Europes Jews need support, ADLs envoy says here

As the Jewish community becomes more visible in Central and Eastern Europe, the Anti-Defamation League fears a resurgence of anti-Semitism.

That's why the ADL opened its first European office last August in Vienna.

"The ADL has to support the Jewish community because they are coming out of the closet and they have a new identity," said Marta Halpert, director of the ADL's new two-person office.

A former journalist, Halpert was in San Francisco recently to discuss ADL's European operations.

"There was no advantage to being openly Jewish during communism," she said. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, "there's a reborn Jewish identity.

"It's great that Jews still want to live in East Europe. They have their culture there. There are now Jewish schools and people are not afraid to go to them. Why should they leave now?" said Halpert, a native of Hungary. "You can't minimize how hopeful things are in Europe."

Following World War II, the majority of Jews who were not killed in the Holocaust left Central and East Europe for Israel, the United States and other countries.

According to Halpert, Jews who remained kept a low profile until communism crumbled.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Eastern Europe was initially in a state of euphoria. But the ensuing political, economic and social upheavals have been sobering.

Incidents of blatant hostility toward Jews and other minority groups, including Albanians and Gypsies, have troubled the ADL, which is dedicated to combating bigotry.

Halpert said the goal of the ADL — which has 33 offices worldwide — is for European Jews to live securely, rather than be forced to emigrate.

"If Jews have to go to Israel, then we fulfill Hitler's wish to  make Europe Judenrein [Jew-free]. We are rendering him a victory, however belated," she added.

The ADL office will serve the growing Jewish populations in such countries as Austria, Romania, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Before, reports of anti-Semitic incidents had to go through the Jerusalem or the New York office.

"We are reachable now," said Halpert. "It means people in these countries can get on a train or bus and come to Vienna and get some assistance. The most important thing is to give people the feeling that they are not being left on their own, which they were for a long time."

Of greatest concern at the ADL's Vienna office is rising hate crimes and xenophobia on the Internet and in the media. The organization is working with law enforcement and educational institutions to increase awareness of anti-Semitism and improve sensitivity toward minorities.

The ADL's role involves more than pointing a finger at discrimination, said Halpert. "We have to offer solutions. While we are playing the watchdog, at the same time, we say, `Let's take care of this together.' We offer training and alternatives and help them adapt programs to get them on their way to a civil society."

The city of Vienna has been enthusiastic about the new ADL operation, providing office space at minimal rent.

Meanwhile, the ADL branch is being underwritten in its first three years by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, a major funder of Jewish schools and educational projects in Central and Eastern Europe. Lauder is an heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetic company.

Not everyone in Europe endorses the ADL's efforts. Many view the organization as alarmist. For instance, when an article in a German publication on Scientology identified several followers as "former Jews," Halpert took umbrage. In the same piece, the writer didn't classify non-Jewish followers, such as Tom Cruise, as "former Christians."

"I spoke to the writer and he didn't understand why I objected," she said.

While such subtleties may have been lost on the writer, Halpert said it's the ADL's job "to react and not leave anything unheard or unseen. It's not paranoid. When is it soon enough to make people sensitive to things? Is it enough when they say `former Jew,' or do you wait until there's blood running down a Jew's face?"

Halpert, a reporter for 25 years, has written about Central and Eastern European politics and culture for the Jerusalem Post, Newsweek and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. She joined the ADL partly because she grew frustrated with the limitations of reporting. She wanted to effect change.

"I would interview a lot of people who were endangering their lives just by talking to me," she said. "I would leave them with little hope. Sometimes I thought that it would be great if I could do something to help."

On a recent case, Halpert has been able to do more than file a report. She and her assistant Laurie Cohen, a native San Franciscan, have been following up on the murder of a 29-year-old Jewish mother of four who was drowned in a river in the Czech Republic by three skinheads.

"They were caught because there was a witness who happened to be a journalist," said Halpert. "The skinheads didn't run away after they did it. They were just standing there looking at what they did as if it was a joke.

"If the murder had happened a few years ago, nobody would have known," said Halpert. "Now, it's not only on CNN but everything is on a platter now. Things cannot be covered up."