Meet the man behind the rising Israel-Serbia ties

Serbia's Chamber of Commerce and Industry opened an office in Jerusalem last month, the seventh of its kind in the world. Its aim is to strengthen commercial and economic ties.

 ALEKSANDAR NIKOLIC, honorary consul of the Republic of Serbia to Israel. (photo credit: Courtesy)
ALEKSANDAR NIKOLIC, honorary consul of the Republic of Serbia to Israel.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Last month, in a sign of the further warming of ties between Jerusalem and Belgrade, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia opened a representative office in Israel’s capital. The office, the seventh of its kind to be established worldwide by the Serbs, aims to promote greater economic and commercial links as well as foster the requisite conditions for the signing of a Free Trade Agreement between Israel and Serbia.

Heading the office is Aleksandar Nikolic, a Belgrade-born Jew who graduated from Hebrew University and previously served on the Executive Board of the Federation of the Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia. In Israel, Nikolic worked as the Gaon Group’s Procurement Manager and he currently serves as Honorary Consul of the Republic of Serbia to Israel. In an interview with the Magazine, he discussed the significance of the office’s location in Jerusalem as well as highlighted the historical ties between Serbs and Jews, which he has long worked diligently to promote.

Congratulations on the opening of Serbia’s Representative Office of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jerusalem. What will be the focal points of the office’s work and what does its presence in Jerusalem signify?

Thanks, it is a very moving moment. I would divide the focal points of our work in two. The first is to strengthen connections in various fields such as IT, innovation and the hi-tech ecosystem. With its inexpensive yet well-educated labor market, Serbia has for some time been working on creating the conditions to serve as an attractive partner in the hi-tech sphere. Israel has long been recognized as a start-up nation, and many Israeli firms have already played a significant part in the Serbian IT sector’s surge. Top-rated Serbian institutions and organizations are involved in this bilateral cooperation, beginning with the cabinet of the Prime Minister in Belgrade. The other focal point of our office is to analyze and assist in overcoming obstacles that may arise in commercial exchange, to contribute to the atmosphere needed for a Free Trade Agreement as well as to widen the range of Serbian products available on the Israeli market. Obviously we also wish to foster Israeli investments in Serbia, especially in the field of renewable energy.

Regarding the location of our office, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to see the renewed Serbian organizational presence in Jerusalem. The City of David is so dear and important to the Serbian people dating back centuries to the times of Saint Sava and King Milutin. Spiritually regenerated in the last decades, the Serbian people view Jerusalem as one of the most intimate places connected to its identity. Opening the office in Jerusalem is yet another act that underlines Serbia’s traditional friendly attitude toward the Jewish people.

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin and Serbia's President Alexander Vucic in Belgrade, July 26, 2018 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)Israel's President Reuven Rivlin and Serbia's President Alexander Vucic in Belgrade, July 26, 2018 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

How would you describe the historical background of the relationship between the Jewish and Serbian peoples and the State of Israel and the Republic of Serbia?

I would like to refer to two historical events. Serbia was the very first country in the world to support the Balfour Declaration in writing. At the suggestion of Capt. David Albala, a Jew who served in the Serbian army, Milenko Radomar Vesnic, head of the Serbian War Mission in Washington DC who later served as a cabinet member and prime minister of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, signed the letter and called the future state by its current name: Israel.

The second event is unfortunately the joint suffering of the two peoples, together with the Roma people, during World War II and the Holocaust. It happened in the Independent State of Croatia, one of the two puppet states created by Nazi Germany, which was governed by the Ustasha regime. Using sadistic manual methods of mass execution, the Jasenovac death camp was operated by the Ustasha in occupied Europe during the war years, and Jews and Serbs died side by side there.

These two events are the very emotional basis on which the pragmatic and mutually beneficial relations between us should be built.

To what extent is the Serbian public aware of those very special moments in our joint history?

