As they joined the rest of the nation in an anxious wait for the definitive outcome of Sunday’s presidential election, Yugoslavia’s 3,000 Jews knew that this Rosh Hashanah could open up a new world – not just a new year.
“We are all now, together with the whole country, expecting changes, after 10 long years of suffering and fear,” said one community activist.
Opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica claimed victory in Sunday’s poll, and Jews were among the tens of thousands of his jubilant supporters who later celebrated in Belgrade’s streets.
On Tuesday, the State Election Commission announced that Kostunica had finished first in the election. But it said he had not crossed the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff with incumbent President Slobodan Milosevic, the indicted war criminal whose brutal nationalistic policies have isolated and economically ruined Yugoslavia during the past decade.
The commission said Kostunica won 48.22 percent of the vote to 40.23 for Milosevic. The opposition claims Kostunica won outright and has refused to join the runoff, scheduled for Oct. 8.
“There is no specific Jewish issue in this mess, if you don’t count a graffiti I saw on a wall the other day: ‘Kostunica, son of a Jewish woman’ – probably meant as an insult,” said Brane Popovic, a former president of the Belgrade Jewish community who is a longtime supporter of the opposition.
Although in recent years Yugoslav Jewish leaders were able to attend international Jewish meetings, they often felt isolated from the world Jewish community – particularly during last year’s NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
Yugoslav Jews attending the General Assembly of the European Council of Jewish Communities held in Nice in May 1999 said they felt as if they were double victims – of NATO and of Milosevic.
Dire economic conditions hit the largely elderly Jewish community hard, making social welfare an important part of communal activities. Soup kitchens operate in several Jewish communities.
Also, the political repression, economic woes, and the NATO bombing all contributed to a “brain drain” of young people.
“Most of our young members left Yugoslavia, and we believe that even if there will be changes for the better they won’t return,” said Mira Poljakovic, leader of the International Council of Jewish Women’s chapter in the Yugoslav city of Subotica.
“So our High Holidays are sad ones,” she said. “The synagogue is full of elderly people who are sad because they are alone, without their families. So we are organizing collective dinners and snacks after the services, especially on erev Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
Throughout the Milosevic regime, individual Jews took political stands, with many opposing Milosevic.
But, fearing reprisal and manipulation, official Jewish organizations made it a strict policy not to openly assume a political position.
The Subotica community leadership, however, got around this prohibition by working indirectly against regime policies.
One way was through the activities of a humanitarian organization, La Benevolencija Yugoslavia.
Its most important projects were carried out in the republic of Montenegro, Serbia’s junior partner in Yugoslavia, whose government is open toward the West.
It maintained close links with the Montenegrin government, including direct contacts with its prime minister. Earlier this month, the International Council of Jewish Women sent another indirect signal by inviting the wife of the Montenegrin prime minister to an International Women’s Interfaith Conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
However, no one associated with the Serbian regime was invited.