Israel Uneasily Wrestles With 'Genocide' in Kosovo
By Lee Hockstader
JERUSALEM – When the West employs the term "genocide" and compares Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic with Adolf Hitler, many Israelis perk up their ears. As victims, or relatives of victims, of the 20th century's deadliest genocide, Jews here feel a special moral resonance in atrocities committed against ethnic minorities in Europe.
But the current crisis in Kosovo is regarded with some ambivalence in Israel despite the scale of the bloodshed. While the suffering and persecution of the ethnic Albanians is universally condemned, some Israelis are nevertheless deeply uneasy with the West's bombing campaign against the Serbs.
Many Israelis regard the latest Balkan upheaval – and its main protagonists – through a prism colored by historical memory of Serbian and Albanian behavior during World War II, political anxiety about current threats to Israel and cultural prejudice. The result is a highly filtered image.
For its part, the Israeli government at first balked at criticizing the Serbs directly and has refused to explicitly support NATO's airstrikes. Only after several days of sustained criticism in the Israeli press did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Tuesday condemn massacres by "the Serbs or any other group . . . both from the point of view of our history and our moral sense."
The Jewish state, which is fond of boasting that its standard of living has soared nearly to Western European levels, has so far decided to send just $100,000 worth of medicine, tents and clothing to the Kosovo Albanian refugees in Albania, a relative pittance compared with the West's donations, or Taiwan's, even in per capita terms.
When Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon was asked whether he supports the NATO bombing, he replied: "We were not asked . . . It is not our job to comment on this." Other Israeli cabinet ministers agreed.
Israel's lukewarm official stance has enraged many Israelis who believe Jews have a unique historical and moral obligation to speak out for persecuted minorities who face massacres and possible genocide.
"As representatives of the Jewish nation, which went through a terrible process of complete annihilation, we are obligated because of our past to act and offer them assistance," Yehuda Bautzer, head of the International Foundation for Holocaust Research, wrote in the newspaper Maariv.
For these Israelis, the exhortation "Never again!" applies broadly, not only to the specter of another holocaust against the Jews but to genocidal wars elsewhere, particularly in Europe.
But there is another strain in Israeli public opinion, for whom "never again" has a more limited application, principally to Jews. That the victims in Kosovo are Muslims who Sharon said were in league with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or Party of God – which is fighting Israeli army in southern Lebanon – further complicates matters.
For some Israelis on the political right, the main historical imperative is "Jewish survival at all costs," said Efraim Zuroff, Israel director of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. "Their lesson from the Holocaust is, 'If the Kosovo Albanian] victims are our enemies or people sympathetic to our enemies, and the perpetrators are our friends, then we have to be more careful.'‚"
Like many debates in Israel, this one has roots in the Holocaust. History-minded Israelis know that the Serbs, alongside other Yugoslav partisans under Tito, stood up against the Nazis and eventually beat them back, at great cost in blood. The Serbs were also on generally good terms with the Jews who lived among them, and instances of Serbian antisemitism, or collaboration with the Nazis in the extermination of Serbia's Jews, were relatively rare.
The Kosovo Albanians, by contrast, joined a German SS division toward the end of the war and fought the partisans.
"If a Jewish dimension comes up in this, it calls for sympathy for [the Serbs]," said Yehoshua Porath, a retired history professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Some Israelis who have examined the NATO action in Kosovo think it can only mean trouble for Israel itself in the not-too-distant future. To these observers, who tend to be on the right wing edges of public opinion, the plight of the Kosovo Albanians bears just enough resemblance to that of the Palestinians, or Israel's own million-strong Arab minority, to be unsettling.
Like Israeli Arabs, the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are a Muslim minority in a sovereign state. Like the Palestinians, they aspire to create an independent state on land they regard as their birthright. What if some future Israeli government refuses to sign a peace accord with the Palestinians, as Milosevic's Serbia refused to sign one with the Kosovo Albanians? The parallels may seem superficial, but to some Israelis, a dangerous precedent is being set.
"In the future, if we refuse to give [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat Jerusalem, will the bombing, or at least economic sanctions, begin?" asked Elyakim Haetzni in the daily Yedioth Aharonoth.
Despite such views, the persecution of Kosovo's Albanians – the wrenching images of refugees and reports of horrific massacres – have struck a chord in Israel as they have elsewhere. Many Israelis who have followed the crisis – perhaps a majority – see in the Albanians' plight distinct echoes of the Holocaust. They note that NATO's' response is exactly what Jews wanted, and were refused, by the Allies in World War II.
"Dear Europe," wrote Uri Avneri, a columnist for Maariv. "I was happy about your decision to use force to guarantee peace in Kosovo. You learned a lesson. Sixty years ago, when the Nazis abused the German Jews and threatened to eliminate all the Jews of Europe, you did not lift a finger."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company