Serbia: Lost and found

Fundamentally Freund: During the 1990s, many American Jews rallied behind Bosnia and Kosovo, in effect viewing Serbia as a lost cause.

St. Sava cathedral in Belgrade, Karadjordje Petrovic statue  (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
St. Sava cathedral in Belgrade, Karadjordje Petrovic statue
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Imagine a country with a long and proud history that is regularly vilified by the international press. It faces mounting pressure to concede its ancient heartland and turn its back on a central part of its cultural and spiritual heritage.
Surrounded by numerous foes, in a region where ancient hatreds run deep, this diminutive but intrepid people perseveres, standing firm on principle rather than selling out its age-old patrimony.
As familiar as this reality may sound to our Israeli ears, there is a country in the heart of Europe which would find it no less resonant: Serbia.
And given the close ties that existed between Serbs and Jews throughout much of the past thousand years, it behooves Israel and world Jewry to forge closer bonds with Belgrade.
Of course, for much of the past two decades, Serbia was viewed by many Jews as a pariah because of the Balkan wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Allegations of war crimes committed in Bosnia stirred up public opinion in America and the West, tarnishing the image of the Serbs and setting the stage for the subsequent confrontation over the status of Kosovo.
As a result, the age-old Serbian-Jewish relationship was nearly torn asunder, as many American-Jewish organizations and spokesmen chose to side with the Bosnians and the Kosovars in their struggle against the Serbs.
But the Serbia of 2012 is not the same as the Serbia of two decades ago. The country has changed course, leaving behind the authoritarianism of its past and fully embracing democratic values and norms. It has taken great strides to mend relations with its neighbors and extradited war crimes suspects to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
As a result, the European Union recently agreed to grant Serbia’s request to be an official candidate for membership, bringing it one step closer to full integration with the rest of Europe.
To be sure, Serbia continues to reject the idea of independence for Kosovo. But who can blame them? After all, history is clearly on their side.
By the end of the 12th century, Kosovo was serving as the administrative and spiritual center of Serbia. It remained so for two centuries until the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when Ottoman Turkish invaders defeated the Serbs and their allies. Over time, Kosovo’s Serbs were largely displaced by Albanians, who now make up the majority of the province’s population.
But numerous medieval Serbian churches and monasteries that dot Kosovo’s landscape stand as tangible proof of the area’s historical identity.
So it is no wonder that successive Serbian governments have refused to countenance the idea of capitulating on the territory’s status.
HOWEVER THE Kosovo issue eventually plays out, Israel and world Jewry should seize the opportunity now to rekindle a stronger relationship with Belgrade.
From the start, the relationship between Serbs and Jews was shaped by a sense of humanity. In the 14th century, Jews fleeing persecution in Hungary found refuge in the Serbian kingdom.
And even after Serbia was defeated by the Ottoman Turks in 1389 and subsequently subjugated, the Serbs nonetheless welcomed Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were exiled from Iberia a century later.
The Serbian town of Zemun, on the outskirts of Belgrade, played an important role in the Zionist movement.
Rabbi Shlomo Alkalai, an early religious-Zionist visionary, preached there in the 19th century, and a Jewish couple grew up there whose grandson, Theodor Herzl, would later alter the course of Jewish history.
More recently, during the Holocaust, Jews and Serbs found themselves the targets of their Croatian fascist neighbors, the Ustashe, who were allied with Hitler and proved to be energetic executioners. The Ustashe slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews and more than half a million Serbs in an orgy of violence and terror that left deep scars throughout the region. That sense of shared suffering is one that Serbs continue to feel towards Jews, and it underlines their strong sense of solidarity with Israel and the challenges that it faces.
Indeed, in a August 3 interview I conducted with Serbian Ambassador to Israel Zoran Basaraba, which appeared in The Jerusalem Post , he highlighted what he described as “a natural affinity” between Serbs and Jews. This affinity, he believes, can serve as the basis for further enhancing ties between the two peoples.
But in order for this to happen, I believe that Israel and world Jewry must move now to embrace Serbia and to stop viewing the country solely through the lens of the Bosnian war and the Kosovo conflict.
The fact is that Serbia is uniquely positioned to serve as an important bridge between East and West. It has longstanding historical and ethnic ties to Russia, and it is poised to join the EU in the near future.
In the coming years, once its economy stabilizes and emerges from the doldrums, Serbia’s strategic and diplomatic importance will only continue to grow. And with militant Islam actively seeking a foothold in Europe – particularly in places such as Bosnia and Albania – Serbia will undoubtedly play an increasingly significant role on the front-lines of the war on terror.
During the 1990s, many American Jews rallied behind Bosnia and Kosovo, in effect viewing Serbia as a lost cause.
But in light of everything that has happened in the interim, it is time that we “find” Serbia again – both for their sake and our own.