In Kosovo’s Tiny ‘Jerusalem,’ a Struggle To Sustain Jewish Life in Corner of Balkans
PRIZREN, Kosovo – Votim Demiri, President of the Jewish Community of Kosovo, took me to his house in Marash district of Prizren, located at a bend in the Prizrenska Bistrica river, an area of narrow streets and low, sloped red-tiled roofs. In his office, he showed photographs of his family meeting figures of great significance including Shimon Peres. He pointed towards a calendar given to him by the American Jewish Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, about whose work in Kosovo Demiri could not speak highly enough.
Demiri also noted that his house – “the Jewish house,” as he referred to it – forms one point of a triangle in his neighbourhood with two Islamic holy places. Later, he took me into the historic centre of Prizren centred around the old stone bridge that crosses the Prizrenska Bistrica, and noted that the Sinan Pasha Mosque sits within walking distance of a Serb Orthodox church and a Catholic school. “This is our Jerusalem,” he said.
Prizren is more like Jerusalem that one might think. Although it was spared the worst of the Kosovo War’s excesses, Serb forces did systemically clear some Albanian areas of the city, while during Albanian-led riots in 2004 Serbs were burnt out of their homes. “While the town is lovely, animated, and hospitable,” Stephen Schwartz, Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, told The Forward, “Albanians and Serbs do not get along there.” Yet still, “Albanian Sunnis, Sunni Sufis, Catholics, and Jews enjoy a warm sense of common municipal identity in Prizren.”
And it is within this mixture that the Kosovo’s Jewish community resides, who today number 56 in total. Kosovo’s Jews “have not been a significant presence in public life for a long time,” Dr Noel Malcolm, Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, explained to The Forward, their number having diminished even from the 360 or so who survived the Second World War. And yet in Prizren and Kosovo more widely, Jews have enjoyed “a real history of positive coexistence and mutual acceptance in what was a predominantly Muslim society.”
Review: A Tale of Love and Darkness
When Amos Oz was eight, he was a witness to the birth of a new nation.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, thus allowing for the possibility of a Jewish state there. As Oz describes in his poetic, wandering memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, it was after midnight when on Amos Street, his “faraway street on the edge of Kerem Avraham in northern Jerusalem,” shouts first of terror then of unadulterated joy “tore through the darkness and the buildings and trees”. Oz, who had been listening to the vote on the radio, ran out into the throng and sat upon his father’s shoulders as they danced into the night, singing Zionist songs and weeping at the prospect of Israel’s rebirth.
At around three or four in the morning, Oz crawled into bed fully dressed. His father lay beside him, and proceeded to tell him of life in the old country, how in Odessa and Vilna he and his brother were bullied, harassed, and attacked. Henceforth, Oz’s father said to him in the dimness, “‘From the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew and because Jews are so-and-sos. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. For ever.’” This is the only time in Oz’s life, not even when his mother passed, that he saw his father cry.
Then, at seven o’clock on November 30, just three hours after all of Jewish Jerusalem had emptied to celebrate partition, shots were fired at a Jewish ambulance that was transiting through an Arab neighbourhood. What commenced was what amounted to a civil war, running in the months between the UN vote and Israel’s declaration of independence. Jerusalem became cut off from Tel Aviv: the schools closed; food and oil was rationed; and Oz recollects the stone houses in Kerem Avraham shaking as the shells landed around them.
The shame of Srebrenica and history repeated
Unbeknownst to me, until now of course, back in July I had a letter published in The Guardian on the anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica. I choose to republish this now not only because one’s words should never go to waste, but because as the civil war in Syria continues the central point of the letter remains as timely as it did when it was first published:
This week marks the 17th anniversary of the beginning of the Srebrenica massacre, during which 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were slaughtered, and thousands of women were subjected to systemised rape and torture (Srebrenica: Britain’s guilt, 13 July). The war by Serbs and Croats on Bosnia’s Muslims, which saw the return of concentration camps and racially motivated genocide to European soil, resulted in the deaths of more than 30,000 Bosniak civilians deaths and the displacement of many more.
In watching with indifference as ethnic cleansing occurred in Bosnia, the west failed its first major test since the Holocaust, as the call to never again allow such atrocities to occur on our watch and with our knowledge fell victim to selective hearing. Now, as we witness a war in Syria where Bashar al-Assad is unable to distinguish civilian from militiaman, the consequence being the murder of more than 17,000 of his people and the flight of thousands to Turkey and Lebanon, I cannot help but conclude we are failing to learn from our past mistakes once more.
Holding Out in Afghanistan, Just a Little Longer
My fellow foreign policy brethren (or warmongers, I suppose) in the Senate — John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman — have published an op-ed in The Washington Post, outlining the case for staying the course in Afghanistan. In effect, they make the case against the current policy, one of effective withdrawal after 2014.
As a preface, what can be stated first of all is that, when it comes to Afghanistan, President Obama’s policy has been less than successful. The original sin of his Af-Pak agenda was to at once announce the injection of 30,000 into the combat zone and that these troops and all other forces would be withdrawn during the year 2014. What his administration ended up saying to the Taliban was, you only have to hold on a few more years, then the nation is yours for the taking. The soldiers on the front line, and the people of Afghanistan, live and die by the consequences of this failed policy.
Rather, McCain, Graham, and Lieberman argue that since 2008, there has been some progress on the ground due to the troop surge. The authors note that, four years ago, “southern Afghanistan was overrun by the Taliban, and our coalition lacked the resources and the strategy necessary to break their momentum”. Today, “that situation has been reversed, thanks to the president’s surge of forces, the leadership of talented military commanders, and the courage and perseverance of our troops”. They also praise the progress made by the the Afghan National Security Forces.
As such, the authors argue that in order to sustain this “fragile progress”, it is critical that the Obama administration “resist the shortsighted calls for additional troop reductions”. Instead, American troops should stay a little longer, and the proposed draw down to 68,000 troops by September should be paused. “It would be much better”, the authors conclude, “to maintain the 68,000 forces through next year’s fighting season, possibly longer”.