Albania, a country in Southeastern Europe that captivates with its rich history, stunning landscapes, and vibrant culture, also hosts a microscopic Jewish community of about 45 Jews. And even so, Albania invests time and funds in telling the unique story of its Jewish history and in strengthening ties with Israel.
“I really believe that this episode of our history, when Albania saved Jews, is such an important part of our DNA as a nation,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama told The Jerusalem Post during a visit to Israel last week. He explained that this period “has to be cherished and has to be treasured very well. I want our next generation to know their past, because our grandfathers made something absolutely stunning by putting themselves in line to protect the Jews.” Rama has visited Israel twice as prime minister, but even more times privately on personal family vacations, as he did last week.
The prime minister shared that the Jews arrived in Albania at four different times, from as early as the second century. “They even created a city named Jericho. We call it Oricum and it was founded by the Jews.”
Saranda, formerly known as Oricum, is believed to have been the location of Albania’s earliest synagogue, constructed in the 4th or 5th century. This synagogue is thought to have been built by the descendants of Jews who settled on the southern coast of Albania around 70 CE. However, in the sixth century, the synagogue was replaced by a church.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, Oricum, then called Jericho, was part of a Byzantine province that also included Kanina and Aulon. This province, known as Provincia Jericho et Caninon, is mentioned in the imperial chrysobull granted to Venice in 1198 by Alexios III Angelos.
Rama proudly speaks of the important role that his country played during the Holocaust by saving Jews. “During the Second World War, we became the only country with more Jews after the war than before it. There wasn’t even one case of a Jew that was given to the Nazis.”
Rama recently announced the opening of two new Jewish museums in Albania, one in Vlore and one in Tirana, the capital. The museums will be dedicated to the history and culture of the Jewish community in the country, as well as to the Albanians who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The museum in Vlora will be located in the historic synagogue in the city’s Old Town. Built in the 19th century, the synagogue is one of the oldest in Albania. The museum in Tirana will be located in the former Jewish Community Center.
“We are building the Vlora museum in the famous Jewish district, where there is still a road named for their Jews. We’re building the museum in an old house that is also being remodeled in modern architecture,” Rama said, adding that the museum in the capital will focus on broader issues. “It will be a combination of Jewish history, the story of Albania, and there will be a space for tolerance, dialogue and interfaith relations.”
The renowned Basel-based firm, Oppenheim Architecture, has won the design competition for the new museum, it was announced last week. The competition, funded by Israeli philanthropist Alexander Machkevitch, aimed to find the best design solution for the construction of the museum. It will be located in Tirana’s historic House of Toptans. With its 19th-century architecture designated as a cultural heritage and monument, the museum’s construction presents a unique challenge of restoring a cherished building while reflecting contemporary elements.
Rama hopes that, when these museums are opened officially, Israeli and Jewish tourists from around the world will come and visit them. “We are having a growing number f tourists from Israel,” Rama said, thanking Israel’s Arkia airline for providing direct flights from Tel Aviv to Tirana.
Albania's small Jewish community
Rama explained that Albania’s Jewish community is very small, since “most of them moved to Israel after the fall of the Soviet regime.” According to the World Jewish Congress, between 40 and 50 Jews live in Albania out of a population of 2.87 million in 2017.
Asked about the relations between his country and Israel, Rama said that “fortunately, the relations are excellent, but are not substantial in the sense that could have been much bigger, deeper and more important, because the bond is very strong. Politically, we stand with Israel all the time, as well as in the UN Security Council, where we have a seat now.
“We have been very vocal in Albania on antisemitism,” Rama continued. “We have passed all legislation on antisemitism, as well as promoting the learning about the Jewish Holocaust in schools and so on.” He added that Albania hopes “to convince more Jewish politicians to be more engaged with Albania, because there are a lot of opportunities.”
He also hopes for more tourists from Israel and the Jewish world to come to Albania, since “the direct flight from Israel is a bit more than two hours long.”
During the interview, Rama spoke of “incredible documents,” in the Albanian archives, one of which has to do with the approach of his country to the Jewish Sabbath. “Albania was the only country before the world war to acknowledge the Shabbat in the law. This took place before the Second World War, while the law said it is forbidden for any public or private entity to oblige Jews to work on Shabbat.”
He emphasized that this law wouldn’t let employers pay Jews any less, since they weren’t working on Shabbat, “they had to be paid like everyone else.”
According to Rama, “this was the first legislation with positive discrimination of Jews in Europe.” In addition, he mentioned that in the 1930s, a delegation of Jewish Americans organized a delegation to Albania “where they met the king and asked if Albania were keen to give the Jews some lands in order to create settlements.”
Rama said that “there is a report which was found in the Congress archives, about the visit. It is stunning. It says ‘the king offered us four large blocks on the seaside of Albania, to have four settlements for Jews.’ It also spoke of the generosity, the kindness and the promptness with which the Albanian governments received them. They wrote that after visiting Albania, “it made us believe that Albania can be our reserve land until we go back to our land.’”
In November, the Post’s Tzvi Joffre reported that Albania announced it was severing ties with Iran and expelling Iranian diplomats due to a cyberattack it says was conducted by Iranians in July, in an attempt to destroy Albania’s digital infrastructure. Rama stated that, after a thorough investigation, it was confirmed “with indisputable evidence” that the attack was conducted by Iran.
“They continue to attack and we continue to defend,” Rama said of Iran, adding that “Israel is helping us to boost our defense and therefore, they are not good company.”
Hosting the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) Iranian-opposition group, was why Iranians attacked Albania, according to Rama.
He very much wishes “that Saudi Arabia will be the next country to create official ties with Israel,” explaining that, “paradoxically, Jews and Muslims have a common concern, which is Iran.” The prime minister also explained that he has always thought that Arab countries would strengthen ties around the common threat of Iran.
He added that he sees the solution to the Palestinian issue in creating a united front among all Arab nations, rather than solely focusing on Palestine. “By rallying all Arabs together, positive pressure can be exerted on the Palestinians to join a new era of cooperation.”
Rama, 58, has served as prime minister since 2013 and is also the chairman of the Socialist Party of Albania. Prior to becoming prime minister, Rama held various positions, including minister of Culture, Youth and Sports from 1998 to 2000, and mayor of Tirana, for more than a decade. He is the only Albanian prime minister to win three consecutive terms. Rama is also a painter, writer, former university lecturer and former basketball player.
“Before I became minister of culture, I entered my office as the first ministry ever in my life,” Rama said, explaining that before entering politics he was an artist and lecturer in universities, never participating in long meetings and sitting in an office for hours. “I would be in these very long meetings so I would sit there with a pile of papers and I was drawing all the time.”
He took out his phone and displayed photos of his office, covered in wallpaper cut-outs that he created from his drawings. “It’s not a typical office of a prime minister,” Rama jokes.