Serbian Jewish activists horrified by the war, stress common history

LOS ANGELES, May 12 (JTA) — When Dusica Savic Benghiat makes her daily phone call to her mother in Belgrade, she can frequently hear the air raid sirens as a backdrop to the 78-year-old woman’s increasingly discouraged voice. “My mother tells me she doesn’t care anymore. She just stays in bed. If the bombs miss her, that’s fine, and if they hit, somebody will pick up what’s left,” says Benghiat, an activist for Serbian-Jewish friendship. The Los Angeles resident understands her mother’s mood. “If I had to go to the shelter every day, I don’t know what state I’d be in,” she says. “How long can you go on before you go crazy and give up on life completely?” During the fighting in Bosnia during the first half of this decade, Benghiat, who came to the United States in 1974, served as regional president of the Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society. She often called the Jewish and other media, championing the cause of the Serbian people and contrasting their resistance against Nazi Germany to the Croatian collaboration with Hitler. But now, she says, the society’s membership in Los Angeles is practically dormant because “it has become uncomfortable to support anything in favor of the Serbs. And I guess we’re weary of fighting the same battle over and over again.” As to the mood in her native country, “people feel ostracized and demonized, but once you’re bombed, you have no choice but to resist,” Benghiat says. Like many Serbian Americans, she charges the American media with bias and ignorance of history. While most Western observers assign much of the blame for the conflict to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s 1989 edict abolishing the autonomy enjoyed by the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Benghiat has a different perspective. “My uncle lived in Kosovo in the 1970s, but had to leave because of the persecution by Albanians,” she says. “They were expelling the Serbs; that’s why autonomy was revoked.” As a Jew, Benghiat particularly resents comparisons of the Serb action in Kosovo to the Holocaust. “The Holocaust is unique,” she says, “It is unjust and dangerous to use the term in the present situation.” However demoralizing and damaging the NATO bombing may be, it will not topple the Yugoslav government, Benghiat believes. “I tell you, Milosevic will be the last person to feel the pain,” she says. Judith Kurz also opposes the U.S. policy in Yugoslavia and takes it almost as a personal insult. “I was a liberal. I always voted Democratic and I defended President Clinton in the Monica affair,” she says. Born in northern Yugoslavia near the Hungarian border, she survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and came to Los Angeles, via Israel, in 1957. She believes Americans don’t appreciate the emotional significance of Kosovo, where, in 1389, Serbian forces were wiped out by the victorious armies of the Ottoman Empire. Drawing on Jewish history, she says that to Serbs, Kosovo is not only their Jerusalem but also their Masada. She says the conflict in Kosovo was caused by the migration of Albanians from their poverty-stricken country and settling illegally in parts of Yugoslavia. “It is as if Mexican migrants set up their own Spanish-speaking enclave in California, and then demand that it be recognized as an independent country,” she says. Kurz retired as a bookkeeper last year and now volunteers for the Jewish Family Service. While Benghiat said that Serbs do not blame American Jews for Clinton’s policy, Heather Cottin, spokeswoman for the New York branch of the Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society, writes that Serbs “are horrified at the overwhelming Jewish American support for widening the war.” Similarly, David Mladinov, artistic director of the Jewish Theatre of New England in Boston, bitterly attacked the American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress, in an “Open Letter to My Jewish Friends,” for what he views as “their full support for the NATO bombings.” He also notes that one of the first casualties of the air raids was the “Bridge of Sorrow,” spanning the Danube River at the city of Novi Sad. The bridge was the site of a Holocaust memorial commemorating the 1942 execution by the Nazis of 1,219 people, of whom 809 were Jews. After the shooting, the victims’ bodies were thrown into the Danube, Mladinov says.

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