Tomislav Nikolic, the president of Serbia, began an official state visit to Israel Monday, marking the first time that he has traveled to Jerusalem since his election triumph last year.

Normally, the only excitement generated by a visiting head of state is some rowdier honking of Israelis’ car horns, as drivers find themselves trapped in a series of capricious and unforgiving traffic jams. But Nikolic’s three-day stopover is far more than just another diplomatic social call. Serbia is an important friend and ally of the Jewish state and the Serbian leader’s visit underlines just how close relations have become between the two countries. Israelis and world Jewry should welcome this turn of events and seek additional ways to broaden and deepen the relationship still further.

Indeed, the parallels between Israel and Serbia could not be more striking. Both are small countries in combustible regions which the international media love to criticize. Neither Serbia nor Israel gets a fair hearing at various international forums, and each is coming under relentless pressure to accede to the demands of their foes.

Much of the world has been pressing Serbia to forgo the breakaway province of Kosovo, even though it is the cradle of Serbian civilization.

And Israel of course is constantly being pressured to withdraw from Judea, Samaria and parts of Jerusalem, the heart of our ancient homeland.

But it is not only in our present predicaments that one can find such compelling similarities.

Our history and that of the Serbs are also profoundly intertwined, both in triumph and in tragedy.

In the mid-19th century, one of the founding fathers of Zionism, Rabbi Yehuda Alkalay, served as a rabbi in the Serbian town of Zemun outside Belgrade. Historians say his views were influenced greatly by the Serbian nationalism of his day, and that his writings inspired Theodor Herzl’s grandfather to embrace the Zionist cause.

In this sense, the two countries can each trace their modern-day yearnings for freedom and independence to the same period and source.

Nearly a century later in World War II, at the Jasenovac concentration camp run by Croatia’s fascist Ustashe regime, Jews and Serbs found themselves side by side as both were targeted for extermination by the Nazis and their sympathizers.

It is precisely because our historical experiences bear such a likeness to one another that Jews and Serbs share such strong bonds of friendship and understanding.

On a visit to Belgrade last week, I had the opportunity to speak to numerous Serbs, from taxi drivers to government officials, all of whom expressed admiration for Israel and its accomplishments.

And unlike in many other European capitals, I did not feel in the least bit uncomfortable roaming the streets of Belgrade with a kippa on my head. Just days before my arrival, the Conference of European Rabbis had held a large gathering in the city which brought together rabbinical leaders from across the continent.

Sure, for some Jews, the very mention of the name “Serbia” still conjures up vicious stereotypes of war criminals and racists. But that is neither fair nor accurate. This is 2013. Serbia is no longer an autocracy in conflict with its neighbors. The country has transformed itself into a vibrant model of democracy, one that has gone to great pains to put the past behind it. In an unprecedented move, Serbia extradited two former presidents, various government ministers, three army chiefs of staff and several police and army generals to stand trial in The Hague on charges related to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

And the Serbs have done so even though the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has proven to be decidedly one-sided in its handling of various cases that have come before it. Moreover, to lump all Serbs together and label them in a derogatory manner is intellectually dishonest and even slanderous. In fact, it is because Belgrade has made such great strides over the past decade that the European Union agreed last year to make Serbia an official candidate for EU membership.

Given these changes, it is time for those who still consider Serbia to be a villain to reconsider their position. This intrepid and spirited nation, standing at the crossroads between East and West, has repeatedly seen its territory occupied, its people expelled and its good name vilified.

As Jews, we know all too well what such suffering means, which is why we should view Serbia as a natural partner and move to boost our trade, investment and tourism with the Balkan nation, whose importance in the region will only continue to grow.

So “Dobrodosli u Izrael,” (welcome to Israel), our friend President Nikolic.

And may your visit signal the further strengthening of relations between Serbs and Jews.

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