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GELT COMPLEX: Funds End Strange Trip, ADL Still in Hot Water, Living on a $21 a Week, Peacenik Internship

Funds End Strange Trip

In 1921, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped to establish a bank in Vilnius, Lithuania, to assist local Jewish communities reeling from World War I. Now, the JDC is in the unusual position of assisting the remaining Jews of Lithuania with accounts recovered from the bank it helped to establish 86 years ago.

The long-dormant Lithuanian Jewish bank accounts — said to be in the five-figure range — took a strange journey through the chaos of the Nazi occupation and, mysteriously, into the hands of Citibank. Citibank discovered the accounts –several years ago and, with the help of the JDC and New York’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office, tried in vain to locate a successor to the bank. They did not find one, but they did find the bank’s spiritual heir: The Foundation for the Lithuanian Jewish Heritage, established, like its forefather, by the JDC.

Today, as before, the JDC is one of the major sponsors of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Its new foundation exists, for now, only on paper. It was established as part of the JDC’s efforts to work with the Lithuanian government on restitution of Jewish communal property. (Most communal property is not provided for under current Lithuanian restitution law.)

If Lithuania passes the necessary legislation, the foundation will become active and will receive Citibank’s mystery accounts. If not, the accounts will be transferred to the Lithuanian Jewish community — which numbers around 6,000 — under different auspices. For now, the JDC is holding the accounts in escrow.

— Marissa Brostoff

ADL Still in Hot Water

Though it acknowledged last month that World War I-era massacres of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks were “tantamount to genocide,” the Anti-Defamation League, which long steered clear of using the word genocide in connection with the Armenians, continues to draw fire from a number of quarters for not endorsing a congressional resolution recognizing atrocities committed against the Armenians.

“It’s progress,” said Elizabeth Chouldjian, communications director of the Armenian National Committee of America, of the ADL’s August reversal, “but more needs to be done — and that certainly includes congressional reaffirmation of this crime against humanity.”

The ADL changed course last month after the town council of the Boston suburb of Watertown voted to sever ties with an anti-bigotry program sponsored by the ADL. In the weeks since the ADL’s reversal, still more Massachusetts towns have voted to reassess their ties to the ADL.

Voices from Massachusetts were echoed this week by a representative of Armenia’s Jewish community. In a letter reportedly sent to the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, a leader of the few hundred person community lamented the ADL’s refusal to endorse the congressional resolution.

The ADL has also continued to draw barbs from writers at the blog, which last Thursday night staged a protest outside the 92nd Street Y in New York while Foxman sat onstage inside discussing antisemitism with Clinton adviser Stuart Eizenstat.

The future of the Armenian Genocide bill now before Congress is uncertain. The resolution has 225 co-sponsors, enough to ensure passage, said Chouldjian, but its fate is ultimately in the hands of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The ADL and a number of other mainstream Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee, have declined to endorse the legislation, largely due to a fear of offending Turkey.

At the same time, a wide and unlikely coalition of Jewish organizations has signed on in support of the congressional bill, including the dovish Americans for Peace Now and the hawkish Zionist Organization of America.

— Gabriel Sanders

Living on a $21 a Week

Jewish communal executives and non-Jewish politicians will spend the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur living on a budget that would barely cover the price of an appetizer at a power lunch.

To kick off a yearlong initiative on poverty, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs is enlisting people to live for a week on $21 — the national average for food stamps benefits.

Among those participating are heads of local Jewish federations and Jewish community relations councils, as well as several lawmakers, including the only Muslim member of Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat.

The poverty issue has essentially fallen off the radar screen for much of the Jewish community, said the JCPA’s executive director, Rabbi Steve Gutow.

“We are no longer connected to the communities from which the poor usually come,” Gutow said. “We’re not as close to the Hispanic community or the African American community, and we need to re-galvanize that.”

Between 8% and 9% of American Jews live below the poverty line, which in 2006 was $16,079 for a family of three and $20,614 for a family of four. According to numbers culled from the 2006 census by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 12.3% of Americans live below the poverty line.

For his $21, Gutow said he would be subsiding in part on an inexpensive Moroccan dish called majadera, made of rice, lentils and fried onions.

“You can forget about Whole Foods,” he said.


Peacenik Internship

A new internship program in Washington aims to recruit those most elusive students of Middle East politics: ones who care passionately about the fate of Israel and Palestine but are not lodged firmly in a political camp.

Americans for Peace Now and the American Task Force on Palestine have established Partners for Peace, a joint internship that will require interns to travel back and forth between the organizations, which are both ideologically and geographically close together.

Both Peace Now and ATFP advocate for what is popularly known as the “two-state solution.” The groups have worked together before, co-sponsoring events and co-writing an op-ed piece that ran in the Boston Globe. This summer, the two organizations teamed up with the Middle East Institute to organize a series of programs for foreign policy interns around the city. Partners for Peace grew out of the enthusiasm that the collaboration generated.

“We want interns to interact with people from different backgrounds who are working toward the same goal,” said Rafi Dajani, executive director of ATFP.

Noam Shelef, a director at Peace Now, emphasized the importance of symmetrical leadership in ensuring that cooperation between communities — say, Jewish Americans and Arab Americans — is more than just nominal.

“[Peace Now] couldn’t do a project like this alone, and neither could ATFP,” Shelef said.

— Marissa Brostoff

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