Israelis to teach Serbs how to say ‘shalom’

The decision to teach Hebrew to Serbs may seem confusing at first glance due to the country’s Jewish demographics.

June 22, 2019 22:17
A migrant boy rests on railways after crossing into the country from Serbia

A migrant boy rests on railways after crossing into the country from Serbia at the border near Roszke, Hungary. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Serbia’s oldest and largest institute of higher learning, Belgrade University, announced earlier this month that students in its Faculty of Philology would be able to study Hebrew language starting October 1.

The decision to accredit the study of Hebrew and Jewish culture in the country was made by the Serbian national educational accreditation body and with the full support of Prof. Ljiljana Markovic, dean of the Faculty of Philology. The first professor to teach Hebrew at Belgrade University will be Prof. Gideon Greif, a historian and Holocaust researcher from Israel, who was named a full professor at the University of Belgrade. Greif will also continue teaching about the World War II-era Ustasha-run death camp Jasenovac, as detailed in his book Jasenovac – the Auschwitz of the Balkans, as part of his course on the Holocaust at the Ono Academic College in Israel.

Study of Hebrew in Balkans after World War II

The decision to teach Hebrew to Serbs may seem confusing at first glance due to the country’s Jewish demographics. For starters, the amount of Jews who remained alive in the entire former Yugoslavia after the World War II numbered just 14,000 and about half of them immigrated to the newly founded State of Israel. Following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia maintained a Jewish community of less than 3,000 mostly elderly Jews. Many of the remaining Jewish youth took the war as a sign to move to Israel or somewhere else safer abroad and try their luck elsewhere.

However, the informal teaching of Hebrew in the former Yugoslavia already began in 1974 in under the auspices of Rabbi Cadik Danon – the former chief rabbi of Yugoslavia and a Jasenovac survivor.

Danon organized three groups of Hebrew courses that were held once a week on Mondays, says local Jewish historian Oliver Klajn. More advanced students were encouraged to help those who were just starting or were slow learners. A strong sense of solidarity existed among participants of the Hebrew lessons that were held in the community and willingness to help those left behind.

Five years after the course began, a strong connection was established with the World Hebrew Union (Brit Ivrit Olamit). Guests from that organization came to Belgrade and financially supported the educational endeavor. Soon Hebrew courses started in Novi Sad, Zagreb and elsewhere across the former Yugoslavia.

During the 1990s civil war, the Hebrew courses stopped, according to Klajn, but were soon renewed in the Jewish community of Belgrade. This includes the publication of a Hebrew-Serbian dictionary by Ana Shomlo, written in 1993. Another Hebrew-Serbian dictionary was published in 2001 by Zeljko Stanojevic. Today, an organization in Belgrade called “Center for Hebrew language and literature” teaches the subject. However, the move by the University of Belgrade to teach Hebrew is the first time the study of the language has received such high-level interest in Serbian academia and from state institutions.

Pact of brotherhood signed in blood

At least 80% of the Yugoslav Jewish population during World Word II was murdered along with more than 700,000 Orthodox Serbs killed by German and Ustasha fascists. This fact sealed a pact of brotherhood in blood between the two victim nations.

The “pact of brotherhood” isn’t just some Balkan poetry. It’s what you hear every day on the streets of Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia. Serbs who are knowledgeable of their own history are quick to point out that the Jasenovac death camp alone, located in present day Croatia, was the size of 250 soccer fields – 2.5 times the size of Auschwitz. It also witnessed the brutality of 57 methods of torture, humiliation and execution for a conservatively estimated 750,000 inmates who never made it out alive. Serbian bystanders mention Jasenovac even to any foreign looking tourists willing to listen for a bit.

However, this expression of brotherhood among victims only expressed itself after the fall of Josip Broz Tito. Before then, his socialist regime sought to paper over ethnic differences from the past and ignore the psychic and physical toll the war had on Yugoslavia’s different ethnic groups. A path that left a festering wound in the heart Yugoslavia, and turned deadly in the 1990s. Much like the situation with the Palestinian territories.

How cultural heritage becomes realpolitik

This strong belief in shared victimhood in history’s wrongs appears to have gone both ways with Israel’s past non-interference and support for the Serbian position in the wars of the 1990s when Yugoslavia broke up. As a close US ally and financial dependent, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Serbian-Jewish Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Tommy Lapid surprised many by breaking the Western consensus. Unlike the global hyperpower at the time, Israel acknowledged Serb grievances that lay at the roots of the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo as well. It also supposedly found backchannel means to assist those Serbs opposed to their disenfranchisement in their own historical homelands.

20th century cultural outlook

One shared misfortune which has brought the Israeli and Serbian outlook closer together has been the experience of repeatedly being subject to partition by larger foreign powers flying the face of justice and historical rights.

“Many Serbs I have spoken with are grateful for Israel’s principled refusal to recognize the independence of Kosovo, which is the heartland of Serbian history and the cradle of the Serbian nation,” says Michael Freund, the founder of the Israel-Serbia Friendship Association. Freund also served as deputy communications director in the Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s. “They [Serbs] often tell me that, ‘Kosovo is our Jerusalem.’ I believe that the establishment of a Hebrew faculty [at the University of Belgrade] represents a tangible step towards developing greater understanding between the two countries.”

Ensuring continued Hebrew education in Serbia

Continued education in Hebrew and Jewish culture in the Balkans will require the regular exchange of native Israelis (ideally of Balkan heritage) with Serbian Jews and non-Jews to Israel. Otherwise, a critical mass of knowledgeable individuals regarding this shared heritage would be lacking in both countries.

The academic starting point for this exchange in Israel will be at Ono Academic College and will involve four other faculties of the University of Belgrade: the faculty of law, teaching, medicine and physical education. Also included will be the Erasmus Programme – a student exchange mechanism for EU students.

Serb-Jewish connections through history

The doors for scientific, cultural and educational cooperation have in general opened following four years of close working ties between Serbia and Israel due to the efforts of Serbian Ambassador Ljiljana Niksic and Prof. Greif.

The government backers of this cultural endeavor emphasized that in their view the special historic and spiritual connections between the between Serbs and the Jewish people began when Saint Sava came twice on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1229 and 1334.

“Sava was an heir to the Serbian throne who gave up his title to become a monk to help serve the establishment of Orthodox monasteries in the Balkans and the Holy Land,” Niksic said. To this day, Saint Sava is viewed as the protector of the Serb people.

“His status among Serbians is legendary but completely unknown to most Jews and Israelis,” added Niksic.

Words have meaning. Perhaps if Saint Sava’s trips to and from Jerusalem are the path to “learning” shalom in two volatile parts of the world.

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