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In 2012, a politician who denied that Jews had suffered in Romania during the Holocaust was appointed to a ministerial post despite protests by Jewish groups. The politician, Dan Sova, later apologized and said his statement was the result of ignorance.
A few months later, a Romanian member of the European Parliament denied the Holocaust on television. The following year, a prominent historian said it was a “huge lie” that large numbers of Jews were killed in areas under Romania control during the Holocaust, leading to his firing from a teaching post at a German university. And last month, a Romanian state television channel was fined for broadcasting a Christmas carol celebrating the burning of Jews.
Romania has paid a price internationally for the incidents.
The United States and Israel condemned the Christmas carol episode. And last year, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee cited Romania’s supposed refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the killings of Ukrainian Jews in opposing its bid to chair the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a consortium of some 30 countries including the U.S. and Israel.
One Ukrainian Jewish Committee official told JTA in October that the objection might evaporate were Romania to donate money to support Ukrainian Jewish causes. The American Jewish Committee supports Romania’s bid.
In the interview, Basescu made no attempt to minimize the problem.
“Mistakes are still being made in statements and declarations today and must be criticized in a much stronger way than praises about the positive developments,” Basescu said. “The positive developments are normal, they must be done. But the errors, especially by politicians, must be stigmatized.”
But Basescu’s own record with racism is not immaculate. He has apologized repeatedly for a 2007 incident in which he was heard on tape calling an aggressive journalist a “stinking gypsy.” In the interview, Basescu makes a point of noting that his commemoration efforts are also for “that other minority affected in the Holocaust, the Roma.”
On restitution, Romania’s record also is not without blemish. The country has given the local Jewish community the equivalent of $33 million in cash and stock, a sum that represents a fraction of the hundreds of millions in assets stolen from the Jewish community that the state has promised to return.
“Over the past year, there has been a slowdown in restitution connected to economic problems in Romania,” said Nachliel Dison, the acting director general of the World Jewish Restitution Organization. “So the government is giving us the runaround, bogging down the process in court and negotiations to reduce the payment due.”
Basescu said his country may have been overly confident when it undertook restitution obligations just prior to a real-estate market crash in the first quarter of 2013. But the Romanian leader said he remains committed to returning actual confiscated property – not a monetary substitute – but perhaps only once the economy recovers a little.
“It is an extremely difficult process,” Basescu said, “but it is our ambition to apply this principle.”
Despite low unemployment figures, Romania is one of the European Union’s poorest members and suffers from a drain of skilled labor. One way of improving the economy, Basescu said, is through trade with Israel, an exchange that last year reached $400 million.
On the Israel trip, Basescu said he hoped to consolidate Romania’s ties to Israel, particularly in scientific fields, and connect to the 500,000 Romanian speakers in Israel – one of the largest Romanian Diasporas in the world.
Some of them are childhood friends who visited with Basescu in 2009 during his last presidential visit.
“They come to see me at the hotel,” Basescu said, “and we catch up.”