Kosovo Jewish cemetery desecrated

Kosovo authorities are investigating the desecration Tuesday of a local Jewish cemetery. Swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans were sprayed on tombstones of this old cemetery which was restored less than six months ago.

Rabbi Yoel Kaplan, Chief Rabbi of Albania and Chabad representative to the region who was designated to oversee the cemetery by the Government of Kosovo, was contacted by the Prime Minister’s office, which condemned the vandalism.

“They reassured me that the authorities are working vigorously to find the perpetrators,” Kaplan told lubavitch.com in a phone interview from Israel.

There are about 70 Jewish graves in the cemetery, which lay in disrepair for years. “It was used a soccer field, and the graves were used as goalies,” said Rabbi Kaplan.

After the renovation in June by a group of American and Kosovan students, Kaplan learned that certain groups objected to the government for its help in restoring the cemetery. Kaplan says he suspects that the complaints came from neighboring Serbia.

“As Jewish life in the Balkans experiences a renewal, we’re seeing resentment and opposition by certain organizations and groups who seem not to tolerate the Jewish revival this region is experiencing,” Kaplan said.

Rabbi Kaplan made a recommendation to Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, as a cautionary measure, that security cameras be installed on the cemetery grounds.

The Prime Minister did not see reason for any real worry, said Kaplan. “We were rather optimistic. The fact is that when people in Kosovo see me—a conspicuously religious Jew—they approach with warmth and blessing. They want to learn about Judaism, and are so happy to see Jews return to this area,” said Kaplan.

President Atifete Jahjaga condemned the act. “The damaging of cemeteries presents an act in complete contradiction with the traditions and values of the people of Kosovo, based on tolerance and full respect for all the dead and all the monuments,” Jahjaga said in a statement.

Kosovo, which is largely Muslim, has a tiny population of 50 Jews. The former Serbian province declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.

Independence creates uncertainty for Kosovo’s Jews

Olmert Promises Students: Iran ‘Danger Will Be Removed;’ Sderot Children’s Heartfelt Drawings Come t

Olmert Promises Students: Iran ‘Danger Will Be Removed’

In a spirited but brief Nov. 15 speech at the Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told an enthusiastic crowd of 500, including 400 Orthodox Jewish high school students and luminaries, that he will do everything in his power to ensure “the Jewish people will never be exposed again to the kind of dangers and threats that they were exposed to in the past.”

In an afternoon address beneath a blazing sun, Olmert reinforced his earlier address to the United Jewish Communities General Assembly that Israel faces implacable enemies who talk of annihilating the Jewish state and wiping the country off the map, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With the Museum of Tolerance as a backdrop, Olmert admonished students from Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) to pay heed to the lessons of the past and take such anti-Semitic threats seriously.

Striking a note of defiance, Olmert seemed to call for the nations of the free world to unite against Iran, which many experts believe is trying to build nuclear weapons.

“I promise you that I and my colleagues in the Israeli government, and hopefully our friends in many other friendly governments, including the leadership of this country, will do what we need to do so that this danger will be removed,” he said.

The students greeted the Israeli prime minister like a rock star, jumping to their feet when they first got a glimpse of him behind a phalanx of secret service agents. The rapturous reception seemed to energize Olmert, who smiled broadly at the crowd and delivered his speech with passion.

Security at the event was tight, with up to 300 police officers, U.S. and Israeli security agents on hand. Audience members had to arrive more than an hour before Olmert spoke, and police officers patrolled the Wiesenthal Center’s roof. Dogs from the bomb squad sniffed suspicious packages.

During his two-day stay in Southern California, Olmert spoke to an estimated 5,000 delegates at the assembly on Nov. 14 and met privately with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other local politicians before his speech to YULA students.

That Israel’s prime minister appeared in Los Angeles is heartening, said City Councilman Jack Weiss, who attended Olmert’s Museum of Tolerance speech.”So many prime ministers would have canceled, but he came,” Weiss said.

