NEWS BRIEFS:

THE HOLOCAUST TAKES CENTER STAGE

A major international conference on the Holocaust convened in Stockholm in late January, with participants hoping to galvanize educational efforts about the extermination of two-thirds of European Jewry in World War II. The Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust closed with a declaration that the Holocaust "must be forever seared in our collective memory," and that nations "must uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it." The gathering came amid a number of related developments, including a prominent trial in London involving a notorious Holocaust-denier, several official inquiries by European states into their nations' darker role during the Holocaust, and the possible entry of an anti-foreigner, right-wing party into the ruling coalition in Austria.

On the positive side of the ledger, world leaders from 45 nations and leading Holocaust scholars attended the forum and pledged to redouble efforts to preserve the memory of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. European states like Switzerland, France, Poland and host Sweden are still grappling with their historic roles in cooperating with the Nazis and profiting from the death and disappearance of their Jewish populations. Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson - whose country implemented a successful program to educate youth on the horrors of the Shoah - hosted the conference and promised a thorough national review of traditionally-neutral Sweden's connections to Hitler's regime. The Czech republic and other governments are considering ways to return property seized from Jews during the Nazi era. Britain and other states are pledging to institute annual Holocaust remembrance days. After more than a decade of controversy, a national Holocaust Memorial site was dedicated in the heart of Berlin. Private German companies are agreeing to pay compensation for using Jews as slave laborers, and European insurance companies are (slowly) negotiating agreements to finally pay off claims of murdered Holocaust victims. Most of these efforts have been championed by Jewish organizations seeking restitution for Holocaust victims before the remaining few thousand pass away.

Meanwhile, on the down side, Latvia and Lithuania came under fire in Stockholm for "rewriting history," after they blamed the Nazis for recruiting Baltic collaborators, rather than admitting the voluntary involvement of many of their own citizens in the Nazi genocide. Jewish leaders also criticized their failure to prosecute even one of the many Nazi war criminals residing in their countries for decades. The conference also failed miserably to do address rampant anti-Semitism in the Arab/Muslim world, which was on full display as the conference ended in an editorial in the official Syrian paper TISHREEN. The government-controlled daily described the Holocaust as a myth, accusing Israel of exaggerating the extent of the Nazi slaughter of Jews to gain Western support and contain its opponents. The article took direct aim at the Stockholm gathering, and claimed: "Zionism is erasing from human memory 50 million Nazi victims and concentrating on the suffering of Jews, although historical facts prove that Zionism leaders then collaborated with the Nazis for the Jewish problem to get worse... Zionism hides these dark pages of its history, blackens them completely and invents stories about the Holocaust and exaggerates it to astronomical levels... Israel, which is presenting itself as heir to the victims of the Holocaust, committed and keeps on committing against the Arabs crimes that are uglier that the ones committed by the old Nazis." This comes from a regime in Damascus that has given shelter for decades to Alois Brunner, the most notorious Nazi war criminal still alive.

WILL HITLER BE FOUND GUILTY?

At the same time as the Stockholm conference, the Holocaust was put on trial in a high-profile libel case in London brought by Hitler apologist David Irving, a self-taught British historian, against Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, publisher of her 1994 book "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory." Irving charges in his lawsuit that Lipstadt has destroyed his reputation by labeling him a Holocaust denier and asserting that he promotes fraudulent and twisted accounts on the Holocaust in his books and lectures. The three-month trial is midway through, and the verdict could have a profound impact, positive or negative, on efforts to counter an upsurge in Holocaust denial and neo-Nazism. Many observers are worried that, since the burden of proof is on the defendant Lipstadt under British libel laws, the outcome may be a major setback for the Jewish people.

