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2 more Egon Schiele works returned as Manhattan DA’s office turns its attention to works seized by Nazis

(JTA) — For decades, the heirs of Viennese Jewish cabaret performer Fritz Grünbaum have sought the restitution of his extensive art collection, which was pilfered by the Nazis.

This year, they have seen a spate of success. The return of two portraits by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele was announced on Wednesday, two weeks after Grünbaum’s heirs repossessed seven other Schiele works from a number of prominent museums and collections in New York City.

The heirs credit this accomplishment to Matthew Bogdanos, who founded and leads the antiquities trafficking unit in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. In addition to working on Holocaust-era art restitution, Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney, has repatriated more than 1,000 antiquities since he founded the unit in 2017.

“It takes courage to take on important American institutions,” Ray Dowd, the attorney for Grünbaum’s heirs, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And a prosecutor who’s willing to do that is exceedingly rare.”

The two paintings whose return was announced this week — “Girl With Black Hair” and “Portrait of a Man” — were housed at Oberlin College and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, respectively. In September, the group of seven Schiele paintings and drawings were returned in an emotional ceremony at Bragg’s office. Another two pieces were returned to the family in 2018 via a civil ruling in the New York Court of Appeals and were put up for a charity auction through Christie’s in 2022.

“I am pleased these two pieces are being returned to the family of Fritz Grünbaum following a criminal investigation by my Office,” Bragg said in a statement this week. “The evidence makes clear the two drawings were stolen by the Nazis and subsequently transported into Manhattan, before landing in these museums. We are proud to have now returned nine Egon Schiele drawings to Mr. Grünbaum’s relatives and continue to reflect on his indelible legacy.”

Grünbaum and his wife Elisabeth were killed in the Holocaust, and the restitution of his art collection, which contained a total of 81 Schiele works, has been a decades-long process. Once the provenance of the works has been established — which is itself a challenge — lawyers must compel the institutions that hold the pieces to return them.

The co-executors of Grünbaum’s estate, Timothy Reif and David Frankel, are the second generation of heirs involved in the restitution of Grünbaum’s art collection. Reif’s mother, Rita Reif, who died in June, was a New York Times columnist on antiques and auctions, and she later took on the mission of reacquiring the artworks that were looted from Grünbaum. Her husband Paul Reif, who died in 1978, was a composer from Vienna who was Grünbaum’s cousin and co-wrote operettas with him.

At first, the restitution effort focused on civil litigation, but the recent string of success has come after a turn to criminal proceedings. Twenty-five years ago, the heirs had also found some success in criminal court, when the D.A.’s office issued a subpoena preventing the transfer of two Schiele works from the Museum of Modern Art to a museum in Austria. The office began a criminal investigation into the pieces’ provenance and they were both seized, but neither went back immediately to the Grünbaum heirs. One of the two was eventually returned in 2019.

Working on behalf of the family since 2005, Dowd said that the shift from civil to criminal cases has moved the restitution process along much quicker. But the judge’s order from the 2018 civil case also helped move the criminal investigation along.

Following the 2018 ruling, the D.A.’s office began investigating, “and then they dug deeper than we ever did,” Dowd said. “There’s only so much civil lawyers can do. So it’s not like I handed them a case tied up in a bow.”

At the head of that investigation was Bogdanos, a homicide prosecutor and retired Marine colonel whose office has recovered more than 4,500 items stolen from more than 30 countries, valued at over $410 million, according to the D.A. What started as a unit of one employee has since grown to a team of 18.

When it comes to the Schiele works, too, he has reached beyond Manhattan. While the seven pieces returned to Grünbaum’s heirs last month were all on display or held in New York City-based museums or galleries, the two drawings returned Wednesday came from institutions outside of the five boroughs. But the Manhattan district attorney’s office can still claim jurisdiction.

“If it passes through New York, we have jurisdiction no matter where it is now,” Bogdanos told CBS News in March. “If the wire transfer was made in New York, we have jurisdiction, no matter where it is now; if it was offered for sale, if it was shown at an auction. So, sure, my jurisdiction is limited to New York City. But to update a phrase, all roads lead to New York.”

