Israeli TV report: PA President Mahmoud Abbas was KGB agent

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas served as a KGB agent during the 1980s, an Israeli news station reported.

Israel’s Channel 1 public television station reported Wednesday night that Abbas worked with the Soviet intelligence agency using the code name “Mole” while living in Damascus, the capital of Syria.

Abbas was recruited to the KGB, it was suggested, while working on his doctoral dissertation in Moscow, in which he minimized the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust.

Channel 1 cited documents secreted out of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The mention of Abbas was discovered and the documents, the Mitrokhin archive kept by KGB defector Vasily Mitrokhin, were shown to the TV station by two Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers, Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez.

The documents were revealed amid reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, was close to arranging a face-to-face meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss resuming peace negotiations.

The Palestine Liberation Organization was openly working with the Soviet Union at the time Abbas was alleged to be working for the KGB, so there was no need for Abbas to be a Soviet agent, The New York Times reported, citing Palestinian officials, who said that Abbas was leading a Palestinian-Soviet friendship foundation at the time.

Palestinian officials called the allegations a “smear campaign.”

In an interview the same night with Israel Radio following the Channel 1 report, senior Fatah members Jibril Rajoub, Hussein al-Sheikh, Saeb Erekat and Nabil Shaath can be heard laughing as the reporter introduces the allegations against Abbas, The Times of Israel reported.

Twisted tale of Demjanjuk

Among Nazi war criminals who have faced justice, ranging from Hermann Goering to Adolf Eichmann, we find John Demjanjuk, who was charged with participating in the murder of 29,060 Jews as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp. Unlike the more notorious Nazis, Demjanjuk actually had Jewish blood on his hands.

The overarching question Richard Rashke asks, and answers, in “Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America’s Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals” (Delphinium Books, $29.95) carries a sting: “Why did it take almost 60 years for the United States to find and extradite John Demjanjuk for trial in Germany as a Nazi collaborator?”

Rashke is the right man to answer the weighty question.  The author of “Escape From Sobibor,” among other books, he navigates through the complexities of history and politics of the mid-20th century with an expert eye. He reminds us, for example, that Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian draftee in the Red Army when he was captured in 1943 by the Germans, who offered him an opportunity to join the Waffen SS and turn his coat against his Soviet homeland.  Demjanjuk concealed the details of his war service when he applied for refugee status in the United States and was welcomed to America in 1952. 

Not until 1977 did the U.S. Justice Department finally catch up with Demjanjuk. By then, as Rashke shows us, a few whistleblowers in the INS and some courageous politicians were on the trail of Nazis and their collaborators who had managed to reach America.  The Demjanjuk case was plagued with possible misidentifications by witnesses and the suspicion of evidence-tampering by the KGB, as well as the repercussions from the rival political agendas of Ukrainian nationalists and the Soviet authorities, but Demjanjuk’s citizenship was revoked on the grounds that he had lied about his wartime crimes, and he was extradited to Israel for trial.

The nagging question throughout the legal proceedings was whether Demjanjuk was the monster known as “Ivan the Terrible” who tortured and murdered Jews at Treblinka, or a slightly less monstrous (but no less culpable) camp guard who murdered Jews at Sobibor, or, as Demjanjuk insisted, a poor Ukrainian shlep who put on a Nazi uniform to save his own life but sat out the war without killing anyone. Ivan the Terrible’s deeds, as narrated in heartbreaking detail by his victims, are so grotesque that they read like a chapter from the Marquis de Sade, but Demjanjuk swore that it was all a big mistake.

“Honorable Judges, I am not the hangman or henchman you are after,” he told the Israeli judges. “My heart aches, and I grieve deeply for what was done to your people by the Nazis. … Please do not put the noose around my neck for things that were done by others.”

The Israeli court found him guilty as charged and sentenced him to hang in 1988. Remarkably, while the case was on appeal, a former prostitute who serviced the guards at Treblinka appeared on “60 Minutes” to affirm that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, a man she claimed to know intimately by reason of her trade.  Additional evidence was brought to light to suggest that they had the wrong man, including testimony by other Treblinka guards who knew Ivan the Terrible. The Israeli Supreme Court courageously but controversially reversed the conviction and Demjanjuk returned to the United States, where the Court of Appeals restored his citizenship. 