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Sderot Children’s Heartfelt Drawings Come to City Hall

An exhibition of drawings by Israeli children from the Israeli city of Sderot was unveiled at Los Angeles City Hall Monday by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The children’s artworks depict their experience of living in the Israeli city under continual rocket attacks by Palestinian terrorists, and they include one of a rocket about to explode into a breaking heart. The pictures were made over the summer by students at the Science Orthodox School in Sderot, which is located less than a mile from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip. The city has seen an upsurge in attacks since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year.During the height of the summer’s conflict, Villaraigosa called Sderot’s Mayor Eli Moyal to express concern for the city’s well-being. Villaraigosa’s call to Moyal was interrupted twice by Palestinian rocket attacks.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to Mayor Moyal and the people of Sderot,”Villaraigosa said Nov. 20.

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel; Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and City Councilman Jack Weiss, among others, attended the opening of the City Hall exhibition. Weiss, whose Fifth Council District includes such heavily Jewish areas as West Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley, brought the drawings home with him after an August trip to Israel.

“By welcoming this artwork,” he said, “the people of Los Angeles are showingtheir support for and solidarity with the people of Israel.”

— MB

Eastern Europe’s Young Leaders Visit Jewish L.A.

The founder and editor of a newspaper in Azerbaijan, a Macedonian attorney, the head of a parliamentary caucus in Kosovo and a Slovenian realtor, along with scholars, activists and political leaders from Romania, Russia, Kyrgyztan, Georgia, Croatia, Moldova, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Armenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, spent a November morning trailing tours of schoolchildren through the Skirball Cultural Center.

The outing was one of the final activities for the group of 18 political and cultural leaders from the new democracies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, who visited Los Angeles under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

This year marks the 14th anniversary of the joint program, Promoting Tolerance in Central and Eastern Europe.

“In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we, along with the Naumann Foundation knew we wanted to contribute to the development of new democracies,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish Affairs for the AJCommittee. “We wanted to identify future leaders in culture, education and politics and show them the types of programs and projects in America for promoting diversity and pluralism.”

Since the program began, in 1992, many of its participants have gone on to become foreign ministers, members of parliament and heads of nongovernmental organizations, he said.

Exposure to Jewish life in America is a key part of the program. The group dined in the homes of committee members, attended Shabbat services and met with Jewish leaders throughout the country. This year, for the first time, there was one Jewish participant, from Moscow, but most have little or no knowledge of Judaism.

The program extends far beyond the Jewish community.

“We know that we can’t focus on the safety of American Jews in isolation. We need the protection of laws for all minorities,” Baker said. “We started out looking at the African-American experience, but now we also look at Asians, women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and the homeless.”

As the Skirball tour wound down, Ambassador David Shahnazaryan, co-founder of the Armenian National Party, admited that he would miss the group’s next stop while he embarked on his own adventure in media and tolerance. He was about to be picked up, along with his friend Elchin Shikhlinskiy, founder and editor-in-chief of the Ayn” and Zerkalo newspapers of Azerbaijan, so they can speak on an Armenian television show broadcast from Glendale.

Former Jewish Agency head tapped as Israel’s next ambassador to U.S.

One of Sallai Meridor’s first acts as chairman-elect of the Jewish Agency for Israel was to deliver relief to a Muslim country, Albania.

The delivery of food and medicine to refugees from the Kosovo crisis in April 1999 was a first for the organization best known for rescuing Jews — and was a sign that the scion of one of Israel’s founding families had a perpetual yearning for a wider diplomatic role.

A little more than a year after Meridor shocked the Jewish world by quitting the agency before his term ended, telling friends he hankered for a diplomatic role, his wish is about to come true: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni nominated him on Oct. 4 to be Israel’s next ambassador to Washington.

The one sentence statement from the Prime Minister’s Office simply said Olmert and Livni “decided that Mr. Sallai Meridor will be appointed as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in place of Danny Ayalon, who is completing his four-year term.”

Meridor, 51, still faces confirmation by the Cabinet and must be cleared by the Foreign Ministry’s legal team. But with Livni and Olmert in agreement — and they are at odds on just about everything else recently — his appointment is a sure thing.

Sources said he is set to start in January.

