Dr. Alona Fisher-Kamm - Interview with Israel’s ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro

In a wide-ranging interview with the Magazine, Fisher-Kamm discussed a variety of topics such as Zionism’s roots in Serbia, Holocaust remembrance, global antisemitism and the issue of Kosovo.

ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO SERBIA Dr. Alona Fisher-Kamm at her desk in the embassy in Belgrade. (photo credit: ISRAELI EMBASSY IN BELGRADE)
ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO SERBIA Dr. Alona Fisher-Kamm at her desk in the embassy in Belgrade.
In a few weeks from now, Dr. Alona Fisher-Kamm, Israel’s envoy to Serbia and Montenegro, will pack her belongings and make her way back to Jerusalem, completing what by all accounts has been an exceptionally successful stint in Belgrade. During her term, bilateral relations between the two countries have blossomed, boosting trade, tourism, mutual understanding and friendship to new and unprecedented levels. With its strategic location in the Balkans, close ties to both East and West, and a strong historical affinity for Jews and Israel, Serbia has been drawing ever-more attention from Israel’s foreign-policy decision-makers.
This is in no small measure to Fisher-Kamm and her team who, despite laboring within tight budgetary constraints, have nonetheless made their presence – and Israel’s – felt in various sectors of Serbian society. A career diplomat, Fisher-Kamm has filled postings as far afield as Buenos Aires, Paris and Madrid. She speaks six languages and holds a doctorate from Tel Aviv University.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Magazine, she discussed a variety of topics such as Zionism’s roots in Serbia, Holocaust remembrance, global antisemitism and the issue of Kosovo.
Since Israel and Serbia re-established diplomatic relations in 1992 after the breakup of Yugoslavia, bilateral ties between the two countries appear to have grown much closer, particularly in the past several years. What are the factors behind this and how would you describe the current state of the relationship?
Relations between Israel and Serbia have been growing steadily, but in the last few years we have been witnessing a significant enhancement, not to be taken for granted. One of the factors is the current president and government. They understand the assets of Israel and their potential contribution, especially for the Serbian economy. Serbia is currently on the EU accession path. It focuses on its economy and strives to increase foreign investments.
In addition, it has been very successful in stabilizing and modernizing its economy. It is shifting from low-tech and an agriculture-oriented economy to a hi-tech one, developing a small but dynamic ecosystem. Israel serves as a role model and success story in this sense, as a small country under complicated geopolitical conditions and limited trade exchange with our neighbors.
Serbia and Israel are both small countries surrounded by historical foes. Each has seen their homeland invaded and occupied down through the centuries, and Serbs and Jews were murdered side by side during the Holocaust. How much of a role do these similarities play in terms of bolstering Serbian support for Israel?
Whenever analyzing relations between countries, one should bear in mind the mutual interests as well as the deep feelings of the people, negative and positive alike. In the case of Israel and Serbia, the emotional level and this feeling of solidarity and common destiny are very strong. They are based on the long Jewish presence in the Balkans and its interrelations with the local culture and on the Holocaust, which left its mark on the Serbian collective memory as well.
You feel it wherever you go in Serbia, from lectures in universities, interviews in the media, to meetings with politicians and decision-makers. Yet only in recent years, conditions have been met to transform these feelings into a clear and coherent political agenda beneficial for all.
Last September, for the first time since the Holocaust, a Hebrew center opened in Belgrade. Then, to mark Israel Independence Day, several key locations in Belgrade were illuminated with blue and white lights. Do you think these indicate a trend of some sort? Is there growing interest in Israeli culture among Serbs?
No doubt, we should see these two milestones as part of a growing tendency to enhance the relations in all fields and create more long-term platforms for cultural and academic exchanges. The Serbian public is particularly curious and open to foreign cultural activities and the number of festivals here is impressive. Israel is considered a leading country when it comes to cultural manifestations also thanks to big efforts of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Yet in my opinion, these two events represent more than a regular cultural exchange.
