Monday, December 3, 2007

Feud over Jewish cemeteries in Romania creates strange bedfellows
By Anshel Pfeffer

Activists from Romanian fringe ultra-Orthodox groups have joined forces with local anti-Semites in a bid to take over Jewish graveyards in Romania, the leadership of the country's Jewish community told Haaretz.

According to the Jewish leaders, ultra-Orthodox groups such as the anti-Zionist Satmar sect are cooperating with Romanian legislator Corneliu Vadim Tudor to make financial gains from ownership of the country's 804 Jewish cemeteries.

According to a government decree from 2002, the cemeteries' guardian and owner is the federation of Romanian Jews. The federation says many graveyards have large areas that have never seen Jewish bodies. These areas, the federation explains, are comprised of prepaid plots that have never been used.

Moreover, 700 of the cemeteries are in towns which no longer have Jewish populations, and so the unused land could be sold. The first alleged signs of the "takeover" came in 2004, according to the Jewish community's leaders.

That's when the New York-based ultra-Orthodox businessman David Kahan started publishing ads in local papers in which he accused the heads of the Jewish community of bartering land that belonged to cemeteries.

The leaders of Romania's Jewish community deny these allegations. "Every time we touched any part of a cemetery, we did so after consulting with prominent rabbis from Israel, like Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu," says Romania's chief rabbi and former MK Menachem Cohen. "All the works in cemeteries were carried out under strict supervision by teams of ultra-Orthodox rabbis from Israel."

Cohen conceded there had been land sales of former cemetery territory, but added all the profits went to a dedicative collective fund for payment for maintenance services around gravesites. Cohen said the funds also went to renovating synagogues and paying for medical services for elderly Jews.

Kahan, who called these transactions shady, did so as the head of "the Union of Romanian-American Jews" - an organization registered under his name that was formed in 1998. The heads of the local Jewish community say this association is a one-man show and a front that Kahan allegedly used to promote his businesses.

Local leaders in the Romanian Jewish community point to two other organizations registered to Kahan's name in the U.S. Both the organizations - called "the Federation of Orthodox Jewish-Romanian communities" and "the Rabbinical Council of Orthodox Jewish-Romanian communities" - are a sham, they say.

In parallel, Kahan is said to be engaged in efforts to pass new legislation on Jewish cemeteries. The leaders of the Jewish community accuse him of siding with Tudor, leader of the Greater Romania Party, who is known for his strongly nationalist and anti-Semitic views and Holocaust denial.

In 2004, Tudor denounced certain earlier statements he had made as inappropriately anti-Semitic and acknowledged that the Holocaust had occurred. Tudor supported a bill to end the Jewish community's control over cemeteries. The bill's first reading passed, but it was eventually voted down.

Recently, the daily newspaper Maariv ran an article that said the heads of Romania's Jewish community were dealing in land that belonged to the cemeteries and that they were entrusted to keep. Aurel Weiner, president of Romania's Jewish Federation, says the article was untrue and constituted a part of Kahan's efforts to influence public opinion.

Kahan, for his part, says the Jewish Federation is attempting to vilify him because they are trying to preserve their hold on the cemeteries. "The Romanian government has abandoned its duties in that field, and the Jewish organizations are unable to take care of the gravesites," he told Haaretz.

"The Jewish Federation has taken the cemeteries and turned them into a profitable racket," he says. Kahan confirmed to Haaretz that the Satmar sect is involved in efforts to change the current legislation on cemeteries. "They hail from Romania and, unlike the large Jewish organizations, they really care about the graveyards and about their ancestors who are buried there."

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