Rabbi Returns from Yugoslavia with Ambivalence About Bombing

When Rabbi Steven Jacobs was received at the White House on Monday along with other members of Jesse Jackson’s mission to Belgrade that freed three U.S. soldiers, he passed on a message to President Clinton.

It came from Aca Singer, the 70-year-old head of the Yugoslav Jewish community, who had told Jacobs, “I did not survive Auschwitz in order to be killed by American bombs in Belgrade.”

While Clinton did not react to the message, Singer’s words brought out Jacobs’ conflicted feelings about the NATO bombing campaign.

On one hand, “If `Never Again’ is to be more than just a slogan, we, especially as Jews, cannot be indifferent to the immense suffering of the Albanian refugees,” Jacobs said.

But we must also be aware that “there are many wonderful Serbs, as well as 3,000 Jews, in Belgrade who are living in constant fear of air raids,” he added.

“We must keep up the pressure on Milosevic,” said Jacobs, speaking by phone from Washington after an hourlong session with Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Jacobs, the spiritual leader of Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills, Calif., was the only rabbi among 20 clergy who accompanied Jackson during his tense mission. Belgrade was bombarded heavily during their first night in the Yugoslav capital.

Jacobs, 59, said he had worked with Jackson since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. The week before the Belgrade mission, he had attended a service in Mississippi to commemorate the murder there of one black and two Jewish civil rights workers.

Jacobs was not among the five delegates who participated in the decisive meeting with Milosevic because he preferred to visit the three American POWs. The rabbi added that he also had no desire to shake hands with the Yugoslav leader.

As a fellow Los Angeles resident, Jacobs established a special bond with one of the freed men, Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez. The two agreed to attend a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game together.

Before he left Belgrade, Jacobs met one Jew who had survived the Holocaust because he was saved by businessman Oskar Schindler.

“I wish at that time there had been a Jackson or a rabbi who had interceded for us with the Nazis as you have done here,” Jacobs recalled the survivor telling him.

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