Meridor’s appointment comes at a critical time. The U.S.-Israel relationship has arguably never been stronger, but the path to Israeli-Palestinian peace that both countries had embraced has been crumbling amid chaos among the Palestinians and growing regional threats from Iran and Iraq.

It also comes after Olmert’s political fortunes were severely hampered by the damage Israel suffered this summer during its war with Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border. The Israeli prime minister is hoping to revive talks with the Palestinians.

Traditionally, Israel’s ambassador to Washington goes beyond the role of intermediary between Jerusalem and Washington, with the ambassador often involved in helping to set Israeli policy.

Meridor had already been seen as a shoo-in because of his decades-old friendship with Olmert.
Both men are “princes” of the Likud Party establishment who have moderated their hawkish views. Olmert now leads the centrist Kadima Party, which broke away from the Likud last year.

That friendship is probably the critical element explaining Meridor’s appointment, according to Jewish leaders who have known both men for decades.

“The most important thing for an ambassador to the United States is to have the confidence of the prime minister, and they go back many years,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Meridor also has a reputation for integrity, rolling back the Jewish Agency’s notoriety for patronage during his 1999-2005 term, and cutting its expenses.

The Jewish Agency, involved in the rescue and absorption of Jewish immigrants to Israel as well as Jewish education around the world, is the primary overseas recipient of North American federation funds.

As head of the agency, he pushed for the accelerated immigration of the Falash Mura community from Ethiopia, and the establishing of MASA — a program to bring thousands of Diaspora youth to Israel for long-term study and visits. He advocated aliyah from Western countries and established a partnership with Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helped boost immigration to Israel from North America and most recently, England.

He is well-known — and praised by American Jewish officials of both political and philanthropic organizations.

Sallai has a tremendous intellect and the capacity to multitask at the highest level of detail,” said Jay Sarver, the chairman of the agency’s budget and finance committee. “He has a deep, deep Jewish identity and neshama, and a deep belief in Zionist action.”

Stephen Hoffman, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and the former president of the United Jewish Communities, worked closely with him during his term at the agency.

“He is a good listener and he is articulate in English as well as Hebrew,” Hoffman said. “He thinks strategically and looks at a lot of different angles, is cautious and gathers a lot of opinions before he makes a move.”

Friends say that the more recent role at the helm of the Jewish Agency obscures his talents as a diplomat. As an adviser to Moshe Arens, who served as foreign minister and defense minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he cultivated a friendship with James Baker. That was exceptional because Baker, the secretary of state to the first President Bush, was not known for friendly relations with Israel.

Dennis Ross, the veteran peace negotiator and diplomat, worked for Baker at the time. Meridor knows how to explain Israel’s needs, he knows how to work effectively with American administrations, he knows how to see the big picture,” Ross said. “Israel could not have made a better choice.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, said they looked forward to working with someone with solid Washington experience.

“He is a highly effective advocate, is well-acquainted with the ways of Washington, D.C., and will surely bring his considerable talents to bear in his new post,” said AIPAC spokesman Josh Block.

Meridor has often straddled two worlds – as a West Bank settler who lives in Kfar Adumim, a settlement near Jericho likely to be dismantled in the withdrawals that Olmert has advocated.
His dual majors at Hebrew University were in the history of Islamic peoples and the history of the Jews. He speaks Arabic.

“Sallai has the ability to take people, to appeal to people from the right and the left and make people feel comfortable whether he agrees with their opinions or not,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, who admires Meridor despite their disagreements on last year’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. “In this kind of job, that’s an important trait.”

Klein noted Meridor’s profound affection for the whole biblical land of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza.

Jews Mend Kosovo’s Spirit

Having endured 10 years of oppression and the largest expulsion in Europe since the Holocaust, it is not uncommon to hear the Albanians of Kosovo draw parallels between themselves and Jews.

So it was little surprise to Greta Kacinari that Jews would be among those lending a hand in Kosovo, the war-torn southern province of Yugoslavia.

Despite the near absence of Jews in Kosovo, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has rebuilt many of its schools.