Dowd attributed Bogdanos’ record to his military background, interest in history and the classics, and his nonfiction book, “Thieves of Baghdad” — an account of his own experience recovering thousands of artifacts stolen from the Iraqi National Museum after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

“It’s not just some lightweight chasing down pretty pictures because he likes to look at artworks,” Dowd added. “There’s a real unique and deep dedication that goes into this.”

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Javier Milei cites Hanukkah story, gives menorah to Zelensky during inauguration as Argentina’s president

(JTA) — Javier Milei invoked the story of the Maccabees in his inaugural address as Argentina’s president on Sunday, extending the right-wing populist’s prominent fascination with Judaism as he celebrated his own improbable victory.

“It is not by chance that this assumption takes place in the holiday of Hanukkah, the festival of light, and that the same celebrates the true essence of freedom,” Milei said during his speech on the steps of the parliament building in Buenos Aires. “The war of the Maccabees is the symbol of the victory of the weak over the powerful, of the few over the many, of the light over darkness and overall of the truth over untruth.”

Milei, 53, defied expectations when he was elected last month. A self-declared “anarcho-capitalist” who was the most right-wing of the five candidates, he ascended rapidly over the last year as he assailed the outgoing government, saying that its policies had fueled unemployment and inflation.

He delivered his speech with his back to the country’s lawmakers, in a break with tradition allowing him to face a large rally outside the parliament building.

Toward the tail of his speech warning Argentineans to prepare for a difficult economic reforms, he said he recalled how he and his now-vice president, Victoria Villaruel, had initially been told that their two-year-old political party, Freedom Advances, would have little influence.

“We were told we couldn’t do anything because we were only two in 257 congressmen,” he said. “And I also remember that my answer that day was a quote from the Book of Maccabees, 3:19, that goes: It is not the size of the army that victory in battle depends on, but strength comes from heaven.”

President Javier Milei of Argentina gives a speech after his inauguration ceremony at Casa Rosada presidential palace on Dec. 10, 2023, in Buenos Aires. (Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images)

The speech was in keeping with Milei’s unusual relationship with Judaism. The non-Jewish economist has been studying with an Argentinean rabbi and has said he is interested in converting, though he says he does not see the role of president as compatible with Jewish observance. He visited the grave of the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in New York City in his first trip abroad after being elected and has vowed to make Israel — where he promised to move Argentina’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — his first foreign destination as president.

At campaign rallies, Milei has often walked on stage to the sound of a shofar, and in one of his final public appearances before the election, Milei was seen waving an Israeli flag among a large crowd in Rosario.

One Israeli flag was visible amid the sea of Argentinean flags at his speech in footage of the inaugural event broadcast to Argentineans.

Milei, whose term will last four years, was flanked by world leaders, including the king of Spain; Chilean President Gabriel Boric, a left-wing critic of Israel; Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a populist who cruised to a fourth term last year; and Ukraine’s president, Volodymr Zelensky, who was making his first trip to Latin America since Russia attacked his country in February 2022. Jair Bolsonaro, the populist leader recently unseated in Brazil, also attended.

Milei handed a menorah to Zelensky, who is Jewish, after the two leaders greeted each other warmly outside Casa Rosada, the country’s government headquarters, in a handoff captured on the live TV broadcast of the ceremony. Zelensky has embraced Milei as he has sought to build support for Ukraine in Latin America.

On Saturday night, on the eve of his inauguration, Milei met with a group of relatives of Israeli hostages kidnapped in Gaza since Oct. 7, lighting the Hanukkah candles with them and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who was in the country for the inauguration.

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Moroccans Demand Halt to Ties with Israel

People carry flags and banners during a protest calling for ending ties with Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, in Rabat, Morocco, December 10, 2023. REUTERS/Ahmed El Jechtimi

Moroccans waving Palestinian flags took to the streets of the capital Rabat on Sunday calling on the government to cut ties with Israel in protest against Israel‘s military campaign against the terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Protests against Israel‘s war in Gaza have repeatedly drawn thousands of people in Morocco since the conflict began two months ago, mostly led by pan-Arab and Islamist groups.

Sunday’s march by about 3,000 protesters was the first to have been led by the PJD — Morocco’s biggest Islamist party which led the elected government from 2011 until 2021 — a sign the movement is growing more vocal in opposition.

