Identification of the Serbs as being friendly to the Jews in World War II is totally baseless

The writer, Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. This column originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post and Jewish Weekly on 9 April 1999. By Shlomo Avineri

At a time when all Western democracies are united in universal condemnation of Serbian atrocities against the Kosovar Albanians, there is a seemingly strange reluctance among some Jews to criticize Serbia. Some of it is obviously due to ignorance of the atrocities perpetrated by the Serbian authorities in Kosovo, but there are two specific Jewish undertones to this reluctance. The first is that the Serbs are generally perceived to have behaved better than other nationalities in Yugoslavia toward the Jews during World War II. The second is a fear that Israeli support of NATO strikes may jeopardize the still-extant Jewish community in Yugoslavia. Both assumptions deserve closer scrutiny. It is generally true that when Yugoslavia was dismembered during World War II by Germany and Italy, the Serbian population behaved better toward the Jews than other Yugoslav nationalities. In Croatia, where a Nazi-supported puppet regime was set up by the fascist Ustachi movement, Jews, Serbs and Gypsies were exterminated en masse by the Croats, especially in the notorious Jasenovac camp. Thus, Jewish and Serb solidarity goes back to the memories of having been thrown together by Croat Ustachi murderers. But the picture is more complicated. When the Germans occupied Belgrade in 1941, a collaborationist Serb administration was set up by the Nazis in the Serbian areas. It was headed by a Serbian commander and former Yugoslav minister of war, Gen. Milan Nedic. It was this collaborationist Serbian regime that issued anti-Jewish laws, deprived Jews of their property and livelihood, herded them into concentration camps and delivered them to their deaths at the hands of the Germans. At the same time, another Serbian former Yugoslav general, Draza Mihailovic, initiated a Serbian resistance movement against the Germans. This force, known as Chetniks, was initially supported by the Allies as it bore allegiance to the deposed king of Yugoslavia. But in the complex and tragic circumstances of war-torn Yugoslavia, Mihailovic’s Chetniks eventually found themselves collaborating with the Germans, and even Winston Churchill’s government distanced itself from them and switched its support to the Communist-led partisans of Josip Broz Tito, who later became known as Marshal Tito.

Many Jews fled to the partisans of Tito — who represented a truly multiethnic resistance to the Nazis — and were saved by them. Tito himself was part Croat and part Slovene, and one of his chief advisers, Moshe Piade, was Jewish. Mihailovic was executed after the war as a Nazi collaborator. This is a mixed and extremely complex history and makes any blanket identification of the Serbs as being friendly to the Jews totally baseless. Moreover, having been (relatively) more friendly to the Jews than others in World War II cannot be a license for the murderous ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in the 1990s. The fate of the existing small Jewish community in Serbia presents a similarly complex picture. Some Jews are well integrated into the Serbian government and business establishment of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime: Some even act as a pro-Serbian lobby and are active especially in contacts with U.S. Jews and with Israel. (A parallel group of Jews in Croatia acts on behalf of the present Croatian nationalist government of President Franjo Tudjman.) There are, on the other hand, some Jewish activists in Belgrade who are prominent in the liberal opposition to Milosevic and some of them are reported to have left for Budapest in the last few days. To suggest that Israeli support of NATO operations may endanger the lives of Serbia’s Jews suggests that blackmail and potential hostage-taking on the part of Milosevic’s government should be a guide to Israel’s foreign policy. But the contrary is true: If any Jewish person feels threatened in Serbia, he or she can leave immediately for Israel. That is why the Jewish state exists. The raison d’etre of Israel is tested precisely in such moments of danger to Jewish individuals or communities. It is a total travesty of the idea of Jewish solidarity and Zionism to suggest that Israel’s policies should be held hostage to the whims of an evil regime that is committing the worst crimes against humanity to be carried out in Europe since 1945. Serbia stands condemned today by all the democracies of the world. If only the West would have shown in the 1930s the resolve it appears to show now, the Nazi evil might have been stopped before the onset of World War II and the Holocaust. There is no neutrality between murderers and victims: Jews, including Israelis, should be supporting the world’s democracies that condemn the Milosevic regime. No quasi-historical justifications should be used to prevent Israeli policy from standing on the side of the victims — and on the side of democratic and humanistic values.

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