Striking a chord

Invited by Union University Belgrade, Hebrew University law students traveled to Serbia to counter misinformation about the Jewish state.

StandWithUs 521 (photo credit: Sidelle Peled)
StandWithUs 521
(photo credit: Sidelle Peled)
It is nearly four years since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia at the United Nations. Serbia did not recognize the February 2008 resolution, recalled its ambassadors from all of the 85 countries that supported it, and indicted the Kosovarian leaders on charges of high treason. Although tensions have partially eased since then, Serbia has never changed its position on Kosovo’s independence.
Israel was one of 91 countries that opposed Kosovo’s motion, voting on the same side as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and South Africa to stymie Kosovo’s political aspirations. Although Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that the question is “a sensitive issue” and that Israel’s position might change at some point, the situation is tricky. Kosovo could be viewed as a precedent for a UN unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, and Israel would not wish to endorse such a step.
For many Israelis, details of the complicated and bloody history of the Balkan states are sketchy at best. President Slobodan Milosevic’s name is well-known; informed followers of the news remember him as the leader of Serbia and Yugoslavia who was charged with war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo and who died of a heart attack before sentence was passed. Less well-known is the background to recent conflicts, beginning with the Serbian Empire of the 14th century giving way to the Ottoman Empire of the 15th, which was periodically attacked by the Habsburgs. More recently, after World War I, Serbia and other South Slavic countries united to form Yugoslavia, until Serbia regained independence in 2006. Until nearly four years ago, Kosovo was an autonomous province within Serbia.
In 2008, amid great controversy, Kosovo declared independence. And despite Israel’s vote in favor of Serbia’s position, Serbia recently supported the PLO’s bid to become a full-fledged member of UNESCO – possibly due to wider political considerations and relations with Russia and the Arab world.
RECENTLY A group of eight students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem took a crash course on the history of central and southeast Europe, equipping themselves for a five-day intensive seminar in Belgrade. They belong to StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group founded in 2001 to counter misinformation about the Jewish state and promote education.
Earlier this year, StandWithUs students at the university organized the four-day Student Conference on International Law (SCIL), with over 50 participants from 24 countries. Leading professionals such as former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, Channel 2 senior commentator Ehud Ya’ari and former ambassador to Canada Alan Baker spoke to the visiting students about various legal issues in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The myriad international laws that pertain to warfare are complicated: When can an army fire on civilians? What is a disproportionate response to terror? How do soldiers in uniform fight an enemy that hides in residential areas?
The conference was a resounding success, and the follow-up was swift. Prof. Dr. Vladimir Vodinelic, dean of law at the Union University Belgrade, wrote in an email to the Hebrew University students that the Serbian students had been impressed by the conference program and its speakers. Moreover, he wrote, they were “overwhelmed with the students who organized it and consequently came with the idea of inviting them to Belgrade.”
Vodinelic suggested that a reciprocal conference would serve to familiarize more Serbian students with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the concomitant international law issues, as well as serving as a basis for cooperation in the future. Even temperatures of minus 1ºC at midday in Belgrade couldn’t dampen the Jerusalem students’ enthusiasm, and soon Facebook messages were flying across the world. A SCIL participant from England joined in, funding was raised through StandWithUs, the Israeli Embassy in Belgrade and Direct Capital Serbia CEO Gili Dekel, and another conference was born.
“Our hosts could not have been warmer,” says Sidelle Peled, one of the Israelis in the delegation. “We stayed with students who had been in Jerusalem, and they wined and dined us constantly, and then wouldn’t allow us to help with the washing up. They had checked out laws of kashrut and found food without meat for us, and even moved out of their own bedrooms to make us more comfortable. They were wonderfully welcoming.”
The experience, of course, consisted of more than learning to drink rakia, the fermented fruit-based alcohol that is popular throughout the Balkans. The students met with Israeli Ambassador Yossef Levy and his deputy, Eyal Naor, and visited the Belgrade Parliament buildings, where they discussed political issues with National Assembly Secretary-General Veljko Odalovic and his assistant, Mirjana Radakovic. They were also invited to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they met with Srdjan Majstorovic, a representative of the government body responsible for Serbia’s bid to join the EU.
The Israelis explained the situation in their country on two national TV stations and at lectures at Union University’s Law Faculty campus, as well as in informal meetings throughout their visit. Their explanations struck a chord in their listeners, who could relate to the issues of security and warfare. After one lecture, a Serbian student who works at the Belgrade Human Rights Center said the Israeli situation made the problem with Kosovo “seem like a piece of cake.” Milica Filipovic, who organized the Belgrade conference along with fellow law student Sonja Petrovic, was inspired to give a lecture on Israel in her own law firm.
“Bit by bit, we will tell Israel’s side of the story to students in other parts of the world,” says Tal Dror, one of the organizers of the SCIL conference in Jerusalem. “We hope to have more follow-up meetings in other places, and to cement the friendships we have made. Slowly we can change perceptions, one person at a time.”
One of the perceptions of Europe, from an Israeli standpoint, is what happened in the Balkans during the Holocaust. The Serbian hosts stressed that their country had fought against the Nazis during World War II. A prominent Serbian football team is called Partisan Belgrade. However, the remaining Jewish population in Serbia is dwindling rapidly and currently numbers fewer than 3,000, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s official website. Although most Serbians don’t know Jews personally, the old stereotypes persist: Jews run America, Jews are stingy, Jews are clever and conniving.
“Our hosts didn’t subscribe to this kind of thinking,” adds participant Kfir Battat, “but we [made] sure to invite them out for meals to prove to them how generous we are!”
According to StandWithUs head Michael Dickson, governmental relations between Israel and Eastern Europe are at a historic high, as opposed to much of Western European public opinion regarding the Jewish state.
“As Israel and much of Eastern Europe expand economic, military and political cooperation on the macro scale, the Israeli student delegation to Belgrade improved Israeli-Serbian relations on an interpersonal micro-level,” he explains.
A few glasses of rakia will do that for interpersonal relations every time.