Echoes from the Killing Fields

It’s the festival of freedom, and, once again, Allied warplanes are flying the skies of Europe to stop tyranny and protect the oppressed. The bombers that failed to arrive in time to save the doomed Jews of Europe a half-century ago are now speeding hope to the threatened Albanians of Kosovo. Finally, someone has learned from history.

So why doesn’t it feel right?

Maybe because this war is turning out to be so much more complicated than it appeared at the outset. NATO bombings don’t seem to be deterring the Serbian butchers, but are rather spurring them on to greater atrocities. The fighting is creating a massive refugee crisis that may yet spread ethnic conflict to neighboring countries, starting with Macedonia. The bombings were supposed to stop the crisis in Yugoslavia, not spread it.

Compounding our malaise is that it’s so hard to follow. Most of us couldn’t find Serbia, Macedonia or Kosovo on a map. Few of us are sure who the bad guys are, or why. To most of us, they’re a bunch of squabbling principalities with strange names. Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Slobovia. It’s the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” sprung gruesomely to life. That’s why they call them the Balkans.

Maybe, too, it doesn’t feel right because this should be a clear-cut case of standing up to do the right thing. And, yet, Americans, the guardians of democracy, seem profoundly turned off to it all. Adding insult to injury, it’s not even clear what the right thing is.

It seemed so simple a few weeks ago. Serbia, the bully of the Balkans, was embarked on yet another orgy of ethnic cleansing, this time against its own Albanian minority. Kosovo province, where Albanians predominate, was being turned into a killing field. It wasn’t long ago when the Serbs were doing pretty much the same thing in nearby Bosnia. For three years, Bosnians were slaughtered or exiled by the tens of thousands while the United States and the West dithered. We couldn’t let it happen again.

In a way, going to war over Kosovo was a sort of penance for all those times the United States didn’t act fast enough in the past. For Bosnia. Rwanda. Cambodia. And, yes, for the Holocaust. For each time this great democracy stood idly by in the face of unspeakable horror. This time, the United States had to act.

Perhaps it’s no accident that the United States finally found its will to resist inhumanity under a secretary of state who lost her grandparents in the Holocaust. Madeleine Albright displays precious few conscious links to her Jewish past. But her link to the Holocaust is undeniable. Long before she entered Clinton’s Cabinet, she was a leading advocate of U.S. activism to defend human rights overseas. Now she can do something about it.

The echoes of the Holocaust in the Balkans are haunting. Ever since Yugoslavia broke up in 1991, the region has been a slaughterhouse. Serbia’s ambition for an ethnically pure “greater Serbia” has led to carnage, mass internment and expulsions, on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. The language of blood and soil, the reports of massacres, the televised pictures of emaciated internees in concentration camps — they’ve left us feeling sure we’ve seen this before.

Nobody understood this better than Jews. And American Jewry has responded from the beginning with firm calls to action. In the early 1990s, while Bosnia bled, Jewish organizations led the tiny chorus of voices that were demanding U.S. intervention. The Moslem-led Bosnian government even gave a seat in its U.N. delegation to a Jewish organizational official, the late Abe Bayer of what’s now the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, recognizing his role as a leading spokesman for their cause.

But there were contrary voices being raised, early on. Some Jews — left-leaning Holocaust survivor John Ranz of the Generation After group, elder statesman Jacques Torczyner of the right-leaning Zionist Organization of America — wondered aloud why the Jewish community was lining up against Serbia. The Serbs fought the Nazis heroically during World War II, while their neighbors collaborated. Where was our historical memory? Our gratitude?

The hesitations weren’t only historic. Torczyner argued in meeting after meeting that American Jews had no business supporting a Moslem army that was fighting to create another Moslem state in Europe. He still feels that way.

The parallels to Israel are eerie. Israel, like Serbia, sees itself standing alone against the world. Israel, like Serbia, is told by diplomats in striped pants that it must honor the rights of a Moslem minority living in its shadow and seeking independence. Israel, like Serbia, worries that this Moslem minority is no minority at all, but the bridgehead for a vast sea of Moslems ready to pounce.

Most Jews reject such hesitations as repugnant. Serbia, unlike Israel, “defends” itself by burning villages and butchering their inhabitants. It obstructs negotiations and laughs at its own agreements. It’s an outlaw state.

Most of us probably agree with those Jewish organizations that supported the Kosovo bombing from the first. “As people who still live in the shadow of their own experience with genocide, we know all too well the cost of inaction in the face of ‘ethnic cleansing,'” the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism declared in a March 24 letter to the president. Most groups echoed it.

But those sentiments leave some very big questions unanswered. What happens when the bombings fail? Will we go the next step and send in ground troops? Are we prepared for a full-scale war over Kosovo? Polls suggest most Americans don’t want it. Do we ignore them? And what then?

“It was a mistake for the United States to go in without an exit strategy,” says pro-Israel lobbyist Morris Amitay. A former head of AIPAC, Amitay is now vice chairman of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which opposes the bombings. “I don’t think our vital interests are at stake. And, frankly, the president has a credibility problem.”

Confused? Of course. This is where we came in: bewildered, dispirited, repulsed by the killing but unsure we can do anything. Doubtful that the cure is worth the price. And not too sure how we feel about the victims.

Does it sound familiar? You bet it does. It’s just how Americans felt during the Holocaust. Now perhaps we can understand that generation a little better. In a way, we’ve become them.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.