The Jews, the Serbs, and the Truth
by Stephen Schwartz
On March 16, 2005, FrontPageMagazine.com published an article titled "A Jewish Albatross, The Serbs," by Julia Gorin. The text included a number of factual inaccuracies and allegations, and has been interpreted by some American Jewish leaders as a serious impeachment of their moral judgment regarding the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
As a journalist and author engaged with Balkan Jewish history and social issues for almost 30 years, I do not think anybody could be more aware than myself of the sensitivities involved in assessing the relations between Jews, Serbs, and the other Balkan and South Slavic peoples. My own book, Sarajevo Rose, on Jewish-Muslim relations in the Western Balkans, has just been published. While it is a daunting task, it is nonetheless worthwhile, in my view, to address the factual errors in Ms. Gorin's contribution.
1. Ms. Gorin begins by inferring that violence by Kosovar Albanians may be described as "terrorism by Muslim militants." There are not now and never have been, in recent times, "Muslim militants" in Kosova, aside from a handful of individuals and some Saudi and other Gulf Arab-state cells operating through relief agencies. Kosovar Albanians include a large Catholic minority, who are no less nationalist in their sentiments than Muslims. The three armed groups involved in the war against Serbia – the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA-UCK), the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosova (FARK) and the National Movement for the Liberation of Kosova (LKCK) all included Catholics as well as Muslims in positions of command and other authority. None was organized on an Islamist basis. The most famous Albanian of modern times was Mother Teresa. Her biographer, a personal friend of mine, is an Albanian Catholic priest, Don Lush Gjergji, who lives in a mixed Albanian-Serb town in Kosova, called Vitia. There are Catholic parishes all over Kosova.
2. The above-noted statement by Ms. Gorin is further elaborated with the claim that Serbs "will lose Kosova to Albanian Muslims, whose fates are now entirely in the hands of the international Islamist factions with whom they, and we, cast their lot." While Serbia may lose Kosovo, it will not be to Muslims alone, but to an overwhelming Albanian majority of Muslims and Catholics. No "international Islamist factions" are present in Kosova or presently involved with Kosova. No "international Islamist factions" were involved in the Kosova war. Even the previously-mentioned Saudis and other Gulf Arab subjects, operating through relief agencies, were only active outside Kosova, in Albania and Macedonia, until fighting in Kosova ended. Their representatives in Kosova have been investigated, arrested, and expelled, or their activities otherwise seriously limited. Kosovar Muslims are extremely anti-Islamist and pro-American. Albania arrested and deported the Islamist group of "Albanian Returnees" to Egypt, where they were tried and executed, and has seized the property of an al-Qaida financier, Yasin Kadi, who resides in Saudi Arabia. Responsibility for antiterrorist legal action against Saudi and other foreign Islamist agents in Macedonia, who continue to represent a problem, belongs with the Slav central authorities in Macedonia, not the Albanians.
3. Ms. Gorin implies that Kosova Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj is a Muslim extremist. Ramush Haradinaj is not a religious person. He has never been involved or associated with any Islamic cause. He has no association with Islamist ideology whatever. He is not even a "cultural Muslim." [Author's 2009 correction: The Haradinaj family is associated with the heterodox Bektashi Sufi order.]
4. Ms. Gorin states that NATO bombed Serbia "to prevent a genocide that forensics turned up empty." Yes, the genocide was prevented. It did not take place. Nobody claimed it had taken place, only that it was attempted. Genocide means the murder of a whole people; obviously, the Albanians were not wholly murdered. Ms. Gorin further refers to "every explosive report coming from the Balkans – Islamic charities getting busted as terror-funding fronts, terrorist cells being uncovered in Bosnia and Kosovo," as if this undermines the reputation for moderation of Balkan Muslims. The facts, as partly described above, show the exact opposite. Albania has treated Islamist agents very harshly. The Islamic charities were shut down in Bosnia-Hercegovina by the Bosnian authorities, who seized irreplaceable evidence of al-Qaida activity in Europe and turned it over to U.S. investigators. Remaining members of terrorist cells were also identified and neutralized with the support of the Bosnian authorities. No Islamist cells were ever detected in Kosova aside from the aforementioned Saudi and Gulf Arab charity representatives, who have, as noted, been investigated, arrested, and expelled, or their activities otherwise radically curtailed.
5. In the same paragraph, Ms. Gorin refers to the March riots in Kosova last year as "coordinated." No serious journalistic or international administrative body has made such a claim. The turmoil in Kosova in March 2004 was spontaneous, caused in the greater part by disaffection with rule by the United Nations, a high rate of unemployment, the failure to consistently restore public services such as water and electricity, the collapse of the pension system, refusal to privatize the economy, and related grievances.