Irving says he does not deny the Holocaust, only that it has been exaggerated. He challenges the statistics and manner in which Jews died in concentration camps, conceding that while one million Eastern European Jews were shot by roving SS squads, there were no gas chambers which exterminated millions of others at Auschwitz and elsewhere. With extensive knowledge on the Third Reich, Irving also claims there is no evidence Hitler ordered the annihalation of Jews or that he even knew about it until 1943. Irving even suggests European Jewry was responsible for bringing the tragedy upon itself and accuses Jews today of cashing in on the Shoah. In Irving's own words: "I'm quite happy to say that Hitler had not the slightest interest in preserving the lives of the East European Jews."

Prof. Lipstadt, who has described Irving as a "Hitler partisan," is citing his written works and orations at neo-Nazi rallies - where he is a popular speaker - to defend her claims that he manipulates history and relies on discredited findings to present his case, in order to support his racist ideology. One leading British history professor testified in court that Irving does not deserve to be called an "historian" due to his "distortions and manipulations," while a noted British military historian subpoenaed by Irving himself described his views as "perverse."

NATIONS WALTZ OUT OF VIENNA OVER HAIDER

Meanwhile in Austria, a political stalemate after last October's elections was broken when the Conservative party formed a coalition government with the right-wing Freedom Party, lead by the controversial Joerg Haider. Haider - who once praised Hitler's employment policies and described veterans of the Waffen SS as "men of character" - ran a populist campaign against foreigners, raising concerns of a resurgence of anti-Semitism. Facing threats of diplomatic isolation, Austrian President Thomas Klestil relented anyway, after the Conservatives and Haider's party joined forces in a bid to further erode the reeling Social Democrats' 30-year hold on power. Klestil felt he had little choice but to obey the will of the people - the two parties hold 52 seats each in the 183-member parliament - but made Haider sign a statement renouncing the nation's Nazi past and promising to respect European values. Although he signed it, Haider denounced being forced to do so, saying "I have no intention to wander about in the world and apologize for all kinds of things.'' Haider also agreed to remain provincial governor in Carinthia, rather than seek a Cabinet position.

Nonetheless, Israel made good on its promise to indefinitely recall its Ambassador from Vienna and reassess relations with Austria. Fourteen members of the European Union suspended bilateral contacts with Vienna, and the US temporarily recalled its ambassador as well. Cultural and civic events scheduled to take place in Austria have been cancelled or are under review. A similar campaign backfired when Austrians elected Kurt Waldheim as president in 1986, despite his involvement in Nazi atrocities in the Balkans during World War II. Some Israelis also noted that it was disturbing for the Barak government to condemn Haider while at the same time attempting to broker peace deals with Arab regimes in Damascus, Beirut and Gaza that are far more vocal and extreme in their anti-Semitic views.

ISRAELI ARAB MK's BRINGS UP TABOO

In an historic first, Arab MK Issam Mahoul forced the Knesset into a short but stormy debate over Israel's nuclear program. Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg was reluctant to permit discussion of the sensitive topic, but relented rather than let the Supreme Court rule on Mahoul's petition to order a debate. The session quickly degenerated into a shouting match, with several parties walking out and six Arab MKs ejected for heckling. Mahoul claimed Israel has 300 nuclear warheads and that its nuclear facilities have turned the densely-populated country into a "toxic and dangerous nuclear backyard." He called on Israel to "go public" with its nuclear program and eventually disassemble it. Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon declined to confirm or deny Mahoul's allegations, arguing that every democratic country has classified information, especially on weapons systems essential to their national security.

Israel has never acknowledged whether it possesses nuclear weapons, relying instead on a policy of "deliberate ambiguity" to keep its Arab adversaries guessing. Israel also has stated that it would not be the first to use weapons of mass destruction in a Middle East conflict - which serves to deter Arab/Muslim states from using their chemical, biological and even perhaps nuclear arsenals against the Jewish state. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, considered the father of Israel's nuclear program, has said he would be ready "to give up the atom" as part of a comprehensive peace in the region. There has been increasing pressure on Israel to release nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu from jail and force full disclosure of its nuclear facilities and armaments. Egypt in particular has attempted to hinder progress in the peace process and isolate Israel diplomatically in an effort to pry open its nuclear secrets. Mahoul's maneuver must be seen as part of this determined effort to weaken Israel.