“I know a lot of Jews, and I know they have helped each other in times of need,” said Kacinari, principal of Elena Gjika Primary School. “But the really amazing thing to me is there’s also something in their blood for them to help people who are in a similar situation as Jews were in during their history.”

Kacinari’s is one of 14 primary schools in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. All of them here and in the countryside have suffered years of neglect and vandalism, and later, war. Meanwhile, as the Balkans have convulsed with one crisis after another this decade, Jewish groups have not only assisted the small Jewish communities in the region, but they have emerged as key supporters of the overall relief effort.

Leading the way is the JDC. It pitched in $1.25 million for the Albanian refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania earlier this year. Then, when it expressed an interest in Kosovo’s primary schools late this summer, UNICEF asked it to help rebuild the infrastructure of all 14 in Pristina. The JDC also selected a school in the southern city of Prizren, home to a tiny Jewish community of 40.

Since its arrival in Kosovo in August, a small, dedicated team of Israelis has spent $1.1 million of JDC funds to replace broken glass, doors and toilets, among other projects.

“When you say it 10 times — ‘We’re here to help the people because we care’ — it loses its strength,” says Israeli Nir Baron, JDC’s administrator in Kosovo. “But that is why I’m here, and to make sure everything gets to the right people.”

There are certainly plenty of needy recipients. Since 1989, Kosovo and its 90-percent ethnic Albanian population lived within an apartheid-like system ruled by the Serbian minority. Albanians were kicked out of universities, high schools and most primary schools. In response, the Albanian community created a parallel school system, operated mostly out of private homes.

In schools like Kacinari’s, the Albanians were allowed to remain. But anywhere from 750 to 900 schoolchildren were forced into half a wing. As there were only nine classrooms, teachers and students came to school in three shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Meanwhile, the 350 Serb students had access to 25 rooms, the gymnasium and luxury items such as microscopes.

When the Serb teachers and students left school at 2 p.m., the heat was shut off. The Albanians continued into the night in the cold, Kacinari says.

“I don’t wish for anyone in the world to live through the conditions we lived through for 10 years,” says Kacinari in fluent English.

Repression against the province’s 1.8 million Albanians grew progressively worse, leading to NATO’s intervention this spring. Three months of U.S.-led airstrikes finally forced the Serbs to end the repression, but forced relocation — known by the euphemism “ethnic cleansing” — resulted in an estimated 1 million ethnic Albanian refugees, 5,000 to 10,000 killed and tens of thousands of homes, businesses and schools burned.

As Serb forces withdrew, much of the Serb community went with them. In their wake, they trashed the schools.

So the JDC’s top priority was glass, to keep out the cold. Some 20,000 feet worth was bought for the 14 schools in Pristina alone. Workers installed it in one week. Next came replacement of doors and locks, many of which were said to have been kicked in and intentionally destroyed by Serbs.

As Baron tells it, the Kosovars are growing wary of well-meaning relief workers who promise but don’t deliver.

“That’s why we only promise what we can deliver,” he says. Baron notes the challenge for humanitarian groups is to judge where the greatest needs are. By virtue of having larger populations, the cities tend to draw most of the attention.

Some needs, such as physical reconstruction, are obvious. Other ideas came to the JDC only after it further familiarized itself with the communities. The organization recently gave away 15,000 pairs of shoes in Kosovo — mostly to orphaned children — and 3,500 backpacks for students.

The JDC and ORT have also donated 45 computers: 15 in Pristina, 15 in Prizren, and 15 in Skopje, Macedonia. The JDC has also hit on an idea for back-to-work vocational training for Albanians, to train them how to make tables and chairs for the schools. Then there’s the shortage of dental technicians: The JDC may bring some in, says Baron.

Finally, the JDC has allocated some discretionary funds for school officials to determine their own needs. Kacinari, for example, used the cash to buy items such as chalk, pens, notebooks, a screwdriver and light bulbs.

“We Jews know about occupation and foreign authority,” says the 32-year-old. “If I’d been liberated, even if someone wanted to help me I’d still want to defend my pride. Like, ‘I’ll tell you my needs and you can help me if you want.’ Just because someone gives you money doesn’t mean that they should own your soul.”

