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
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.
and that of the Serbs are also profoundly intertwined, both in triumph and in
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
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.
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.
“Dobrodosli u Izrael,” (welcome to Israel), our friend President
And may your visit signal the further strengthening of relations
between Serbs and Jews.