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Kosovo Independence and Israel

[Editor's note: Earlier today, a mass anti-American and anti-Kosovar protest broke out in Belgrade. Protesters set fire to the US embassy.]

I just got back from Kosovo, and here’s my advice for the Israeli foreign ministry as it decides if and when to recognize the world’s newest nation: Send an ambassador and send one now.

Why? Because the latest Balkan crisis is also an opportunity for Israel: both to gain a new friend in a strategically vital area, and build a bridge to the Muslim world. Just over two million people live in Kosovo, ninety per cent of whom are ethnically Albanian and nominally Muslim. Recognizing Kosovo could help short-circuit the usual reflexes – on both sides – that Muslims and Jews are destined to struggle in perpetuity. It would also be rooted in a shared history of centuries of co-existence.

Kosovo was part of the Ottoman empire until the early twentieth century. But Islam in the Balkans then was a very different faith to the austere Wahabi and Deobandi fundamentalism that now shapes much of the Muslim world’s thought. 

For centuries Jews flourished across the lands known as Turkey-in-Europe. Of course life was not perfect and Jews, like Christians, suffered restrictive taxes and other laws. But cities such as Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, Salonika, and Skopje were home to ancient Jewish communities that traced their ancestry back to Spain and the expulsions in 1492. Legend has it that when the Ottoman sultan Bayezit II heard that the Spaniards were about to throw out all the Jewish doctors, lawyers, scribes and engineers, he sent a fleet of boats to bring them all to his domain.

That cosmopolitan world ended forever during the Second World War, when most of Kosovo was occupied by the Nazis and annexed to Albania. Some Albanian soldiers joined the SS Skenderbeg division, set up under the auspices of the Palestinian leader Hajj Amin el-Husseini, an ardent admirer of Hitler who had taken refuge in Berlin. Some helped round up Jews and send them to internment and concentration camps. Others fought with the partisans. But many Albanians invoked their code of honor, known as besa, and hid Jews, including refugees from across Europe. They sent them into the mountains for safety, to be sheltered and fed. Albania was a rare country in wartime Europe, to have a larger Jewish population in 1945 – around 2,000- than in 1939.

During the wars in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, all sides waged a parallel struggle for public opinion, expending much time, money and energy courting the Jews, especially in the US. That battle for hearts and minds continues today over Kosovo. Serb propagandists have made much of the supposed connection between Serbs and Jews. As Yugoslavia descended into war in the early 1990s, Serbian intellectuals set up the ‘Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society”.

Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic dispatched a Jewish dentist, Klara Mandic, on a propaganda drive to the United States to swing Jewish public opinion behind the Serb cause. It’s true that during the Holocaust the Nazis and their Croatian allies massacred Serb, Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-Fascists together in concentration camps such as Jasenovac, in Croatia, where the brutality of the guards disgusted even the SS. “Six million pairs of eyes ask me from the sky, ‘do you see what is happening – will you try and do something’,” Mandic lamented.

What she did not mention was that during the Second World War, Serbia was run by a Nazi puppet regime, headed by General Milan Nedic. Nedic and his police willingly collaborated in the Holocaust, setting up concentration camps across Serbia and gassing Jews in vans that trundled back and forth over the Danube bridges. Belgrade was the first city to be declared ‘Judenrein’ or ‘Jew-free’. During the Bosnian war in the 1990s the Serbs set up a network of concentration camps such as Omarska, where once again stick-thin men stared out from behind barbed wire. Footage of Omarska, and later on from Kosovo, of civilians once again being forced from their homes, caused a wave of revulsion around the world.

So much for the past. Kosovo’s future could herald a new era for Israeli-Muslim relations. Israel has already put down a marker here when it opened a field hospital on the border with Macedonia in 1999, when hundreds of thousands of Kosovars were ethnically cleansed. Many Kosovars remember Israel’s help then with gratitude and affection. Sadly, few Jews now remain in Kosovo, perhaps no more than several dozen. The community in the capital no longer exists, as the last families fled during the war, fearful of being identified as Serbs, because of their Yugoslav names. A small community of Albanian speaking Jews still lives in Prizren.

But across Kosovo there is a widespread sympathy for Israel, as the homeland of another oppressed people, the Jews, who have had to fight to carve out their state. Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s prime minister, has repeatedly spoken of his respect for Israel. He recently gave an interview to Ha’aretz, pledging that Kosovo will be not be an Islamic nation. and asking for Israel to recognise the new country.

Thaci’s desire for ties with Israel are also about realpolitik. Kosovo’s greatest protector is the United States. When independence was declared on February 17 there were almost as stars and stripes being waved on the streets as red and black Albanian flags. Kosovo, like neighbouring Albania, is resoundingly pro-western. Sporadic attempts by Saudi emissaries to steer Kosovo’s Muslims to Wahhabism have made little headway. There is simply no appetite among Kosovar Muslims – who are thoroughly European in their outlook – for any kind of Islamic state.

The country remains shaped by its tolerant Ottoman heritage- and that includes a desire for links with Israel. Even if some Palestinian intellectuals are calling for a Kosovo-style declaration of independence (unlikely) this is still an opportunity that Israel should not miss.

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