The JDC did in fact make one condition for its aid: that Albanian school officials not discriminate against Serb and other minority children. Kacinari boasts that in her school, there are 200-plus ethnic Turkish children, learning in their mother tongue.

Says Baron, “We told them we will not collaborate. If a Serb or Gypsy child wants to come to school, to us they are all just children.”

But he added, “These people are hurt and the feeling of revenge in the streets is very strong. I don’t know if you can blame them. To put hate aside is very difficult, as anyone from Israel knows.”

But Baron himself has found there is something contagious about bringing relief in a crisis.

“This work here has immediate rewards,” he said. “If you give a kid shoes or a school bag, it’s good for the soul.”

Kosovo’s Jews Battle for Survival

“Ah, the ironies of life,” says Votim Demiri. His mother escaped from the train that carried her family to death at Bergen-Belsen. Later, she became renowned for fighting with the Yugoslav partisans against the Nazis.

Fast forward to this spring.

A Serb offensive in Kosovo forced Demiri, the president of Prizren’s Jews, and close to 1 million Albanian refugees to flee their homes. Demiri, his wife and three children returned and hid until three months of NATO airstrikes persuaded Serb forces to withdraw.

So, today in Prizren, whose troops are keeping the peace? The Germans.

“I wonder what my mother would say if she were here to see it,” says Demiri, 52. Her mother died in 1994.

The Prizren Jews are battling for survival. Kosovo, legally still a part of Yugoslavia, is wracked with violent crime, and saddled with 70 percent unemployment.

One Jewish family of four has already emigrated to Israel, aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and a second family is seriously considering it, Demiri says.

Prizren, a city of roughly 150,000, is a historic trade center in the Balkans. Jews are said to have lived here for centuries. There is no synagogue in town, though a Star of David adorns the minaret of one of the town’s old stone mosques. “I have no idea where it comes from,” concedes Demiri.

However, deep roots may not be enough to keep the Prizren Jews here. They also need jobs.

Today, the community is basically comprised of two large, extended families. Mixed marriages are common: Demiri’s father, for example, is Albanian, and his wife is “something between Albanian and Turkish.”

Yet Demiri’s Jewish identity is sufficiently strong enough that his 22-year-old son would like to visit Israel to learn Hebrew. And concern for the welfare of others during the crisis has bound the community even more tightly tog

Most Jews and their Albanian neighbors today eke out a living, accepting food staples like flour and cooking oil from humanitarian groups.

Actually, admits Demiri, his family is getting along fine: He’s been reinstated as the director of a local textile factory, a job he lost when Milosevic and his lieutenants purged all “Albanians” from leadership positions in 1989 and 90. What his people need, Demiri says, are not handouts, but machines to start up small businesses.

“We don’t want to live from humanitarian aid forever; people in Kosovo know how to work hard to make a living,” he says. “But I want to make it clear: We’ll need plenty of time.” –Michael J. Jordan, JTA

Sneakers for Mirjeta

During my visit to a refugee camp in Macedonia with a group of 16 American Jews last week, a waif-like girl wearing a dusty black-and-red parka stood on her toes to peer into my notebook.

She was painfully thin, had big black eyes, short black hair and a huge smile. Instinctively, I drew a smile face in my notebook and showed it to her. She took my notebook and pen and began to draw a body on the smile face. With a few strokes of the pen, she drew the figure of me, complete with a camera bag and yarmulke.

I indicated that she sign the picture with her name and age. Mirjeta Bajrami, 14, she wrote.

It was the perfect way to meet across the language barrier that separated us. Mirjeta, like all the Kosovar refugees, spoke Albanian, but she also understood quite a bit of English. Where did she learn it? In school, she told me, and also from her favorite bands, Back Street Boys and Spice Girls.

She told me she was from the village of Seva Reca, a name I knew because it had been the scene of a massacre of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serb forces in March. Draw me a picture of the house where you lived, I asked, handing Mirjeta my notebook. She drew a small farmhouse with the roof ablaze and surrounded by soldiers.