In another show of questionable loyalties, Israeli Arab MKs submitted a motion of no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak over the retaliatory Israeli air raids in Lebanon during the recent escalation in fighting there. The motion was defeated by overwhelming odds, as even opposition Likud MK's cast a rare vote of confidence in Barak.

IRAN MIGHT HAVE NUCLEAR CAPABILITY

America's top foreign intelligence branch, the CIA, has published a report that Iran has enough nuclear materials to build a bomb, basing its revised assessment largely on the recent statements of an Iranian official. Iran has had a nuclear weapons program for more than 15 years, developed to offset Iraq's chemical weapons and nuclear program and to threaten Israel. Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970 and has allowed international inspections since 1992. But it has purchased dual use nuclear equipment from Russia, China and European countries since the early 1990's. Russia is assisting in the construction of Iran's primary nuclear reactor at Bushehr and is educating Iranian nuclear scientists. Meanwhile, China is aiding Iran in four other nuclear facilities. In a 1997 analysis, the Pentagon reported that Iran was trying to obtain enough nuclear material for its weapons program "and has set up an elaborate system of military and civilian organizations to support its effort."

There were persistent reports that Iran bought 4 nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan in the early 1990's, before the former Soviet republic handed its nuclear arsenal over to Moscow. US intelligence is also aware of several failed efforts by Iran to purchase nuclear materials from Russian traders, and at least twice Iranians have been caught in stings while attempting to acquire weapons grade materials, according to US officials. In light of the CIA's report, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh criticized US efforts to contain Iran's nuclear capability and Europe's refusal to cooperate in limiting its efforts. Israel has successfully tested the Arrow anti-missile system, developed in part as a defense against Iran's Shahab-3 missile - which has a range capable of hitting Israel and even many European states.

WEIZMAN CLINGING TO OFFICE

In January, the police probe into Israeli President Ezer Weizman's acceptance of considerable cash gifts from and business ties to French millionaire Edouard Seroussi was upgraded from an "examination of documents" into a full-scale criminal investigation. The move came after new information surfaced of suspicious business links between Weizman and Seroussi in the 1980's which continued after Weizman became a cabinet minister. Investigative reporter Yoav Yitzhak - who first broke the story of the Weizman-Seroussi connection - also alleged $3.5 million was paid to Weizman's business partner in 1984 in return for Weizman's written promise not to join a Likud government, thus enabling Labor's Shimon Peres to become prime minister.

The embattled Weizman doused rumors of his impending exit in a short, dramatic prime time address to the nation, vowing instead to "fight for my good name." With new allegations surfacing almost daily, many had expected Weizman was about to tell the public he was going on temporary leave, but instead he continued to proclaim innocence, saying he acted only upon the advice of his lawyers. The move angered some politicans and dismayed many Israelis who once held the former military hero in high regards. On the recommendation of Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, Weizman agreed to temporarily curtail his official powers to grant pardons and swear in judges, but he continued to welcome new ambassadors and visit wounded IDF soldiers.

In February, both Weizman and Seroussi were simultaneously grilled for hours in separate locations. At the center of the current inquiry is a series of money transfers to Weizman which Seroussi reported to German and Swiss tax authorities as "in exchange for advisory services," but which Weizman treated as a gift that did not need reporting. According to media sources, police have evidence Weizman received several millions shekels for business advice and other deals with Seroussi over the years which he may not have reported. State Attorney Edna Arbel drew fire when she predicted that Weizman is unlikely to be indicted in the affair. Critics charged her with breaching unwritten ethics by commenting on the case before the probe was done. Arbel later tried to clarify her remarks by saying there was still the possibility of an indictment, since the investigation will not be finished for a few more weeks.

SOURCES: Jerusalem Post, Israel Line, Ha'aretz, Reuters, CNN, AP, Arutz-7, Washington Post, New York Times, IBA News, BBC, Jerusalem Report, IMRA, TIME, Newsweek, MEMRI


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