6. Ms. Gorin states, "We were told of mass graves… 800,000 displaced, Bill Clinton said." Mass graves indeed have been uncovered in Kosova, and that fact is challenged by nobody. They are numerous and the work of excavating them is long and taxing. Almost a million Kosovar Albanians were displaced, expelled, and fled to Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and even to Serbia, as was seen on news reports broadcast throughout the world. The large refugee camps in Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro were not fabrications.
7. Ms. Gorin has attempted to downgrade the number of Albanian victims of Serbian aggression in Kosova from "100,000" to "closer to 2,000." The figure of 100,000 dead or missing was put forward during the Kosova intervention when there were no international journalists or NGOs inside Kosova. It was an estimate. The accepted figure today, issued by Catholic authorities, is approximately 12,500 Albanians killed or missing, many of them children. I do not wish to play numbers games on this, as I consider it as degrading as responding to challenges over the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
8. Ms. Gorin states that "the Racak massacre… turned out to have been staged." This is a false claim that cannot be seriously sustained. Those who make the assertion join it to the charge that the U.S. diplomat William Walker, who visited Racak after the massacre occurred, was also a supporter of "death squads" in Central America. Both charges originate in the Marxist left and are scurrilous and disreputable.
9. Ms. Gorin states that "journalists fanned the early flames of Serb demonization in Bosnia, starting with a widely circulated 1992 photo of a Serb-run 'death camp' for Bosnian Muslims that turned out to have been taken from the inside of a fenced storage area, and showed refugees who had escaped the fighting and were free to go at any time." The charge that the photograph was false was a hoax perpetrated by British Communists and has been thoroughly debunked. The magazine that published the claim, with the illustrative title Living Marxism, lost a libel suit brought by the ITN television network, to the total of 375,000 British pounds. The British court found against Living Marxism for its spurious accusation that ITN and other British journalists were fabricators of anti-Serb propaganda.
10. Ms. Gorin restates the well-known and controversial claim that "Jews and Serbs, both… were persecuted by the Nazis' Croatian, Bosnian and Albanian brigades during WWII." While this oft-repeated charge contains a grain of truth, it is only a grain. The lowest rate of Jewish survival in ex-Yugoslavia in World War II was in Macedonia, which was under Bulgarian control, and where 90 percent of Jews were deported and killed. The highest rate was in Kosova, where 62 percent of Jews survived. [Author's 2009 correction: The rate of survival of Jews living in Kosova during the Holocaust has recently been revised upward, based on original records, and may be closer to 95 percent.] Serbia and Croatia (the latter including Bosnia-Hercegovina) both had high levels of Jewish martyrdom during the Holocaust. The Serbian capital, Beograd, was declared by the Germans the first Judenrein, or "Jew-free" city in Europe. In Bosnia, the infamous Bosnian Waffen SS units played no role in the removal of Jews on their territory, which was carried out by Germans and Croats. The Bosnian Waffen SS units were assigned to combat Muslim and Serb Partisans, including residents of villages from where many of the recruits themselves originated. They were reluctant to participate in such actions, having enlisted in the Waffen SS on the mistaken belief that such service would resemble that of the Bosnian gendarmerie under the Habsburg empire. They were sent by the Germans to France for retraining. There they mutinied against their Nazi officers and attempted to join the French Partisans, the only known example of a Waffen SS rebellion. By 1944, most of them had joined the Yugoslav Partisans. In addition, the Bosnian Muslim clerics issued several declarations publicly denouncing Croat-Nazi collaborationist measures against Jews and Serbs: these include that of Sarajevo in October 1941, of Mostar in 1941, and of Banja Luka on November 12, 1941. These fascinating documents have never been translated and published in English, but I am completing work on them for publication now. As to the Albanians, it is true that the Albanian Waffen SS Skanderbeg division turned some 210 Jews in Kosova over to the Nazis [Author's 2009 correction: Recent documentary disclosures suggest a figure about one tenth of this number.] Not one Jew was handed over in Albania itself, which was the only country to come out of the second world war with a larger Jewish population than it had at the beginning of the war. This fact has been noted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and by Yad Vashem in Israel, where Albanian Muslims have been honored as "righteous Gentiles."
11. Ms. Gorin states "In 1999, under pressure from the U.S. and amid protest from Israelis who knew better, Israel joined NATO's war against Yugoslavia, leaving Serbs stunned and angry in an era when most of Europe was already being engulfed by a new wave anti-Semitism [sic]. Today, whatever Jews remained in Kosova before our intervention have been cleansed right along with the Serbs." These two statements are entirely incorrect. Israel played no role in the NATO action against Yugoslavia except to provide medical aid and shelter to Albanian refugees, and I do not understand why such an accusation of involvement in military action would be made against Israel. A Jewish Community now exists in Kosova, headquartered in Prizren and recognized by the Joint Distribution Committee, the main global Jewish relief organization.
