Serbs, Kosovars, Israelis, Palestinians

Politics and policy.
April 24 1999 3:30 AM

Serbs, Kosovars, Israelis, Palestinians

The bewildering politics of Kosovo in Israel.

25000_25854_kuper_kosovo1

Ask two Israelis a question on any subject, and you'll hear six opinions (nine during election season) and probably start a brawl. And even on Kosovo, a topic you wouldn't think Israelis could disagree about, they are managing to squabble, revealing a peculiar ambivalence about this black-and-white issue.

American Jews have uniformly greeted the Serbian brutality in Kosovo with outrage. They identified with the displaced Kosovars, comparing them to the Jews of the Holocaust. They commended NATO for bombing quickly rather than ignoring the brutality as Allied leaders did during the Holocaust. One Jewish organization ran newspaper ads depicting trainloads of bedraggled Kosovars, an echo of Nazi concentration camp trains. American Jews poured cash into half a dozen relief funds established by national Jewish groups, and at least two Jewish agencies sent relief teams to the Balkans.

Israeli Jews' reaction to Kosovo has been equally intense but much more complicated. Like American Jews, most Israeli Jews view Kosovo as a reminder of the Holocaust and feel a special obligation to aid Kosovars. Israel has done more for Kosovar relief than any other non-NATO country (as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never hesitates to note). Israel sent a field hospital and 80 doctors to Macedonia and welcomed 112 Kosovar refugees, offering them permanent residence. Israelis also mobbed a huge Kosovo benefit concert.

But beneath Israelis' sympathy for Kosovars lurk more perplexing reactions that illuminate the anxieties of a state where a beleaguered ethnic minority seeks independence, the byzantine nature of Israeli electoral politics, and the enduring weight of the Holocaust in Israel--but not the weight you'd expect.

Israeli doubts about Kosovo begin with Israeli doubts about Palestinians. Palestinian newspapers and leaders have compared the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo to the Palestinian "nakba" of 1948, when thousands of Palestinians fled Israel and ended up in permanent refugee camps. (This analogy has been endorsed by the likes of the Economist, which called the flight of the Palestinians an unpunished ethnic cleansing.) Palestinians also claim that the West's intervention to preserve Kosovar autonomy confirms their right to independence. "We will ask the international community to intervene to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and to expel the settlers from it," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian Authority's Cabinet secretary, citing the Kosovo bombing as exemplar.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Most Israelis are merely irritated with this Palestinian claim, viewing it as an unseemly attempt to exploit the Kosovo crisis and as a faulty analogy. (An Arab invasion of Israel in 1948 prompted the Palestinian flight, not an Israeli invasion of Arab territory.) But Israel's far right has taken the Palestinian claim seriously. The far right views Kosovo not as tragedy but as threat, "a dangerous precedent." Some right-wing Knesset members have called for an end to the airstrikes: If the West intervenes on behalf of an independence-seeking ethnic minority in Kosovo, one asked, "couldn't it happen here, too, in a different variation today or tomorrow?"

The Serbs only exacerbate Palestinian righteousness and Israeli right-wing paranoia by calling Kosovo Serbia's "Jerusalem." If Kosovo is Jerusalem, that means that either a) Israel's hold on Jerusalem is unjustified, as Palestinians argue; or b) Serbia's hold on Kosovo is justified, as a few fringe-right Israelis are now hinting.

Kosovo ambivalence has also become a pawn in next month's Israeli election. The Israeli left has blasted Netanyahu for his languorous response to the humanitarian crisis: He took several days to decide that Israel would help refugees and several more days to announce support for bombing.

25000_25855_kuper_kosovo2

B ut Netanyahu and his allies, particularly hawkish Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, are using Kosovo more cleverly. Early in the bombing, Sharon warned that an independent Kosovo could become the heart of a "Greater Albania" that would be a staging ground for Muslim terrorism. Netanyahu quickly disavowed Sharon's remarks, but Sharon had scored points with the far right, where anti-Muslim sentiment abounds. Israeli media have been full of unsubstantiated reports that the Kosovo Liberation Army is funded by Iran, Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, and Hezbollah. Calls to Israel's far-right talk radio station have demanded that Israel send its Muslim Kosovar refugees to Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Sharon has especially exploited Kosovo to court Israel's 1 million new Russian immigrants, whose votes are expected to decide the election's outcome. Sharon has visited Russia three times in the past few months, including once in the midst of the Kosovo bombing. Sharon eagerly sucked up to Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, implicitly condemning the NATO bombing during his most recent trip. Russian Israelis are not especially pro-Serb, but they definitely want close ties with Russia. So, Sharon is using Kosovo to butter up Russia. That, in turn, could swing Russian voters.

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.

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.