preferential treatment," Dagan says. He thinks Israelis don't resent Albright for not looking into evidence about her Jewishness before Washington Post reporters did.
"Mainly, we don't understand it. We don't know how someone can be born a Jew and not be part of it," says Dagan, a retired Israeli ambassador.
Other Israelis say that even though she was raised Roman Catholic and later became Episcopalian, they still view her as Jewish.
"We're not interested in whether someone converts out of Judaism," says Rabbi Menachem Porush, who head the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael movement. "I'm only afraid that because she's a Jew, she will try to show the non-Jewish world what they want and will not go the way she is thinking about Israel and the Jewish people."
Palestinians say that she has already shown herself to be thinking about Israel first. After Albright visited with the wounded from last week's suicide bombings at a hospital, expressed support for Netanyahu's policy since that attack, and participated in an emotional wreath-laying ceremony at the Holocaust museum, Palestinians complain that she has put too much emphasis on understanding the pain of only one side.
"Madeleine Albright's statements were are very clearly geared towards addressing an Israeli audience, with total sympathy and identification," says Palestinian Cabinet minister Hanan Ashrawi. Supporters of Hamas, the Palestinian extremist group that took responsibility for the bombings, made a poster of Albright dressed as the Statue of Liberty wearing a Star of David around her neck and stabbing the Palestinians in the back.
But Albright's cousin dismissed the hubbub over the secretary's origins. "The Arabs would like to make this connection to say she's not objective, but she's rising above this thing and will resist such attempts," he says. "I hope she will succeed, and not because she's my relative. I really hope that there will be progress towards peace."