Around the Jewish World (part 1): Serbia’s Jews Skirt Politics, Hoping for Improved Situation
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Around the Jewish World (part 1): Serbia’s Jews Skirt Politics, Hoping for Improved Situation

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At 5 o’clock on a recent Friday evening, a score of Jews gathered in Belgrade’s synagogue for Shabbat services.

At the door, one man reached into his pocket and showed a friend a handful of badges bearing slogans from the mass street demonstrations that have been sweeping Belgrade on a daily basis for more than two months.

The synagogue is located only a few hundred yards from the downtown square where the main afternoon demonstrations take place, and the man had come directly to the synagogue from a rally.

“Look,” he said, “there are new badges!”

Hundreds of thousands of Belgrade citizens have taken part in the peaceful demonstrations against the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic that have been organized by opposition political parties and university students.

The demonstrations, which began in November after the government refused to accept opposition victories in some local elections, have included daily mass rallies at which the crowds blow whistles and use noisemakers, as well as marches and other protests.

As they have throughout the recent years of turmoil in Yugoslavia, Jewish groups here maintain an official policy of strict neutrality on political issues — including the protests.

As Jewish representatives “we don’t want to be involved with any party,” said Aca Singer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia. “Although personally one can be for or against a party.”

About 2,000 Jews live in Belgrade, out of about 3,000 to 3,500 in Yugoslavia, which is composed of Serbia and Montenegro.

“Our community includes a variety of opinions,” said a member of the Jewish community. “There are those who are against the demonstrations, as well as those who support them.”

Still, like their non-Jewish fellow citizens, many Belgrade Jews – – particularly those of the postwar generation and younger — have become swept up in the excitement.

“I spend my days with one ear on the opposition radio station and one ear on the state-run television, and with me at my computer in the middle,” said a middle-age woman. “My daughter is out on the streets every day.”

Said a man in his 50s: “Every day, either my wife or I attend the rally.”

Given their scope and duration, the protests, with their humorous, good-natured spirit and at times carnival atmosphere, have become an integral part of the city scene.

Massive contingents of riot police prevent most mass marches — known as walks — through the city, limiting the main daily demonstration to a rally in and around central Republic Square.

Throughout the day, however, downtown Belgrade’s pedestrian shopping district is alive with street vendors selling badges, whistles, noisemakers, protest postcards and opposition newspapers.

Walls are plastered with opposition political posters. Near the university, a large wall is covered with dozens of posters and placards bearing satiric cartoons and graffiti.

Even outside the city center, the protests are inescapable.

Every evening from 7:30 until 8, during the state-run television news program, for example, people in all parts of the city go to their windows and make noise — blowing whistles, tooting horns, banging pots and pans — as a protest against the state-controlled media.

“I didn’t think that these people, who for years were so apathetic, could react,” said one Jewish community member. “It all makes me feel good. After so many years it makes me feel proud and happy again to live here.”

But, like their non-Jewish counterparts, Jews are also concerned about where the protests might actually lead. They have few illusions.

The Yugoslav economy is in a dire condition after years of U.N. sanctions, which were imposed in 1992 as a means of ending the bloodshed in Bosnia. The sanctions were lifted in October.

“People are fed up,” said Singer, the Jewish federation president, also a retired bank director in his 70s. “They want change. But even if the opposition is successful, what comes afterward?”

Singer noted that the members of the Zajedno (Together) opposition coalition were deeply divided on policy matters. He described them as people who were united only in the face of what they perceived as a common enemy: President Milosevic.

“I don’t support any party,” said another Jewish community member who is in his 20s. “All of them were communists before. I don’t see that any of this will bring big changes for Serbia — the economic situation is too bad.”

Nonetheless, for many Jews and non-Jews, the mere fact that demonstrations are being held is viewed as a sign of hope — or at least a sign of something.

“The hardest thing is to convince ourselves that change is possible,” said a Jewish community member in his 70s.

Said a Jewish university student: “Maybe the next leader will be worse than Milosevic. But still we will show that there can be change here. We feel a sense of being able to do something.”

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