During the late 1980s and amid the gradual collapse of the Yugoslav communist regime, the Serbs started to look at their own authentic spiritual, cultural and historical heritage, which had been systematically neglected for 40 years. It was an enormous gap to be bridged. But a great deal of research and public activities have been undertaken in recent decades, creating a high level of Serbian awareness of their special ties with the Jewish people and therefore the State of Israel. 

But too often they are unpleasantly surprised with what appears to be, broadly speaking, a lack of Israeli awareness regarding those special moments in our joint history. Nonetheless, it is very encouraging that in recent years, competent institutions have become involved in contributing to greater understanding. These include the Serbian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Belgrade University, the National Library of Serbia, Archives of Vojvodina, the Museum of Genocide from Belgrade and the bishop of Pakrac and Slavonia Jovan. But more needs to be done to create a nucleus of scholars that would study and educate about the two cultures and civilizations. Hopefully, the creation of an academic bridge between the two countries, in particular the University of Belgrade and Kiryat Ono College in Jerusalem, will advance this goal.

How is modern Israel perceived in Serbia today?

Primarily as a start-up nation and the cradle of innovation. Israel is seen as a hub of high technology with an efficient military industry, and an example to be followed in many fields. Since the COVID-19 pandemic attacked globally, this feeling was further strengthened. The achievements of the state of the Jewish people in the fields of agriculture, water management and waste water treatment are highly valued. Israeli resilience and persistence in a world that is often highly antagonistic towards it has inspired a unique kind of admiration. Still, there is a lot to be done, especially in the fields of culture and art, although most popular Israeli writers have already been translated into Serbian. 

What are some of the key areas of trade and commerce between the two countries?

They include mechanical and chemical components, rubber products, polyethylene, polypropylene and PVC infrastructure components, pet food, cigarettes, furniture and deep-frozen berries. We are witnessing an impressive surge in Israeli IT companies engaging freelancers in Serbia. On the other hand, the most prominent Israeli investments in Serbia have been concentrated in the fields of renewable energy and traffic infrastructure along with real estate. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia is one of the most professional and experienced organizations in Serbia. It definitively possesses mechanisms to provide solutions and to reach all relevant officials. Its president, Marko Cadez enjoys an excellent reputation in many countries, such as Germany. We hope that bilateral trade and commerce between Israel and Serbia will continue to flourish.

 SERBIAN PRESIDENT Aleksandar Vucic addresses the nation, in Belgrade, 2020. (credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS) SERBIAN PRESIDENT Aleksandar Vucic addresses the nation, in Belgrade, 2020. (credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)

Prior to the corona outbreak, Serbia was becoming an increasingly popular destination for Israeli tourists. In addition, a growing number of Serbian tourists were visiting Israel, where they may have been surprised to see forests built by Keren Kayemeth that are named after King Petar the First of Serbia and King Aleksandar Karadordevic of Yugoslavia. Are you hopeful that we will see growing numbers of tourism in both directions?

In quite a short period of time, at most two years, Belgrade became a popular destination for Israeli tourists as it offers attractive prices for excellent hotels, boasts elegant restaurants and an interesting night life. This has made possible 12 weekly direct flights between Ben-Gurion and Nikola Tesla airports. Air-Serbia, El-Al, Arkia and Israir all were involved. More than 11,000 hotel nights monthly were registered by Israeli tourists in Serbia’s capital. In the opposite direction, Serbian tourists to Israel were predominantly pilgrims to the Holy Land, businessmen or participants in various cultural or sporting events. We were just about to begin promoting the real treasures of Serbia’s natural and historic beauty in the southwestern part of the country to foreign tourists and then COVID-19 struck.

