BELGRADE, Serbia (JTA) – Avram Israel, a Jew, is worshiped in this capital city.
That may seem surprising in a country where an extreme right-wing, xenophobic party leads in voter support and neo-Nazi activity is rising.
Yet when the smartly dressed Israel enters an overcrowded cafe across from the National Theater, he automatically is seated in the cordoned-off VIP section while diners smile at him and nod deferentially.
Serbians know Israel is Jewish because of his name, and they likely remember how eight years ago and for some time afterward Israel was the most popular man in Belgrade, according to polls.
That’s because for three months in the spring of 1999, the logistics expert was on television every night telling Serbs how to steer clear of the NATO bombs falling on Belgrade. The bombardment was meant to stop the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic from ridding the southernmost Serbian province of Kosovo of ethnic Albanians.
Now, on the eve of a Dec. 10 deadline to reach a deal on Kosovo’s future, Israel is worried that Kosovo’s plans to declare independence from Serbia in the coming months could bring further trials to this increasingly isolated southeastern European country and its 3,000 Jews.
Serbia staunchly opposes Kosovo independence. Russia supports the Serb position, but most of Europe and the West are lining up behind the Kosovo Albanians’ bid for an independent state.
“Everything that is going on with Kosovo, like the U.S. support of the Albanians, is contributing to the rise of ultranationalism in Serbia,” Israel bemoaned.
Serbia is in the throes of an intense wave of nationalism – a development that often precipitates anti-Semitism in Europe – fueled by the widespread belief that the “anti-Serb” West supports the Kosovo Albanians’ plans.
Still, even as extremists gain ground in Serbia, Jewish life in the country is flourishing thanks in large part to foreign donors.
In the past three years, the main community building, which is attached to the synagogue, had its dilapidated main hall renovated into a bright social center with a grant from Italy’s Jewish community. A kosher kitchen opened with a donation from New Yorker Stephen Rosenberg, and a heating system was installed thanks to a loan from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“Ten years ago we had no Shabbat dinner and almost no one came to synagogue,” said Yitzhak Asiel, the 42-year-old chief rabbi of Serbia. “Now we get 100 people for Shabbat dinner in the new hall.”
During the 1990s, Jews fled the states of the former Yugoslavia as Serbia waged a war to hold on to the breakaway provinces that later become the nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia.
After Milosevic was ousted in 2000 following NATO’s bombing of the country a year earlier, Jews began trickling back to Belgrade. The 10.3 million citizens of Serbia are predominantly Orthodox Christian, with a Muslim minority of 239,000.
“It’s a miracle the community exists at all,” Israel told JTA.
Along with being poorer than many of their Jewish neighbors, Serbian Jews have not had the communal property restitution or compensation agreements negotiated in most other post-communist countries to rejuvenate Jewish life after decades of neglect.
But Belgrade Jews now have a secret weapon: Stefan Sablic, 31, a hip, ambitious Serb theater director whose funky performances of Pakistani, Israeli, Iranian, Balkan, Gypsy and Sephardic music – Serb Jews are mostly Sephardic – have drawn young people back to the community.
Some 800 Jews live in Belgrade, with 300 between the ages of 16 and 27. The new communal facilities and foreign-funded programs have helped spur Serbia’s younger Jews to become active members of the Jewish community, says Aleksandar Belevski, 21.
Three years ago, JDC opened the Center for Youth Education in the Jewish community building and equipped it with computers. Sablic’s post-graduate cantorial studies in Israel also were supported by the JDC.
“Many young people who were away during the Milosevic years are coming back from Israel and now they have someplace to meet,” Belevski said. “We are maybe 20 to 30 people every Wednesday hanging out together.”
“We go for quality over quantity. I am very optimistic about our continuity.”
Asiel said the Jewish community is much more in the public eye than even two years ago. For instance, the conservative government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and the Orthodox Church launched a daily TV program last year in which Asiel explains some aspect of Judaism.
As for the influence of the far-right Serbian Radical Party, which received one-third of the vote in January parliamentary elections, Asiel is dismissive.
“No other party is willing to form a government with them,” he said.
Alexandr Lebl, the head of a Jewish community group that monitors anti-Semitism in Serbia, said extremists target “Albanians, Bosnian Muslims and Hungarians, not really Jews.”
Jewish-Serb relations have been helped over the decades by a shared status as victims of the Nazis and Croatian fascists during World War II, when nearly the entire Jewish population of then-Yugoslavia was killed.
More recently, during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, local and foreign Jewish groups earned respect as neutral political brokers and as providers of food and medicine.
However, many Serbs “think the NATO bombing of Belgrade was a conspiracy led by Jews like the U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright,” Lebl said.
Fears of a growing neo-Nazi presence in Serbia surfaced last month after two neo-Nazi groups tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to march in Novi Sad on the birthday of Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler.
Aleksander Necak, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia, said that even though “people will tell you there is no anti-Semitism in Serbia, it’s not true.”
Necak described how vandals spray-painted a swastika on the door of a building outside Belgrade in September just as he was about to open an exhibition there on Jewish property.
“We have 20 cases in the courts concerning slander against Jews,” he said.
Now Necak is worried about the impending loss of Kosovo, a province that comprises 15 percent of Serbia’s territory.
Since NATO’s bombardment of Serbia in 1999 drove Serb forces out of Kosovo and brought an international peacekeeping force into the ethnically Albanian province, Kosovo in effect has been a U.N. protectorate, though officially part of Serbia.
The Kosovo Albanians are counting on the United States and most European Union states to grant it recognition even at the risk of infuriating Serbia, whose leaders believe Serbia is unfairly paying for the mistakes of Milosevic.
“It will be very bad for Jews” when the U.S. recognizes Kosovo, Necak said, “because for many, the U.S. and Jews are more or less the same. My phone is already ringing, friends from the government are calling. ‘We like you, what will you tell to the newspapers about Kosovo?’ “