Along the way, Rashke reprises the heartbreaking history of American immigration policy, which did little to rescue Jews during the war or to shelter them after the war, but welcomed Nazis and their collaborators, ranging from Wernher von Braun to Demjanjuk.  Indeed, he argues that the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 actually discriminated against Jewish refugees. “Just as the United States had blocked the entry of more than nine hundred St. Louis refugees under the old immigration law,” he writes, “it now blocked the entry of Jewish refugees under the new 1948 legislation.”  At the same time, political machinations — or, in the case of Demjanjuk, bureaucratic indifference — permitted veterans of the SS to freely enter the United States. Although Demjanjuk is the centerpiece of his book, Rashke ranges across 50 years of history and examines the fate of countless other Nazi war criminals.

Rashke is a disciplined writer who supports his contentions with hard facts.  But he is also driven by his own deep passions, and he is perfectly willing to name names — Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and J. Edgar Hoover, among others, are singled out for their complicity in what amounts to a decades-long policy of protecting war criminals.  He concedes, for example, that both the prosecution and the defense in the Demjanjuk case “distorted or fabricated historical facts.” But he is also quick to praise those who fought to bring Nazis to justice, including former New York Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who authored the legislation that “made inadmissible to the United States ‘participants in Nazi persecution, genocide, or the commission or any act of torture or extrajudicial killing.’ ”

The Demjanjuk case was revived in 2001, when he was charged with being a guard at Sobibor and participating in mass murder on the basis of new documentary evidence that had come to light — a “trial by archive,” as Rashke puts it — and the defendant was once again stripped of his citizenship.  Now it was Germany that sought to extradite the 90-year-old Demjanjuk, who left America on a stretcher and appeared in the German court on a gurney or in a wheelchair, a play for sympathy that most observers dismissed as phony.

The ploy was futile.  Demjanjuk was finally convicted in 2011, although the court did not send him to prison, and he died in bed in 2012.  And Rashke ends his book with a pointed inquiry: “As a very young man captured by the Germans and facing a high probability of either starving to death, dying from overwork and disease, or being routinely executed, John Demjanjuk poses a final question to his accusers and critics. It is a question that goes to the heart of the human condition — a question that only an ordinary man like John ‘Iwan” Demjanjuk could ask: If you had been me in 1942, what would you have done?”

It’s an odd and inappropriate question to ask the Jewish reader.  No such option would have been available to us.  A Ukrainian might have the option of putting himself in service to his Nazi masters, but a Jew faced only death. For that reason, the question itself does not carry much moral weight.  But Rashke’s book forces us to consider whether a half-century of effort to punish those who operated the machinery of mass murder has resulted in any kind of justice.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.  His latest book, “The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris,” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in biography and was selected as a book of the year by the Washington Post.

Semyon Bychkov on Bruckner

If anyone can lay claim to the moniker “citizen of the world,” it is Semyon Bychkov. Born in Russia, the conductor, who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic starting Nov. 15, now boasts U.S. citizenship, but lives in Paris with his wife, pianist Marielle Labèque, among other places all over Europe.

It’s been a long road from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to the outdoor cafe across from Lincoln Center, where he meets for an interview fresh from his performances with both the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic. 

As someone the KGB once deemed “politically unreliable” — following an interrogation by that notorious Soviet agency — in 1973, Bychkov was blocked from a scheduled conducting debut with the famed Leningrad Philharmonic. Being a Jew, to boot, ultimately ended his career in his native land.

“It’s complicated, though,” he said. “My being a freethinker had nothing to do with being Jewish. But my liberal views came to attention, as those things do. Later, Jewish was no good either. It was a sensitive subject. Nothing exactly black and white. Yes, there was plenty of anti-Semitism, but despite that, I was accepted as the youngest person [at 17] at the [Leningrad] Conservatory, for its single conducting spot.”

What’s more, in 1973 he won the Rachmaninoff Conducting Competition’s first prize: a debut concert leading the Leningraders. 

But the concert never happened. His event was canceled after authorities “viciously” attacked him in print. What would happen going forward became clear. “So I quickly started learning English and sought emigration, helped along by an international Jewish Agency for Refugees,” Bychkov said. Four months later, in 1974, he landed in Vienna “with nothing but my tailcoat, a briefcase with some scores and $100; this after living for 22 years on the same Leningrad street.” 

