An online petition is using false allegations to seek the resignation of Maxim Benvenisti, a member of the executive board of the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom”, as deputy head of the National Council for Co-operation in Ethnic and Integration Issues at the Cabinet Office.
The petition went online recently, launched by Hristo Kyuchukov, an author and activist who has a Roma rights NGO. Benvenisti was appointed in April 2019 to the National Council, following overwhelming support for his candidacy.
The petition claims that Benvenisti, at a meeting of the council, supported the controversial policy proposal by Bulgaria’s ultra-nationalist VMRO party on Roma people – proposals condemned by critics as racist and anti-Roma. Benvenisti rejects the claim that he supported the VMRO document as a lie and is consulting legal counsel with a view to court action for defamation.
In a statement e-mailed to the Bulgarian Jewish community, Benvenisti said that he was not persuaded that the initiators of the petition were aware that the draft policy concept considered by the council was not the VMRO concept.
He pointed out that Shalom had in February 2019 expressed its firm condemnation of the VMRO document, a position by Shalom that he had supported at a meeting of its executive bureau.
Shalom’s condemnation of the VMRO document was expressed in a public statement on February 13. It called on Parliament not to even consider the document, and condemned the use of terminology such as “social parasites” in the document, saying such words were reminiscent of Nazism.
The online petition comes against a background of a campaign seeking to discredit Shalom, including by falsely alleging that the Bulgarian Jewish organisation, by far the country’s largest and most representative, is supporting neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists.
In a statement responding to the petition, Shalom said that it and its leaders had consistently and categorically opposed all manifestations of antisemitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination in Bulgarian society.
“The principles of tolerance and mutual respect are deeply rooted in our relationships with our partners as well. Shalom fully supports Mr Maxim Benvenisti, who will seek judicial protection of his rights against attempts at insult and slander,” the organisation said.
Kyuchukov, according to his web page, launched the Balkan Foundation for Cross-cultural Education and Understanding ‘Diversity’ in 1995. The page lists his PhDs and professorships, his authorships and describes him as a “Turkish speaking Muslim Roma from Bulgaria”.
It does not mention what was announced by Bulgaria’s Dossier Commission on June 16 2011, that Kyuchukov had worked for the country’s communist-era secret service State Security.
The Dossier Commission, empowered by statute to disclose people in certain walks of life who had worked for State Security, said that Kyuchukov had been Agent Boev, recruited in July 1984. It based its announcement on evidence including his handwritten declaration of willingness to work for State Security, as well as staff documents and card index files.
At least one of the backers of the petition against Benvenisti is also a former State Security collaborator.
In an interview with Bulgarian human rights website Marginalia, the president of Shalom, Associate Professor Alexander Oscar, described the text of the petition as “extremely misleading”.
“Such petitions are not able to downplay what has been done, nor to prevent us, together with our partners in the human rights world and the relevant public authorities, from continuing to fight against antisemitism, hate speech, xenophobia, racism and discrimination in Bulgarian society,” Dr Oscar said.
He said that Shalom had contacted Kyuchukov and told him that the text of the petition was inaccurate and misleading and that Benvenisti would take court action.
“We were advised to think what the consequences would be for our organisation if this were to grow into a scandal in Western Europe. Of course, we informed our international partners in a timely manner,” Dr Oscar said.
“I personally take such words as an outright threat and an attempt at blackmail against the Jewish community. Shalom strongly supports Maxim Benvenisti, the request for his resignation is baseless and we will oppose all attempts at tarnishing his name and the name of the organisation,” he said.
(Photo of Benvenisti: Moni Frances)