Serbs, Kosovars, Israelis, Palestinians

Politics and policy.
April 24 1999 3:30 AM

Serbs, Kosovars, Israelis, Palestinians

The bewildering politics of Kosovo in Israel.

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The final and most beguiling aspect of Israel's Kosovo ambivalence is Holocaust remembrance but of a different sort. There is lingering Israeli sympathy for Serbia rooted in Serbs' supposedly admirable behavior during the Holocaust. The premise: 1) Serbs welcomed Jews into their anti-Nazi guerilla groups; 2) individual Serbs bravely sheltered Jews from the Nazis; 3) Serbs fought the Nazis harder than anyone; and 4) both Serbs and Jews were victimized by brutal Croats and Bosnian Muslims.

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During the past decade, Serbia has taken advantage of this version of its World War II history to make common cause with Israel. In the late '80s, with the blessing of Slobodan Milosevic, a group of Serbs organized the Serbian Jewish Friendship Society, which has propagandized endlessly about Serbia's Holocaust decency. (Serbia also tried to ally with Israel over their shared enmity with Muslims.) Serb and Israeli cities made themselves sister cities. When Iraq was shooting missiles into Israel during the Gulf War, a delegation of Serbs traveled to Tel Aviv to show solidarity. There were rumors that Israel even supplied Serbia with arms.

This mythology of Serbian goodness paid off during Serbia's Croatia and Bosnia wars. Israelis sided with the Serbs against the Croats, who had been truly monstrous toward Jews during the war. And even when it became clear that Serbs were slaughtering Bosnian Muslims, Israel was largely silent, and even occasionally sympathetic, about Serb misbehavior.

As it happens, Serbia's treatment of the Jews was not as the Serbs have portrayed it. It's true that Tito's Communist Partisans welcomed Jews into their guerilla units, and it's true that the Serbs were not as terrible as the Croats and Bosnians. But, 1) the Chetniks, who are the direct ancestors of today's Serbian nationalists, were consistently and violently anti-Semitic. (The Chetniks also supported the Nazis for much of the war, and even turned over Jews to them.) 2) The Serbian collaborationist regime cooperated eagerly with the Nazis. 3) Serbia's Jews fared much worse than most European Jews. Nazis exterminated more than 90 percent of Serbia's 15,000 Jews, the women and children at a camp right outside Belgrade. Serbs did not resist or protest this slaughter.

Even so, vestigial sympathy for Serbs remains today in Israel (and, in a much more limited way, in the United States). Israel has seen a few small pro-Serb demonstrations during the Kosovo crisis, and Israeli media frequently refer to the Serbs' decency during the Holocaust. Such expressions of solidarity, along with right-wing distaste for the NATO bombing, don't begin to outweigh Israeli sympathy for Kosovars and outrage at Serbs. But God knows they're more than Milosevic and his people deserve.

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