Romania’s central bank on Thursday said it would not withdraw from circulation a coin featuring an image of a prime minister who stripped Jews of their citizenship before World War II, stressing it had not intended to send an anti-Semitic message. The coin depicts the late Patriarch Miron Cristea, who led the Romanian Orthodox Church from 1925 to 1939 and was prime minister from 1938 to 1939. A commission set up by the National Bank to reconsider it said it was minted only as one of five to commemorate Romania’s five patriarchs at the request of Romania’s influential Orthodox Church.
Is it surprising that the head of a church which taught virulent anti-Semitism for centuries was himself an anti-Semite who fundamentally opposed the notion that Jews were full and equal citizens? Yes, it’s disturbing, but is it really a big deal? It’s a coin! Why should everyone from the ADL to the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial being getting involved in this? I’ll tell you why.
In the ongoing search for post-Soviet national identity, Eastern and Central European nations are reaching back to religious and cultural traditions that were often hostile to Jews and followers of any religion other than the one claimed by the nation’s majority, dangerously xenophobic, highly undemocratic, and generally medieval. That’s scary.
While this coin, in and of itself is really not such a big deal, and the need for recovered national identities is quite real in those countries which saw such identities forcibly ripped away by wars and communist oppression, how that recovery process proceeds has real implications not only for Jews, but for all of Europe and for the rest of the world. Failing to attend to these issues could spawn an ongoing series of civil wars that will make what happened in the former Yugoslavia look like child’s play.
Rather than simply complain and shame the Romanians about their decision to honor Miron Crista, I hope that people will engage them, support their search for renewed national identity, and help them to see that it will never be one of which they can be fully proud if it is based on the work of people who were motivated by hate. Not all Jew-hatred demands such a civilized response, to be sure, but in this case, something greater is at stake and there is a real opportunity to use a moment of hurt to help others heal.
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I happen to be familiar with many of Patriarch Miron Cristea’s writings (e.g. speeches, papers, pastoral letters, etc.) Nowhere have I come across with any particular hate directed against the Jews. Patriarch Miron Cristea was a spiritual leader who consistently taught moral values, compassion and tolerance. You should remember that, at that time, being anti-semitic in Europe was as popular as being against the building of a Mosque at Ground Zero. (I think that this overreaction that came from Radu Ioanid was more self-efacing because in his book “The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944” Radu does not even list Patriarch Cristea in the index.) Again, as I read a lot of Dr. Cristea’s writings, he would be the least public figure of that time whom I would consider a Jew hater.
Also, I doubt that the circulation of the coins was done to offend the Jews or as a search for identity, simply because during communism Ceausescu and the Romanian Orthodox Church had a common nationalist agenda against the Soviet Union. Besides, as you know, following the collapse of the Cold War, nationalist rhetoric abandoned its dogmatic secularism in the favor of adopting religion as part of the identity package. Today, in Romania, the Romanian Orthodox Church is the most trusted public institution by ver 80% confidence, and its membership represents 86.7% of the population. So, I think one should be a bit careful with these labels, especially as Romania offers its airspace to Israel to have IDF conduct training operations, etc.