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Jews in Yugoslavia Fear New Wave of Widespread Nationalism

August 6, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jewish community leaders in Belgrade fear a wave of mounting intolerance fueled by Serbian nationalism and political, social and economic insecurity.

“Lately in our society, with increasing frequency and severity, declarations are being made which instigate national, religious and racial hatred and xenophobia,” the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia said in a statement issued last week.

“This resulted in several acts directed against persons and property not belonging to the majority nation or religion,” it said, expressing “regret and concern” at the siutation.

The acts include the desecration of tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Zemun, a town outside the Serbian capital of Belgrade, as well as the persecution of Croatian Catholics in the same town.

They come at a time of mounting frustration at the slow pace of reconstruction nearly two years after the signing of the Dayton peace accords.

The Jewish community’s statement indicates a rare outspokenness on the part of the Yugoslav Jewish community, which has generally maintained a low profile since the break-up of the country and the bloody ethnic wars in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia.

Yugoslavia today is made up of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro.

About, 3,000 Jews live in Yugoslavia, most of them in Belgrade.

The Jewish community’s statement — which was widely publicized in the media and received support from political and religious figures — did not mention anti-Semitism specifically.

But it was issued five days after the desecration last month of the Jewish cemetery in Zemun, a town that is ruled by the Serbian ultranationalist Radical Party, and said it expected the perpetrators to be found and punished.

Nine tombstones were toppled or damaged in the attack against the cemetery July 24, which took place in broad daylight. The tombs of the ancestors of Theodor Herzl are buried there, but none of the historical tombs were damaged.

The attack on the cemetery was just the latest in a series of suspicious incidents involving Jewish property.

In February, a window in the Belgrade synagogue was broken, but community leaders said they did not believe it to be a deliberate anti-Semitic act and did not report it to the police.

In the spring, however, a crude fire bomb was thrown into the synagogue’s fenced-in yard at about midnight. The fire caused only limited damage.

Police said they could not find the perpetrators but promised to increase surveillance of the synagogue and community center buildings.

Community members say the climate in Zemun began to deteriorate after the the Radical Party’s Vojislav Seselj, one of the most notorious Serbian nationalists, was elected mayor late last year.

In order to obtain funds, the Zemun municipality rented out property – – including the former synagogue building, which the Jewish community had sold to the city for a nominal sum several years ago.

Seselj’s administration rented it out for used as a “kafana,” or downscale coffee house and restaurant, which some Jews saw as a deliberate affront.

Brane Popovic, president of the Belgrade Jewish Community, said the current conditions have fanned the flames of anti-Semitism.

“It is easy to spread that feeling because of the poverty and insecurity,” he said.

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