Jews in the former Yugoslavia shed few tears over the death of Slobodan Milosevic, the man most observers consider the main architect of the series of wars that convulsed the Balkans in the 1990s. The former Serbian president had been on trial since 2001 for genocide and other war crimes at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He was found dead in his cell on Saturday, apparently the victim of a heart attack at age 64.
Journalist Aleksander Lebl, a longtime Jewish community leader in Belgrade, said the reaction of Serbia’s 3,000 Jews, most of them highly integrated, secular and often intermarried, was similar to that of other citizens.
“Generally speaking,” Lebl told JTA, “not as Jews but as citizens, most of them didn’t like Milosevic’s policies and actions, which caused the disintegration of Yugoslavia — a country most of them loved — wars and ethnic cleansing, a surge of nationalism, xenophobia, sanctions and economic collapse.”
Some Jews, in Serbia as well as elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, expressed frustration that Milosevic’s sudden death had cheated justice, and some said they feared his memory could now become a rallying point for extreme nationalists.
“He was not administered justice, he is going to be seen as a martyr by many Serbs,” architectural historian Rudi Klein, who was born in Serbia and now teaches at universities in Budapest and Tel Aviv, told JTA.
“The Hague tribunal, on the other hand, will be seen as a plot,” he said. “It will give rise to conspiracy theories, which will put the blame on the West, particularly on the Americans — another regrettable fact.”
Bosnian Jewish leader Jakob Finci agreed.
“From the Bosnian point of view, everyone is sorry that the verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was not delivered,” he told JTA. “Now Milosevic will become a martyr, a real Serbian hero murdered by the West.”
Milosevic, Finci said, “will be remembered as someone who caused a lot of troubles, death and catastrophes for this part of the world, and will be remembered as a real villain of our times.”
From the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis in the early 1990s, Jews in the former Yugoslav Federation were caught somewhere in the middle.
Their close-knit community was divided when Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia broke away and became independent countries during a series of wars that left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced millions.
The wars also challenged the sense of identity and loyalty of local Jews, with those in Croatia and those in Serbia being pressed to support the actions — and ethnic feelings — of the respective nationalist forces.
Milosevic’s brutal policies, meanwhile, isolated and economically ruined Serbia. Political repression, economic woes and the 1999 NATO bombing to halt Serbian attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo all contributed to a “brain drain” of young people. As many as 300 to 400 younger Jews left Serbia for Israel, North America and elsewhere.
Throughout Milosevic’s regime, individual Serbian Jews took personal political stands, with many opposing Milosevic. Official Jewish organizations made it a strict policy not to openly assume a political position, fearing reprisal and manipulation.
Jews did, however, openly join the street protests in 2000 that ousted Milosevic from power.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.