The opening of the first academic institute for Hebrew would enable us to create in the long run a cadre of academic experts and researchers on different aspects of Israel and Judaism, and to fill the gap due to years of academic absence here. The lighting of four iconic sites of Belgrade in blue and white to celebrate Israel’s 72nd anniversary is an exceptional gesture of the city that sends another clear message of solidarity.
Several months ago, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic attended the AIPAC Conference in Washington, DC, where he announced that Serbia would be opening an economic and diplomatic office in Jerusalem. How important is this step and what does it signify in terms of international recognition of Israel’s capital?
This historical statement of President Vucic is a huge step forward in the relations between Serbia and Israel. On the one hand, it is the next natural step when you follow the enhancement of relations in recent years.
On the other hand, one needs to remember Serbia is a non-EU country, striving to solve its pending issues with its neighbors in the Balkans, a region where big powers have always played an important role. When you take the challenges that Serbia is facing today and you see this statement as part of many other important steps taken by both sides in recent years, you can appreciate its real magnitude.
Ethnic strife and historical memory have played a large role in the Balkans for centuries. How does this impact or complicate Israel’s diplomatic efforts in the region?
In the Balkans, history and the struggle for historical narratives are very dominant in general and in politics in particular. One should be very sensible and attentive to all narratives. It is very easy to fall into the cliché and stereotype trap.
I believe the message should be that the will and interest of Israel to develop friendly relations with all the countries in the region do not come at the expense of anyone. On the contrary, Israel’s growing interests in the region serve the Balkans and the will of its governments to guarantee peace, stability, economic growth and prosperity.
What are some of the key points that you stress in your hasbara [public diplomacy] efforts vis-à-vis the Serbian public and media? How receptive have they been to the message?
I repeat the message of historical ties while mentioning the need to nurture them and to work together to fill this friendship with substantial content. While leaning on our common history, we should follow our present interests and look to the future.
Another message is the relevance of Israeli know-how to the social and economic goals of Serbia. One of the main challenges that Serbia faces today is the migration of youth. The authorities are investing much effort in attracting them through innovation, entrepreneurship, etc. – all areas where Israel has a lot of experience. We are an important player in this domain through different stakeholders, including MASHAV, the development agency of Israel.
What has Serbia’s stance been regarding the Iranian threat to Israel as well as the dispute with the Palestinians? Do you detect any shift in their position in recent years?
Serbia is not taking sides in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It hardly makes any official statements in this regard. Although I would expect and hope for better voting patterns in the UN arena from such a friendly country, I do acknowledge the growing understanding in Serbia of the challenges that Israel is facing in the region. I believe that with time we can expect even better results in this regard.
When it comes to Iran, it is safe to say the world is slowly realizing the destabilizing role it has in our neighborhood, yet raising the awareness is a sluggish process.
Despite international pressure, Israel has refused to recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia. Why is that?
Israel, out if its own perspective of the Middle East, rejects in principle the idea of unilateral measures, and in particular, unilateral declarations of independence without a comprehensive agreement. I believe that our allies understand and respect this position that strengthens Israel in the international arena. I hope that new developments in the Balkans will facilitate a process leading to an agreement that will allow the region to invest more efforts in its well-being and prosperity.
A few years ago, Serbia became the first European country to adopt a law regarding the restitution of Jewish property that was seized during World War II. How has this law been implemented?
Indeed. Serbia should be commended for adopting unanimously in 2016 that law that allows restitution of Jewish property, not only to the heirs but also to the Jewish community in case there are no heirs. This is extremely important for countries like Serbia, where 85% of the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
In addition, the law allocates around $1 million per year from the Serbian budget for the well-being of the Jewish community, for Holocaust survivors and Holocaust remembrance. This is unique and unprecedented in Europe. Today, the law is implemented and the Jewish community can enjoy better conditions as a community and as individuals. Its success should serve as a model to other European states that are reluctant to do so for obvious reasons.