My group spent 10 hours that day at Stankovich 1 refugee camp, part of our mission to bring supplies and words of support to ethnic Albanians who had fled the tragic war in Kosovo. We visited with a troupe of amazing Israeli youth volunteers who run an athletic, crafts and music program for the refugee children among the 30,000 souls in the crowded and fetid tent camp. “Our job is to make children smile,” said the head of the program, Azi Rahim. “Nobody else does that.” Our American group brought 32 huge duffel bags stuffed with shoes and toys for the children.

Mirjeta spent the day playing with her friends, but on regular intervals, she would seek me out to draw in my notebook and give me additional details about her life. Her father had died three years earlier in a car accident, leaving her mother with five children. They fled their village with Mirjeta’s aunt and her family after the Serbian assault in March and arrived at the Macedonian border with only the clothes on their backs.

At one point, I asked if I could see Mirjeta’s tent. With a skip in her step, she led me down a dusty road past row after row of army tents, pitched one right next to the other. The stench from overflowing latrines fouled the air. In the doorways of the tents, adults sat, looking bored and hopeless. And there were long lines of people everywhere, at the water faucets, at the hospital, at the mess hall and at the government tents where refugees could register for asylum with different countries.

We arrived at Mirjeta’s tent, a space no bigger than the modest living and dining room in my Manhattan apartment. Inside lived 10 people — Mirjeta’s mother and her five children, her aunt and uncle and their two children. Her mother was not in, but her aunt greeted me and beckoned me to enter. The place was immaculate, with blankets covering the dirt floor and clothes and blankets piled neatly around the perimeter. In one corner were the family’s rations for the day: a few tins of meat, some bread and a bunch of bananas. The aunt bent down, retrieved a can of juice and offered me a drink. Even in such crushing poverty, these people retained their essential human dignity.

On our way back to the children’s program, Mirjeta asked me a question. “Tomorrow?” Yes, I reassured her. My group planned to return to the camp a second day, and I would see her again. She pointed to her feet and, for the first time, I noticed that she was wearing bedroom slippers. “Shoes?” It was the first time all day she asked me for anything. I asked her to take off her slipper. I rubbed the dirt from the sole and uncovered the size: 37. I said I would get her shoes.

When we returned to the children’s area, I marched right to the tent of the Israelis who ran the program. It was there, earlier in the day, that my group deposited our duffel bags of gifts. I started to open them to find the right pair of shoes for Mirjeta, when an Israeli asked what I was doing. “Shoes for a friend,” I said. “You can’t do that,” he told me politely. “You’ll start a riot. You give one, you’ve got to give them all.” He said that the camp officials had a system for dispensing gifts and that those who need shoes would get them.

That night, back in my hotel room in the nearby city of Skopje, I couldn’t sleep. I had shoes. I had a bed. I had electricity and running water. The child that I chose (or had chosen me) to be a symbol of the suffering of the Kosovars had become my conscience. I got out of bed and stuffed anything of value I had into my pillow case: my Dartmouth sweat shirt, three cans of tuna, my towel, my rain poncho, my flashlight. In the bag, I put my business card, circling my phone number in the vain hope that someday Mirjeta would have an opportunity to call me.

When I got off the bus at the refugee camp in the morning, I swung the pillowcase over my shoulder and nonchalantly walked past the barbed wire and Macedonian border guards. Mirjeta and a small band of children were waiting at the gate. I handed her the bag and said, “Tent!” She ran off to bring the goods to her family. I went straightaway to the Israelis’ tent. Luckily, no one was there. I unzipped one of the duffel bags and knocked it over so that shoes began to spill out. I bent down ostensibly to clean them up, furiously looking for a size-37 girl’s shoes. But the sizes on the shoes were American, 4’s, 5’s and 6’s. There was no one to ask. I picked up a pair of black suede sneakers that looked like they would fit and snuck them out in a bag, feeling like a smuggler, convinced that everyone’s eyes were on me and my contraband. After a few tense moments, I spotted Mirjeta. She circled around, took the bag and again ran off.

