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.