In recent years, trade and tourism between Israel and Serbia have undergone significant growth. In what fields in particular have Israeli firms proven successful? And where do you think there is room for further growth?
Well, the main Israeli investments in Serbia are in real estate: residential buildings, offices and commercial complexes. Israeli investment in this field has had a leading position for many years. In recent years, we see the Israeli investment portfolio diversified. It includes renewable energy, water treatment and management, agricultural technologies, engines, food and beverage, transportation, IT, etc. The embassy has a visible and even prominent role in enhancing the economic exchanges. Yet, I believe there is room for many more areas to be discovered.
Trade between Serbia and Israel is relatively low but is growing steadily – around 15% every year. The signing of an agreement for the avoidance of double taxation as well as other economic agreements should give important impetus to the relations. But the lack of a free trade agreement is an impediment that needs the attention of both authorities. Another significant development is the increased number of Israeli tourists in the last four years, since the introduction of direct low-cost flights between Tel-Aviv and Belgrade. I hope that this tendency will be followed also by an increased number of Serbian tourists to Israel that is growing steadily.
There has been growing academic cooperation between Israel and Serbia, with the University of Belgrade and Kiryat Ono College in Jerusalem forging ties and creating centers to promote mutual study. Do you foresee more such initiatives taking place in the future?
Academic exchange is an important component of relations between two countries. It contributes to better education of the young generation and better understanding of each other. Given the potential in both countries, I would expect more long-run joint academic projects in various fields.
In this regard, the cooperation between the University of Belgrade and Ono College is very encouraging. Ono College is supporting the Center for Hebrew Language and Civilization at the Belgrade University, while the University of Belgrade is supporting the Center for Serbian Studies in Ono’s college in Jerusalem. There are several more academic initiatives and projects like the Seminar of Jewish Culture in the University of Belgrade in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University. Medicine, exact sciences, engineering are just some examples of academic areas that are worth exploring.
Antisemitism is on the rise around the world, particularly in Europe. What is the situation in Serbia, and what steps have the government taken to combat it?
Jews and Judaism are well respected in Serbia. Antisemitism has a very low profile here, and during my mandate I have been witness to one severe case of desecration of Jewish graves, which is of course one too many.
Generally, Jews feel safe in Serbia, and the few minor incidents I was aware of were always met with the appropriate reaction by the authorities. Yet, hate speech and antisemitism in social media know no boundaries and it would not be wise to assume that any country is immune. Personally, I participated in many events dedicated to this important issue, highlighting the message that fighting antisemitism is not an Israeli or Jewish task but the duty of the governments, as antisemitism serves as a litmus test for society.
There has been growing concern expressed about a revival of nostalgia for fascism in neighboring Croatia, where public displays of support for the wartime Ustaše regime, which was allied with Nazi Germany, have become all too frequent. How worrisome is this development?
Any sign of Holocaust denial, Holocaust relativism or revisionism in Europe and around the world should be of great concern for us and for European society, as it undermines the values Europe is founded on. Education, legislation and Holocaust remembrance are the three pillars to face this challenge.
I am very encouraged by the measures that Serbia has been taking in the last years. Just to name a few: the recent adoption of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, the inauguration of the beautiful and historical synagogue in Subotica, the Law of Property Restitution, and the activities dedicated to Holocaust remembrance on the 27th of January and throughout the year.
Finally, yet importantly, I would mention the visit of President Vucic to Jerusalem to mark 75 years of the liberation of Auschwitz. This was followed by the gesture of hanging a yellow flag with the Star of David on the balcony of the President’s Residence to send a message of pride instead of humiliation. This does not mean that all measures were taken to ensure that antisemitism will not prevail, but I think these are crucial steps and I wish many other countries would follow.
Earlier this year, the Serbian National Assembly passed a law to create a memorial center at Staro Sajmište, the site of a Nazi extermination camp on the outskirts of Belgrade, which was then part of the Independent State of Croatia, where thousands of Jews, Serbs and Roma were murdered. How crucial is this to ensuring Holocaust remembrance and educating the next generation?
