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Behind the Headlines: Jews Find Themselves in Middle of Ethnic Rivalries in Yugoslavia

January 1, 1990
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There is concern among some Yugoslav Jews that the complex ethnic and political rivalries besetting Yugoslavia may be placing its tiny Jewish community in a delicate and potentially difficult situation.

“Jews have been used as short change in internal ethnic conflicts,” one Jewish source put it bluntly.

Yugoslavia is a loose federation of six republics and two provinces, mostly drawn up on ethnic lines. Recent years have seen longstanding tensions and rivalries among the republics become sharper, as local ethnic nationalism has grown more powerful.

Yugoslavia’s estimated 5,000 Jews are centered mostly in the republics of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in the province of Voyvodina.

More than once, amid the complicated and emotional ethnic conflict, attitudes by one ethnic group against another have been compared to historic persecution of the Jews.

Lately, concern that Jews may be squeezed by internal tensions has been heightened by the recent formation of a Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society and overtures to Israel by Serbia.

This included a visit to Israel this past fall by Serbia’s regional foreign affairs secretary, Aleksandar Prlja, despite the fact that Yugoslavia as a whole does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.


While on the surface, nothing could seem better than overtures of friendship to Jews and Israel, there is concern that these moves are not disinterested.

“Under today’s circumstances, there are various manipulations, particularly nationalist manipulations,” said Filip David, a Jewish writer in Belgrade. “A society like (the Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society) can become the object of manipulations and can fit into a scenario that may be written outside it,” he said.

“Why have a Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society?” asked one Belgrade Jew. “I’m as much a Serb as a Jew. Wouldn’t it be better to have a Yugoslavia-Israel Friendship Society.”

Serbia is the largest of Yugoslavia’s six republics, and its Communist leadership has used appeals to rampant Serbian nationalism to win unprecedented popularity, while at the same time antagonizing other republics.

Jews who are concerned about developments feel that the Serbian nationalist authorities are trying to use expressions of friendship with Jews and Israel to win support for Serbian interests in the outside world.

“It’s all so transparent that you need not be a genius to see through it,” said one Jewish intellectual in Belgrade.

“The final idea is to get the Jewish lobby to lobby for the Serbs,” he said. “This is to go through the Jewish people here and Jews abroad in the United States to explain certain things happening here.

A senior Serbian official, who did not want to be quoted by name, virtually confirmed that the Serbians are courting Jews and Israel to gain sympathy for their position and policy, which has come under sharp criticism in the West because of the rampant Serbian nationalism.

The Serbs want to tell Jews and Israel their side of the story, to counter the criticism, he implied.


“Friendship with the Jews is sort of a collective national identity of Serbs,” the official said. “When you feel that you are in unpleasant circumstances, you feel for your old friends.

“We trust the Jewish people as people who have always been friendly with the Serbs, as we were victims together and lived in peace alongside each other,” he said.

How to react to these Serbian initiatives has caused some tensions in the Jewish community.

On the one hand, said Cadik Danon, Yugoslavia’s only rabbi, “it’s difficult to reject a hand extended in friendship, certainly in Serbia, where there is a tradition.”

On the other hand, in addition to the uneasiness felt by some Jews in Belgrade, Jews in other republics — particularly the active community in Croatia — distrust the Serbian motives, as Croats generally distrust the Serbs. Croatian Jews tend to align themselves politically with Croats.

“There’s the danger that Jews in Croatia may not look with favor on the situation in Serbia,” said Danon.

The rabbi, in fact, drew criticism from some Jewish circles in Croatia when he was prominently quoted in the Serbian press as being supportive of overall Serbian policy.

One Jewish source who distrusts the Serbian initiatives predicted that everything could backfire onto the Jews themselves.

“Consequences of this meddling are already evident,” he said. “Naturally, there are disagreements between Jews within Yugoslavia in the different regions. Ultimately, it will boomerang back.

“It will be shown that it’s an illusion that local Jews can do anything (to help the Serbian cause abroad) and therefore, the Jews will be to blame for not getting the message through,” he warned.


Meanwhile, there are some indications that Yugoslavia’s federal government may eventually broaden relations with Israel. Diplomatic links were cut in 1967, but since then, the two countries have maintained commercial and cultural tics, as well as cooperation in the areas of sports and tourism.

The Yugoslav news media have correspondents in Israel.

“It’s either stubbornness or misjudgment on the part of the federal government not to resume diplomatic relations,” said a Jewish source. “They’ve been heavily criticized in the Yugoslav press for this.”

The calls and initiatives for closer links to Israel are coming from the republics, where the real power in Yugoslavia resides.

The recent trip to Israel by the regional foreign affairs secretary of Serbia was the most visible demonstration of this. But the call to resume diplomatic relations first came from officials in Slovenia, Yugoslavia’s most prosperous republic and Serbia’s chief political rival.

Slovenia’s Adria Airlines was also the first to initiative direct flights between Yugoslavia and Israel.

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