While the Serbs are aware of the religious and historical heritage sites in the Holy Land, many were indeed pleasantly surprised to learn of the Jewish National Fund’s forests named after King Petar I Karadordevic, the Liberator, near Kibbutz Ginegar and Knightly King Aleksandar I Karadordevic, the Unifier, in the vicinity of the Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’Amakim. King Petar was one of the best educated and most liberal rulers of the region and he participated in laying the foundation stone of Belgrade’s Sephardic synagogue Beit Israel. His heir King Aleksandar continued with a constructive attitude toward the local Jewish community and oversaw passage of the Law on the Religious Community of the Jews in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. No doubt that both monarchs had the opportunity to get acquainted with their soldiers of the Jewish faith who bravely fought in both Balkan Wars and in the Great War (1912-1918).

Thankfully, both Israeli tourists in Serbia and Serbian tourists in Israel report an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and joy and this has led others to follow.

During the Holocaust, the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was ardently pro-Nazi, actively helped to recruit Bosnian Muslims to serve in the Waffen-SS. Why isn’t this historical fact more well known?

Al-Husseini’s incitement to genocide and alignment with the Axis powers were a bestial misuse of faith and religion. Scholars from the field are well acquainted with the subject but you are correct – the broader public is not. And this is true of other aspects of the Holocaust as well. For example, it is widely known that many Albanians in Albania demonstrated noble behavior in the face of great evil. But that does not mean one should overlook the atrocities committed by the Kosovo Albanian 21st Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Skenderbeg, the mountain infantry division of the Waffen-SS, and their role in the deportation of the Jews of Priština in May 1944 to Staro Sajmište and then to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Skenderbeg was only one of the three such divisions.

It is also less well known that Yugoslav partisans who fought the fascists during World War II were overwhelmingly ethnic Serbs, which is yet another element of the joint history shared by Jews and Serbs. 

Recently, relations between Israel and Poland suffered a heavy blow when the Polish government passed legislation to effectively halt the restitution of property to Holocaust-era victims. By contrast, Serbia took the lead in passing and implementing laws regarding restitution to Jews. What lies behind Belgrade’s approach to this issue?

Serbia’s Law regarding property seized from Holocaust victims who do not have living legal heirs from 2016 is widely considered to be the most progressive and comprehensive law of its kind. It definitely represents a pioneering approach and an example to be followed throughout the continent. It is very important to recall that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Serbian people were victims of Nazi Germany and its allies. The country was torn apart by the conquerors and their allies. Hence, the motive behind Serbia’s legislation is not one of guilt due to responsibility for what happened during the Holocaust but rather empathy because Serbs themselves suffered inhuman treatment at the hands of the Germans. 

Serbia’s law on restitution is a firm contribution to the fight against historical revisionism, which is getting stronger in so many places around the globe, as well as the struggle against growing antisemitism in too many places in Europe. The law aims to provide a little bit of justice after so many decades and it is most indicative of the sincere understanding of the Serbian people for the victims of the most terrible and unique crime committed in human history – the Holocaust. As a people that also suffered during World War II, the Serbs’ collective memory has been further strengthened by education. Let me finish my answer to your question by noting that when the law was passed by Serbia’s parliament, there was not a single vote cast against it. 

The President of the Republic of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, has taken numerous steps in recent years to build warmer ties with Israel and the Jewish people. What is the background of his understanding of the Jewish people?

The president is himself a descendant of a family that suffered heavy and terrible atrocities committed by the Ustasha regime during World War II in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As such, he has a natural capacity for empathy and understanding for the still-open wounds of the Jewish people. Indeed, in recent years, we have seen passage in Serbia of the law on Holocaust restitution as well as a law regarding the establishment of a Memorial Center at Staro Sajmište. Last year, Serbia accepted the definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. And President Vucic also addressed the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington. In addition, he took the unprecedented step of raising a yellow flag with a Star of David on it at the Presidency Building in Belgrade on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And in honor of Israeli Independence Day, Belgrade’s main bridges, buildings and public fountains were illuminated in blue and white. 

On each and every occasion the president showed the highest level of respect toward the local Jewish community and the Jewish world in general and he has done his very best to promote bilateral relations with the State of Israel. He is conversant with the history of the Jewish people and their contribution to Judeo-Christian civilization in general, so no one should be surprised by his friendship and admiration.