But the budding conductor discovered a network of refugee musicians. After his first brief stop in Vienna were six months in Rome, where he lived in a tiny room outside the city and hitchhiked to concerts given by Russian friends. 

Bychkov finally received his immigration papers and arrived in New York on Aug. 6, 1975, “in the heat, the humidity, the dirt, the stink — it immediately seemed right. I felt literally reborn.” Especially so, with the support of the New York Association for New Americans, a former agency of the United Jewish Communities (now The Jewish Federations of North America).

Truly, that was Bychkov’s second beginning. Mannes College waived its tuition fees for the gifted conductor and quickly put him in charge of its orchestra. Next came a post with the Buffalo Philharmonic — by which time his then-wife had given birth to their two children, who still reside in the United States. 

Since the 1980s, he’s held important orchestra directorships in Cologne and Paris, among others, and piled up rave reviews throughout the West. There was even a nod by Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan for Bychkov to take over the Berlin Philharmonic — a notoriously political organization, so it did not come to pass. (The mere mention by Karajan of a preferred candidate carried a downside.)

Now 60 and free from the obligations of a tenured podium, he’s in demand as a guest conductor for major orchestras worldwide. He’s currently on an American tour that includes Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as Los Angeles, and then on to the orchestras and opera houses of Berlin, Moscow, London, Amsterdam, Vienna and Rome. 

In Los Angeles, Bychkov will take on Bruckner’s mighty Symphony No. 8. “It’s all about Bruckner’s relationship with God,” he said, “a complex and confrontational thing. And it would be so even for the pope. In the end, though, there is doubt. No one will ever convince me that doubt does not exist.”

Bychkov said he is unattached to any belief system and never had a Jewish education. He admits that some would not even regard him as a Jew, as he never practiced or learned the religion.

“But we are what we are. And I’m proud of being Jewish,” he said. “Still, that is not a factor in one’s music making. You don’t have to be Catholic to conduct a convincing Verdi Requiem. You don’t have to be a Jew to conduct a profound Mahler.”

What it takes, he asserts, is an ear that hears the composer’s voice. In the Shostakovich memoir “Testimony,” for instance, Bychkov says he can’t verify whether biographer Solomon Volkov based the book on an actual interview with the composer.

“But when I conduct his Fifth Symphony, every word of those quotes I hear in the music.” Indeed it was Bychkov’s conducting of the condemned work that marked him, back then in the Soviet Union, as blasphemous by the ruling Politburo.

In October, The New York Times applauded the conductor’s “ear” for Shostakovich: “Bychkov led … a brilliant performance [of Symphony No. 11] … one that sizzled … and unfolded with breathtaking force.”

Also, in the ear, are languages — the worldly conductor speaks five — and describes himself as obsessive, although one could simply say he’s all-in. Multiple identities would define him well.  He recalls having summed it up this way:

“My whole body language changes according to the country I’m in. So who am I, after all? A Russian, born into the beauty of St. Petersburg. An American, one of many millions who found refuge and acceptance in the United States. A Frenchman, being part of a French family and sharing its destiny. A German and an Italian when conducting Wagner or Verdi, Beethoven or Berio. The roots of my life’s tree might be in one place called Russia, but the branches have spread wide and far.”

Bychkov conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Fri., Nov. 15 through Sun., Nov. 17 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave, downtown. For more information, call (323) 850-2000 or visit

Putin basks in isolation over Syria as Obama’s charm falls flat

At the end of a tense two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama – slumped over and serious – tried to lighten the mood with a joke about their favorite sports.

“And finally, we compared notes on President Putin's expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball,” the U.S. president told reporters at the G8 summit, after the two men gave formal statements emphasizing their common ground rather than their sharp differences on how to end the Syrian crisis.

“And we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover,” Obama said.

Putin – who folded his hands and glowered through most of the exchange – was having none of it. He waited for the audience to finish laughing, smiled icily and stuck in his spear.

“The president wants to relax me with his statement of age,” retorted Putin.

Few expected any diplomatic breakthroughs from the meeting in Northern Ireland, less than a week after Obama's administration announced it would provide military support to rebels fighting Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But Putin — who scowled, lectured and fidgeted while resisting the forced bonhomie of the two-day summit with the leaders of world's richest nations — seemed positively to relish his isolation.

It was a vintage display of Putin's world view forged since the Soviet Union's fall in 1991: the United States will inevitably overreach, and Moscow must always step forward to demonstrate the limits of U.S. power.

