Behind the Headlines: Serbian Jews Stay out of Politics Amid Fears of Anti-semitic Backlash

The Jews of Serbia, attempting to maintain a normal life against the backdrop of the Bosnian war, are steering clear of the nationalist politics that dominate discourse in all parts of the former Yugoslavia.

But, say community leaders, they feel isolated from the rest of world Jewry and are concerned that critical statements by foreign Jews about the Serbian role in Bosnia and Yugoslavia may boomerang back to harm the local Jewish community.

There has already been some evidence of officially inspired anti-Semitism in direct response to anti-Serb positions made by foreign Jewish organizations, the leaders say.

“There are Jewish organizations in the United States that are very critical of the Serbian role in the Yugoslav war,” said David Al-bahari, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia.

Present-day Yugoslavia consists of the former republics of Serbia and Montenegro.

International Jewish organizations have the right to criticize, Albahari said in an interview during recent Holocaust commemoration ceremonies in the town of Subotica, on the Hungarian border.

“We are critical also,” he said, referring to the private sentiments of many Serbian Jews.

But, he said, these organizations issue statements “that the Serbian press reprints in a way to make it seem that it is the Jews who are against the Serbs.

“This is leading to anti-Semitism, which unfortunately is becoming stronger,” he said, citing as example the recent publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in several publications. He also said there have been “strong attacks on the Jews of the world on television and in the official newspapers.”

‘EASY TO PICK OUT JEWS AS TARGETS’

“In the current situation, the Serbs explain everything in terms of a conspiracy against Serbs, so they speak about the international conspiracy of freemasons and Jews, and so on,” he said.

“In such an atmosphere, it is easy to pick out Jews as targets. They fit easily into part of the ‘conspiracy against the Serbs.’ “

About 3,000 Jews live in the rump Yugoslavia. About 2,000 Jews live in the capital, Belgrade, and most others in Vojvodina province.

Many members of the community, particularly young or middle-aged, have left for Israel or elsewhere since the outbreak of the war in 1992.

Their departure has been somewhat countered, however, by the arrival of Jewish refugees from Bosnia, and also by the formal affiliation of a number of younger Jews who had never before had formal contact with the community.

Serbia’s Jews have attempted to maintain the full schedule of Jewish activities that went on before the war, despite isolation and hardships.

The international community imposed sanctions as a result of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s support for the Bosnian Serbs.

The monthly Jewish Federation bulletin for July/August reads almost like any other community newsletter, describing the activities of the sisterhood, formation of a Maccabee sports club, plans for sending young people to the Jewish summer camp in Hungary, Holocaust commemorations and renovation at the Jewish museum.

One section of the bulletin also tracks anti-Semitism, noting that, as in other countries, anti-Semitic material is found on computer networks.

Serbia’s Jews have only one rabbi, Cadik Danon, who is frail and elderly. A local young man is currently in Israel training for the rabbinate, and his return is eagerly anticipated.

The new rabbi “will be able to bring activity to religious life in Belgrade and all of Serbia,” Albahari said.

Albahari and others in the community stressed that Serbia’s Jews had to steer clear of politics. “We’ve decided not to interfere in daily politics,” said Judita, a teacher who gave only her first name. “No one is in political parties. Of course we are all unhappy because of the war. We have opinions, but in public we are not political.”

According to Mira Poljakovic, the president of the Yugoslav Jewish Women’s Organization, “It is very difficult to stay out of the war, but we Jews cannot be involved in politics. We are only Jews. We belong to the Jewish federation of the world; that’s our world.”

‘WE CANNOT TAKE SIDES’

“Our first decision is that we cannot take sides,” said Albahari.

“If we were to accept the idea that we were to be a political loudspeaker for the ‘Serbian cause,’ we realize that we would be simply abused,” he said.

In addition, he said, “we wanted to show and to prove to important world Jewish organizations that they should not get involved politically in this situation by taking sides. Their role should be humanitarian.”

Albahari said major Jewish organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress had “accepted our advice. They didn’t issue political statements that could hurt anyone here,” he said.

Albahari also said that Serbia’s Jews feel isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. They feel that Jews outside refrain from direct contact because of their opposition to Serbian policy.

“One thing that keeps surprising us,” he said, “is that there are Jewish organizations and individuals who simply would not come here because it wouldn’t be comfortable with their image.

“We haven’t had (many) people coming here and asking us as Jews what about our needs, our concerns, on a Jewish level,” he said.

“They all went to Croatia, Sarajevo,” he said. “No one will ask people coming here to shake hands with Milosevic; but the Jewish community of Serbia should be of concern to the Jewish community of the world.”

He and local leaders of the local 200-member community said it was an illustration of Serbian Jews’ isolation that no foreign Jewish representatives attended the recent two-day ceremony here at which a monument was dedicated to the 4,000 Jews deported and killed in 1944.

NEXT STORY