12. Ms. Gorin refers to U.S. bombings "of the Orthodox Christian Serbs, which didn't break even for Easter (the way our other bombardments have for Ramadan)." U.S. bombardments and other combat actions have not ceased during Ramadan, and there is no Islamic requirement barring military action during Ramadan. Muslims have fought during Ramadan on many occasions.
13. In the same paragraph, Ms. Gorin states, "an Italian ambassador… asked American Jewish leaders to call for an end to the bombardment against Yugoslavia, citing that the KLA was backed by Iran-backed terror outfits and that an independent Kosova would be a gateway for the spread of terror throughout Europe." The "Italian ambassador" and the "Iran-backed terror outfits" are left unnamed. I do not doubt that an Italian diplomat, probably concerned about the influx of Albanian refugees into his country, might have made such an irresponsible statement and could be named; I would be interested to know his identity. "Iran-backed terror outfits" involved in Kosova cannot be named because they did not exist. Iranians were not and are not involved in Kosova at all, even though the Kosovar Albanian Muslim population is at least 30 percent Shia. Either way, Kosova has not become a gateway for the spread of terror throughout Europe; the charge would better be applied to Britain, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy itself.
14. Ms. Gorin states "Today, Serbia is the only remaining pocket of multi-ethnicity in the Balkans – where Serbs, gypsies, Jews, Albanian and other Muslims, along with 22 other nationalities still coexist." This is incorrect. All the stated nationalities reside, some in quite large groups, in Slovenia and Croatia, which do not like being considered Balkan, but also in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro (without many Jews historically or now), and Macedonia, as well as Serbia. Macedonia has a Gypsy television network, which is unique in the world. There are no ethnically-pure territories in former Yugoslavia.
15. Ms. Gorin expresses displeasure that the trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague has taken four years. She might better express appreciation at the high standards and patient work of the tribunal. She neglected to mention that Milosevic was turned over to the tribunal by the Serbian authorities.
16. In a statement of questionable taste, Ms. Gorin asks, "If, as we were told, there was systematic rape by Serbs, where are the resulting children? Or evidence of mass abortions?" Anybody who has visited the former Yugoslavia knows of the lives of these children, and also knows that "mass" abortions did not take place. What, in any case, is a "mass abortion"? An abortion carried out collectively, all at once, in a group? "Mass abortions" do not exist anywhere.
17. Ms. Gorin suggests that Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova is an Islamist who, like Yasir Arafat, "Accept[s] the infidel's (the West's) help for as long as it moves you closer to your goal." In reality, as anybody knowledgeable about the topic knows, Arafat was not a Muslim in the religious sense. He did not attend Muslim prayers except on official occasions and is said not to have known the text of the prayers. Ibrahim Rugova is not a religious person. He also has never been involved or associated with any Islamic cause. He also has no association with Islamist ideology whatever. He is not even a "cultural Muslim."
18. Ms. Gorin quotes "Balkan-based journalist Chris Deliso [who] wrote last year for BalkanAnalysis.com, 'Kosova – with its porous borders, fundamentalist minority, criminal underbelly and proximity to the rest of Europe – is a perfect hiding place.' " Christopher Deliso is not a serious journalist, but a columnist at Dennis Raimondo's antiwar.com website. Kosova is the most heavily-policed, militarily-occupied region in Europe. It does not now and has never had a "fundamentalist minority" in the sense the term is now understood, and no serious evidence to the contrary can be produced. "Hiding place" for whom? Even before September 11, 2001, Saudi and other Gulf Arab agents had been, to repeat, investigated, arrested, and expelled, or their activities otherwise seriously limited.
19. It is rather surprising to read in Ms. Gorin's column, "Americans don't see how Kosovo relates to them. Until 1999, who had ever even heard of a Serb?" Serbian-Americans are a well-known community in numerous states, such as California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, and include such prominent politicians as Rod Blagojevich, the current Democrat governor of Illinois. The Serbian-American poet Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990, and his translations of the Serbian poet Vasko Popa are taught in many university departments. The Yugoslav author Danilo Kis, who was of Serbian and Hungarian-Jewish origin, and wrote in Serbian dialect, is widely known among literate Americans. Much more Serbian literature has been published in English in the U.S., over many years, than Slovene, Croatian, Bosnian, Macedonian, or Albanian literature. The Yugoslav political writer Milovan Djilas always defined himself as a Montenegrin and Serb, and was universally known in political and journalistic circles. Hundreds of doctoral dissertations and other academic studies on Serbian topics have been produced at American universities.
Ms. Gorin is welcome to her opinions, but they are only opinions, and are not based on verifiable fact. To challenge the American Jewish leadership for its position on the Balkans 10 years ago is, at best, unproductive. The entire world witnessed the actions of the Milosevic regime in ex-Yugoslavia. They cannot be expunged from the historical record by creating false parallels. Serbia is not now, and will never be, Israel. It is, in reality, a place where crude Jew-baiting is on the rise, as demonstrated in recent reportage.