One cannot overestimate the importance of this law, adopted earlier this year after much anticipation and debates. Staro Sajmište (the Old Fairground) is a symbol of the joint suffering of Jews, Serbs and Roma in Serbia during the Holocaust. Yet, for us, the Jews, Staro Sajmište represents the site where Jewish women, elderly and children from Belgrade and beyond were concentrated and sent to death in gas trucks.
For years, the place was neglected and is still in very bad shape today. Under the new law, authorities will build a museum, and education and research centers as an appropriate memorial for the victims. By opening the center to the public, Serbs and foreigners will have the opportunity to learn, at last, the history of this camp and its atrocities.
Serbia and some Holocaust scholars have been trying to raise greater public awareness about Jasenovac, the death camp that was run by the Ustaše regime in Croatia where countless thousands of Jews and Serbs were murdered during World War II. Why isn’t Jasenovac more well-known outside the region?
It is a very critical question that maybe others would be able to better answer. I can only guess the historical circumstances that led to this oblivion. What is essential now is to see what we can all do in order to restore justice for the victims of Jasenovac.
Yet as the atrocities of this camp, known as “Auschwitz of the Balkans,” are not well documented, deep academic research is still required in order to avoid dominance of political stances. I am glad to see that several steps were taken in this direction.
How did the coronavirus affect Serbia and the functioning of the embassy? Did it have any impact on the bilateral relationship between the two countries?
COVID-19 is a multidimensional crisis that affects us all. At the very beginning of the crisis, President Reuven Rivlin had a very friendly conversation with the Serbian president, where they exchanged views about the situation and explored ways for Israel and Serbia to collaborate in facing the challenge.
On behalf of MASHAV, the Embassy of Israel donated to Serbia basic hygienic and food products for the elderly and other vulnerable sectors during the lockdown. Experts from both countries exchanged best practices either bilaterally or in virtual multilateral forums. The crisis in my opinion has shown two things: the importance of having friends and a strong position in the international arena, and the big asset that Israel has, not only as a Start-Up Nation but more importantly, as a social impact nation.
Theodor Herzl’s grandparents are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Zemun, a Belgrade suburb, where Rabbi Yehuda Alkalay, one of the founding fathers of religious Zionism, served as chief rabbi in the 19th century. And Serbia was the first country to recognize the Balfour Declaration in 1917, thanks in part to the efforts of Capt. David Albala, a Serbian-Jewish war hero. Do you think that Serbia’s role in Zionism’s history is sufficiently appreciated?
Before coming here, I was aware that Theodor Herzl’s family originated from Zemun, where Rabbi Yehuda Alkalay served as chief rabbi. I was less aware of David Albala’s crucial role in Serbia becoming the first country to recognize the Balfour Declaration. The more I read, the more I was fascinated and had the feeling that this is not coincidence.
Serbia was home to a very strong Zionist movement and activity. In August 2018, Rivlin was the first Israeli president to visit Serbia. In a very emotional event, both presidents named a street after Herzl in Zemun, right next to the already existing Rabbi Alkalay Street. I am not sure there are many cities in the world where you can find in one neighborhood two streets named after the founding fathers of the State of Israel.
As you look back on your four years of service in Belgrade, how would you summarize your term and what advice would you give to your successor?
These years were fulfilling. I had the great honor to take part and contribute to the improvement of relations between Israel and Serbia. I enjoyed a friendly environment that facilitated the activities of the embassy here.
It is never easy to leave a country, but this time I find it even harder. Luckily, COVID-19 spared me the traditional farewell parties. It might be easier for me without them. My wish for my successor is that they enjoy the same spirit of collaboration that I did in all venues of society.
“The sky is the limit” might be an overused cliché, but no doubt the potential for our bilateral relations needs to be fulfilled for the benefit of the two countries.
The writer is founder and president of the Israel-Serbia Friendship Association.