His position won the former KGB spy plaudits at home, where he is trying to reassert his authority after protests and in the face of a stuttering economy.

“I think he got all the bonuses domestically. He held his head high, stood tall and did what he pledged to do – to be very firm but not confrontational,” said Dmitry Trenin, a political analysts at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

Putin clearly calculated that he had nothing to gain by making concessions over Syria, and little to lose if Russia was further alienated in a rich nations' club where it has looked the odd-one out since it became a fully fledged member 15 years ago.


U.S. officials played down the rebuff, describing the Putin-Obama meeting as “businesslike” and emphasizing the common ground over a sectarian civil war in which the two presidents are now both committed to arming the opposing sides.

“We both want to see an end to the conflict. We both want to see stability. We don't want to see extremists gain a foothold,” said Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser.

“I think both leaders went out of their way to underscore that they can work together on this issue,” Rhodes said. “If they can project a message that they have a convergence of views as it relates to a political negotiation, that keeps the possibility, the prospect of that political track alive.”

But even their one joint initiative faced a setback. One source at the summit confirmed that Syrian peace talks called last month by Moscow and Washington, initially meant to be held in June, then July – were now postponed until August at least.

The tense exchange between Putin and Obama marks full circle since the administration of the newly-elected Obama called for a “reset” in ties with Russia in 2009 after a row between the Cold War foes over Russia's 2008 war against U.S.-ally Georgia.

Obama has touted the Russia reset – in which his then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a big red “reset” button – as one of his signature foreign achievements. (Clinton's aides notoriously mistranslated the button and labeled it “overload” in Russian.)


Putin arrived the night before the summit and made his unrelenting position clear at a press conference with his host, Britain's David Cameron.

Putin hammered home his point that arming Syrian rebels was reckless by zeroing in on an incident from last month in which a rebel fighter was filmed biting on the entrails of an enemy.

“One does not really need to support people who not only kill their enemies but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the camera,” he said as Cameron stood by.

From the outset, Putin was isolated at the summit.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused Putin of supporting “thugs” and said Syria would be discussed by the other seven powers, with Russia as a “plus one”. Putin's foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov fired back, saying the Canadian's remarks came “from the position of an outside observer”.

After the bilateral meeting with Obama, Putin went to a dinner in a lodge on the shore of Lough Erne where the leaders discussed Syria over a dinner of crab, fillet of beef, and whisky-laced custard.

Putin refused to accept any public declaration that could imply Assad would go. He won: the final communique on Syria did not even mention Assad's name.

He also defended Russia's arms shipments to Syria and suggested that more might be coming: “We are supplying weapons under legal contracts to the legal government. That is the government of President Assad. And if we are going to sign such contracts, we are going to deliver,” he said.

Western officials still suggest that Moscow's alliance with Assad is not as strong as Putin's remarks imply. “Clearly Putin doesn't hold back with his views,” said one Western official who tried to play down the disagreements.

“Don't expect Vladimir Putin to pick up the phone to Damascus and say 'the game's over',” he said. “The Russians have deliberately and utterly not tied themselves to him (Assad) as an individual and have always given themselves some wriggle room.”

Western officials have suggested for months that Moscow might soon drop Assad, only to find Putin as staunch as ever, even when the war was going the rebels' way. Now, with Assad's forces having seized battlefield momentum in recent months, there seems less reason than ever for Moscow to ditch him.

Putin has another reason to want to look tough abroad, to consolidate support at home at a time when the faltering economy is hurting his standing.

“Despite the emotions, the summit was in many respects a success for Russian diplomacy,” the business daily Vedomosti wrote, suggesting Russia had made no concessions and the West had shown it was not ready to act if Moscow was not on board.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular daily with a reputation for catching the public mood, was more uneasy: “Putin is alone again,” it wrote. “But do we need to be sorry about it?”

Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn, Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton and Alexei Anishchuk in Enniskillen; Editing by Peter Graff

Can Natan Sharansky fix the Western Wall?

He brought unprecedented attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. He stood up to the KGB. He survived nine years in Siberia. He served in Israel’s fractious government.

