Serbia: Lost and found
Fundamentally Freund: During the 1990s, many American Jews rallied behind Bosnia and Kosovo, in effect viewing Serbia as a lost cause.
St. Sava cathedral in Belgrade, Petrovic statue Photo: SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Imagine a country with a long and proud history that is regularly vilified by
the international press. It faces mounting pressure to concede its ancient
heartland and turn its back on a central part of its cultural and spiritual
Surrounded by numerous foes, in a region where ancient hatreds
run deep, this diminutive but intrepid people perseveres, standing firm on
principle rather than selling out its age-old patrimony.
As familiar as
this reality may sound to our Israeli ears, there is a country in the heart of
Europe which would find it no less resonant: Serbia.
And given the close
ties that existed between Serbs and Jews throughout much of the past thousand
years, it behooves Israel and world Jewry to forge closer bonds with
Of course, for much of the past two decades, Serbia was viewed
by many Jews as a pariah because of the Balkan wars that followed the break-up
Allegations of war crimes committed in Bosnia stirred up
public opinion in America and the West, tarnishing the image of the Serbs and
setting the stage for the subsequent confrontation over the status of
As a result, the age-old Serbian-Jewish relationship was nearly
torn asunder, as many American-Jewish organizations and spokesmen chose to side
with the Bosnians and the Kosovars in their struggle against the
But the Serbia of 2012 is not the same as the Serbia of two
decades ago. The country has changed course, leaving behind the authoritarianism
of its past and fully embracing democratic values and norms. It has taken great
strides to mend relations with its neighbors and extradited war crimes suspects
to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
As a result, the
European Union recently agreed to grant Serbia’s request to be an official
candidate for membership, bringing it one step closer to full integration with
the rest of Europe.
To be sure, Serbia continues to reject the idea of
independence for Kosovo. But who can blame them? After all, history is clearly
on their side.
By the end of the 12th century, Kosovo was serving as the
administrative and spiritual center of Serbia. It remained so for two centuries
until the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when Ottoman Turkish invaders defeated
the Serbs and their allies. Over time, Kosovo’s Serbs were largely displaced by
Albanians, who now make up the majority of the province’s population.
numerous medieval Serbian churches and monasteries that dot Kosovo’s landscape
stand as tangible proof of the area’s historical identity.
So it is no
wonder that successive Serbian governments have refused to countenance the idea
of capitulating on the territory’s status.
HOWEVER THE Kosovo issue
eventually plays out, Israel and world Jewry should seize the opportunity now to
rekindle a stronger relationship with Belgrade.
From the start, the
relationship between Serbs and Jews was shaped by a sense of humanity. In the
14th century, Jews fleeing persecution in Hungary found refuge in the Serbian
And even after Serbia was defeated by the Ottoman Turks in 1389
and subsequently subjugated, the Serbs nonetheless welcomed Spanish and
Portuguese Jews who were exiled from Iberia a century later.
town of Zemun, on the outskirts of Belgrade, played an important role in the
Rabbi Shlomo Alkalai, an early religious-Zionist
visionary, preached there in the 19th century, and a Jewish couple grew up there
whose grandson, Theodor Herzl, would later alter the course of Jewish
More recently, during the Holocaust, Jews and Serbs found
themselves the targets of their Croatian fascist neighbors, the Ustashe, who
were allied with Hitler and proved to be energetic executioners. The Ustashe
slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews and more than half a million Serbs in an
orgy of violence and terror that left deep scars throughout the region. That
sense of shared suffering is one that Serbs continue to feel towards Jews, and
it underlines their strong sense of solidarity with Israel and the challenges
that it faces.
Indeed, in a August 3 interview I conducted with Serbian
Ambassador to Israel Zoran Basaraba, which appeared in The Jerusalem Post , he
highlighted what he described as “a natural affinity” between Serbs and Jews.
This affinity, he believes, can serve as the basis for further enhancing ties
between the two peoples.
But in order for this to happen, I believe that
Israel and world Jewry must move now to embrace Serbia and to stop viewing the
country solely through the lens of the Bosnian war and the Kosovo
The fact is that Serbia is uniquely positioned to serve as an
important bridge between East and West. It has longstanding historical and
ethnic ties to Russia, and it is poised to join the EU in the near
In the coming years, once its economy stabilizes and emerges from
the doldrums, Serbia’s strategic and diplomatic importance will only continue to
grow. And with militant Islam actively seeking a foothold in Europe –
particularly in places such as Bosnia and Albania – Serbia will undoubtedly play
an increasingly significant role on the front-lines of the war on
During the 1990s, many American Jews rallied behind Bosnia and
Kosovo, in effect viewing Serbia as a lost cause.
But in light of
everything that has happened in the interim, it is time that we “find” Serbia
again – both for their sake and our own.