Protesters chanted “Palestine is not for sale,” “Resistance go ahead to victory and liberation” and “the people want an end to normalization,” referring to the policy of Morocco and other Arab states normalizing ties with Israel.

Israel vowed to annihilate Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, after Hamas terrorists burst across the fence on Oct. 7 and went on a rampage through Israeli towns, gunning down families in their homes, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages.

Since then, Hamas-controlled health authorities in Gaza say thousands of people have been killed during Israel’s military campaign, although experts have cast doubt on the reliability of casualty figures coming out of Gaza.

Morocco agreed to strengthen ties with Israel in 2020, under a deal brokered by the US administration under then President Donald Trump that also included Washington recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Despite their policy of normalizing ties with Israel, Moroccan authorities have said they continue to back the creation of a Palestinian state and have urged a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and the protection of all civilians there.

Islamist and leftist parties and groups in Morocco have increasingly spoken out against the normalization policy since the start of the war in Gaza on Oct. 7.

Protesters on Sunday also called for a boycott of brands they accuse of supporting Israel.

“We call on Morocco to end diplomatic relations with Israel,” said Ahmed El Yandouzi, as he was queuing to sign a petition with a Palestinian scarf around his neck.

Although Morocco and Israel have not yet completed the process of setting up full embassies in each other’s countries as they agreed to do, they have moved closer together, signing a defense cooperation pact.

The PJD was in office when Morocco agreed the normalization deal with Israel, with its then leader Saad Dine El Otmani signing it as prime minister, but the policy was ultimately set by King Mohammed, who sets overall strategy.

The new PJD leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, has said signing the agreement was a mistake.

The royal court has previously asked the PJD to stop criticizing Morocco’s ties with Israel.

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Violence Escalates Between Israel, Lebanon’s Hezbollah

Illustrative: Smoke rises on the Lebanese side of the border between Israel and Lebanon after an Israeli airstrike, as seen from northern Israel, November 18, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Violence escalated at Lebanon’s border with Israel on Sunday as the terrorist group Hezbollah launched explosive drones and powerful missiles at Israeli positions and Israeli air strikes rocked several towns and villages in south Lebanon.

Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah have been trading fire since the war in Gaza erupted two months ago, in their worst hostilities since a 2006 conflict. The violence has largely been contained to the border area.

Israeli attacks in south Lebanon included air strikes on the town of Aitaroun which destroyed and damaged numerous houses, Lebanon’s National News Agency said. It did not say if there were any casualties.

The Israeli army did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Senior Hezbollah politician Hassan Fadlallah, in a statement sent to Reuters, said Israeli air strikes were a “new escalation” to which the group was responding with new types of attacks, be it “in the nature of the weapons (used) or the targeted sites.”

The Israeli army earlier said “suspicious aerial targets” had crossed from Lebanon and two were intercepted. Two Israeli soldiers were moderately wounded and a number of others lightly injured from shrapnel and smoke inhalation, it said.

Israeli fighter jets carried out “an extensive series of strikes on Hezbollah terror targets in Lebanese territory,” it said. Sirens sounded in Israel at several locations at the border.

In Beirut, residents saw what appeared to be two warplanes streaking across a clear blue sky, leaving vapor trails behind them.

Hezbollah statements say its attacks aim to support Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Senior Hezbollah official Sheikh Ali Damoush said in a speech on Sunday the group would continue in its effort to “exhaust the enemy, and will not stop unless the aggression against Gaza and Lebanon stops.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that Beirut would be turned “into Gaza” if Hezbollah started an all-out war.

In one of several attacks announced by Hezbollah on Sunday, the group said it had launched the explosive drones at an Israeli command position near Ya’ara. In another, Hezbollah said it had fired Burkan (Volcano) missiles, which carry hundreds of kilograms of explosives.

Israeli air strikes were also reported on the outskirts of the Lebanese village of Yaroun, not far from the location of another of the Israeli positions Hezbollah said it had targeted on Sunday.

Those air strikes broke windows of houses, shops and a school in the nearby village of Rmeich, Toni Elias, a priest in Rmeich, told Reuters by phone.

Violence at the border has killed more than 120 people in Lebanon, including 85 Hezbollah fighters and 16 civilians. In Israel, the hostilities have killed seven soldiers and four civilians.

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