Behind the Headlines: Macedonia’s Jews Worry a Wider War Would Create Another Exodus

The country implodes due to economic crisis or ethnic conflict and Jews are torn between staying and going. Many leave and the community, still struggling to recover from the Holocaust and communism, suffers irreparable damage.

It is, by now, a familiar pattern of Jewish life in the Balkans, and Macedonia’s Jews wonder if they are next.

As NATO bombs punish Yugoslavia for abusing ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the odds are growing that Macedonia will either be dragged into a wider Balkan war or erupt in a civil war of its own.

So, just as some 300 Yugoslav Jews have taken refuge in neighboring Hungary, Macedonia’s Jews may one day find shelter with the Jews in next-door Bulgaria. For now, however, the 190 or so Macedonian Jews say they are staying put. Their leaders say they expect the crisis to be resolved soon.

“We have always shared the fate of the people of this country,” Viktor Mizrahi, president of the Jewish Community of Macedonia, said in an interview with JTA. “So we will continue to protect both the interests of the country and of the Jewish community. But we are also following the situation closely and are prepared to react as the political circumstances dictate.”

Macedonian Jews, like the Jews of Yugoslavia, must walk a diplomatic tightrope. Open talk of a possible Jewish exodus out of Macedonia, they worry, may stir resentment among the neighbors they would leave behind. That could impede their return home in the future. Similarly, criticizing the government may make them appear unpatriotic.

So, despite traditionally warm relations with their countrymen, Macedonian Jews select their words carefully.

“I’d have to explain the Balkans to you,” said Zdravko Sami, former vice president and now “coordinator” of the Jewish community. “Everything here is construed as a political act, gesture or statement.”

Mizrahi has joined Yugoslav Jewish leaders in denouncing the NATO airstrikes. The air campaign has crippled both countries economically. Seventy percent of Macedonian trade is with Yugoslavia and the destruction of bridges over the Danube River effectively cuts off Macedonia from the rest of Europe.

Like Yugoslavia, Macedonia has a restive ethnic Albanian minority, constituting one-quarter to one-third of the overall population of 2 million. They have grievances of their own, but their protests have been mostly peaceful. However, the monthlong NATO campaign has saddled the state with approximately 127,500 Albanian refugees, according to figures from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The longer they stay, it’s presumed, the angrier all Albanians will become.

Macedonia’s elite wants full integration with the West, including membership in NATO and the European Union. So they have tolerated NATO’s use of Macedonian air space and various U.N. and NATO military missions on their soil.

But they adamantly oppose the possibility of NATO ground troops invading Yugoslavia through Macedonia, where the masses sympathize with their Slavic, Orthodox Christian brethren in Serbia. Macedonia is home to a significant Serb minority.

Macedonians fear that the NATO onslaught is forcing them into open conflict with Yugoslavia and will poison future relations between the two countries.

Macedonian Jews, meanwhile, preach against intolerance. They speak from experience. During the Holocaust, the Jewish community was nearly obliterated. Roughly 7,300 died at the hands of Bulgarian fascists.

“Jews are not a part of this conflict, so we can stand aside as impartial observers,” Sami said. “With our historical example, we can explain the need for ethnic and religious tolerance. Because, basically, there is no reason or logic to these conflicts.”

Israel is also a moral voice during the crisis, backing its words with actions. The Israelis built the first field hospital for Albanian refugees, contributed $100,000 worth of medicine to the Macedonian relief effort and have taken in more than 100 refugees.

Israel’s relief efforts have boosted the pride and image of Macedonian Jewry.

“The Jewish community enjoys high respect within Macedonian society,” said Mizrahi, a 50-year-old economist. “The humanitarian aid by Israel has been accepted with open arms and was one more confirmation of our reputation.”

But there is also concern here that the U.S.-led assault on Yugoslavia will trigger anti-Semitism — not directed at local Jews, but Jews in general. Indeed, at a recent rally in Australia, a Serbian speaker blamed the air strikes on “talmudic Jews” who “run the White House.”

Such talk resonates with certain segments of Macedonian society, Sami said.

“As war makes this country poorer, there will be a need to accuse somebody,” he said. “And when you look at the names propagated around the world as the `aggressors’ — Albright, Cohen, Holbrooke, Berger, Rubin — it’s inevitable that Jews will be used as a scapegoat.”

The Macedonian Jewish community traces its roots back more than 2,000 years. But, as Sami said, after 98 percent of the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, “it has taken 50 years for us to become something again.” The 190 members include 52 families, though Sami estimates there are some 200 to 300 unaffiliated Jews elsewhere in Macedonia.

Those in the community continue to live their lives in normalcy. The rabbi from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, visits once a month. The Jewish center has been renovated, with plans to build a synagogue on the top floor. Classes in Jewish folk dance are held regularly.

But the potential emigration of many young Jews is threatening the Jewish revival. Seven teens, aged 16-18, will head to Israel this summer to learn Hebrew. They will likely stay on and continue their studies. More are expected to follow in the coming years, Sami said.

Meanwhile, the rest of the community watches and waits. As the situation here worsens, a flight to safety looms as an ever greater possibility. Although there’s no telling whether Macedonian Jewry could recover once again, Mizrahi tries to remain optimistic.

“Jews have lived through everything,” he said. “If we didn’t have this spirit of survival, we wouldn’t have survived 2,000 years in the Diaspora. So even if there are five people left, there will certainly be a Jewish community in Macedonia.”

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