Now, Natan Sharansky is facing his next challenge: finding a solution to the growing battle over women’s prayer restrictions at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

In recent months, Diaspora Jewish activists have grown increasingly incensed by the arrests and detention of women seeking to pray publicly at the site in keeping with their religious practices – but in violation of the rules of the wall under which women may not sing aloud, wear tallit prayer shawls or read from the Torah.

The controversy threatens to drive a wedge between Diaspora Jewry, where egalitarian prayer is common, and Israel, which has upheld Orthodox rules at the wall, also known as the Kotel. American Jewish leaders in the United States say the rules alienate Reform and Conservative Jews. Within Israel, too, the wall has become a flashpoint for non-Orthodox religious activists and the Kotel’s haredi Orthodox leadership.

Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to look into the controversy and propose solutions. The question is whether the former refusenik leader and human rights advocate can resolve a dispute that pits Jew against Jew.

“Will it happen through Sharansky?” asked Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes monthly women's services at the Kotel. “That I doubt, but I’m willing to give him a chance. Sharansky will understand how much traction this issue has.”

Hoffman was arrested in October for wearing a tallit at the site, and several more of the group’s members have been detained at subsequent services.

Sharansky declined to comment on the issue until he gives his recommendations, but activists on both sides of the issue say the gaps between the site’s leadership and pluralism advocates may be too wide for Sharansky to bridge.

Shmuel Rabinowitz, the wall’s chief rabbi, would like to maintain the status quo, where men and women are separated by a partition and only men may wear tallit and tefillin and convene a minyan prayer quorum with Torah reading. Hoffman and her allies have proposed alternatives that involve the religious streams sharing time and space in the Kotel Plaza, with each praying according to its own precepts.

Hoffman says her minimum demand is for women to receive one hour at the beginning of every Jewish month — excluding Rosh Hashanah — when they can pray as a group with tallit and tefillin, and read the Torah. Ideally, Hoffman says she would want the Kotel’s partition between men and women to be removed for several hours each day so that women and egalitarian groups can pray there undisturbed, but she acknowledges that such a scenario has virtually no chance of being approved by Rabinowitz.

Other activists say the solution lies in adding a partition rather than removing one. Yizhar Hess, the CEO and executive director of the Israeli Conservative movement, Masorti, advocates dividing the Kotel Plaza into three sections: one for men, one for women and one for egalitarian groups. Hess also told JTA that he would like to see the rear section of the plaza opened to cultural activities such as concerts and dancing, which are prohibited now.

“There are many egalitarian groups who come to the wall and view it as the peak of their emotional and spiritual experience in Israel,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who runs Hiddush, an Israeli religious pluralism nonprofit. “The fact that they can’t express that spiritual experience in a spiritual way is a missed opportunity.”

According to a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, non-Orthodox and women’s prayer groups can pray at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological park adjacent to the Kotel Plaza where an admission fee is required. Regev suggested that Sharansky may recommend improvements to Robinson’s Arch, including an expanded prayer area and free admission for prayer groups.

That may be the maximum compromise that Rabinowitz would make.

“I think what’s happening today at the Kotel is the best for all viewpoints of the world,” Rabinowitz told JTA. “No one gets exactly what they want — not haredim and not Women of the Wall. If someone thinks they can bring something better, I’d love to hear it.”

Rabinowitz declined to comment on time- or space-sharing proposals.

Meanwhile, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the Kotel, announced recently that women are no longer allowed to bring tallit or tefillin into the Kotel Plaza.

The Prime Minister’s Office, one official there told JTA, hopes Sharansky will bring to bear his “unique experience and abilities in serving as a bridge for all streams within the Jewish people” as he approaches the problem.

One potential bridge between Rabinowitz and Hoffman are Modern Orthodox rabbis who believe both in Orthodoxy and pluralism.

The Kotel “is a holy place, but needs to belong to all of Israel,” said Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who co-founded the Modern Orthodox rabbis’ organization Tzohar. Cherlow says he isn't throwing his backing behind any particular solution but that a time-sharing arrangement may work.

Daniel Goldman, chairman of the religious-secular nonprofit Gesher, says the only way to reach a compromise is to find figures who occupy middle ground who can foster some sort of accord.

“If Natan Sharansky could broaden the people involved in that debate beyond Rabbi Rabinowitz and Women of the Wall, it’s possible to use this issue to create a more constructive dialogue,” Goldman said. “If you get Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Rabinowitz in a room, it’s quite obvious and clear that there will be no compromise solution.”