The leader of our group suddenly announced that we were leaving the camp to visit the Kosovo border, just eight miles away. We were told to board the bus. I, of course, wasn’t the only one in our group who had formed a friendship with the refugee children. Others hugged and kissed new friends they made and surreptitiously gave them gifts and business cards. Several of the children started crying, making us wonder if we did the right thing by befriending them. “Maybe we got their hopes up,” we wondered out loud. I stared blankly out the window as our bus began to pull away from the camp. Suddenly, I saw a girl running toward the bus; she was waving, smiling and throwing kisses. It was Mirjeta, and on her feet were the black suede sneakers. I blew her a kiss.

That afternoon, we started on the long drive from the Macedonian capital to Salonika, Greece, where we would catch the flight back to the States. At one point, there was a thunderstorm and lightning and the skies opened up with torrents of rain. Everyone on the bus fell silent. No one had to say it. Our minds all went back to the refugee camp where we knew that the dirt roads were turning muddy and the adults and children were all huddling in their tents, waiting for a brighter day.

Back home in New York, I can’t get Mirjeta out of my head. In the newspapers, there are reports that the refugee camps are slowly being cleared. The Kosovars are being granted asylum in Germany, Austria, Spain and other European countries. Some 450 arrived in the United States for processing at Fort Dix, N.J. I scan the newspaper and television photos for Mirjeta’s face. I know that there is a system for getting the refugees out, but, as I did with the shoes, I don’t want to trust her fate to the system.

The day after I returned, I called Jessica Pearl, the ever-capable information officer for the refugee camp we visited. I wanted to find out if I could sponsor Mirjeta and her family. Pearl put me in touch with Roger Winter of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, in Washington, who told me that only family members could be official sponsors, but that if Mirjeta’s family applied for asylum in America, I could help settle them once t
hey are here. I developed my pictures and sent a copy of Mirjeta’s photo to Pearl, who said she would try to locate the girl and tell her to make sure her family applies. Pearl’s task is, literally, finding one in 30,000.

I’ve spoken about Mirjeta’s plight to my family, to my classes at Columbia and to the members of my Manhattan congregation, Ramath Orah. When I tell the story of one child, the story of the faraway Kosovo comes alive for them. They ask, “How can I help?” I pray first for Mirjeta’s safety and second that she contacts me when she is settled, either here or in Europe or, at the end of this terrible war, back at her home in Kosovo. I want to hear from her; I’ve found a lot of people who are willing to help.

Ari L. Goldman wrote this account for The New York Jewish Week.

Starting Over

On March 22, Aca Singer, 70, thin and silver-haired, picked up the telephone in his Belgrade office and dialed a number in Budapest, where he was connected with Gusztav Zoltai, a man 10 years his junior.

Speaking in Hungarian, Singer told Zoltai that the plan they had laid out the previous October was ready to be implemented. Zoltai jotted down a few details, hung up the phone, and set the plan in motion.

When the history of the war in Kosovo is written, the plan these two men initiated will barely earn a footnote. Still, Singer and Zoltai have written a short, remarkable chapter in post-Holocaust Jewish history.

For the first time in half a century, a Central European Jewish community has taken the lead in helping to rescue a neighboring Jewish community in desperate need.

The work was spearheaded by two Holocaust survivors, both of whom had lost their entire families. These men wanted to be sure the words “Never Again” had meaning in their communities.

The first bus rented by the Serb Jewish community pulled up to the Hungarian border at Szeged just after noon on March 23 and found a representative from the Budapest community waiting for them. More buses came in the days to follow, transporting a total of 160 Jews by week’s end. By mid-April, that number had doubled again.

Jews say that they are not fleeing Serbia because of anti-Semitism. They say it is simply a matter of self-preservation during the constant NATO bombings.

In Budapest, the entire Balint Jewish Community Center on Revai Street had been turned into makeshift dorm rooms, a soup kitchen and lounges in anticipation of the Serbian Jews’ arrival.

But as the numbers grew, the facilities were strained, and a hotel on the outskirts of town was used. It, too, proved inadequate. Now the Serbian Jews, most of whom are children, women and elderly, are being housed in the Park Hotel in the central part of the city.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been working with the Hungarian community and the Yugoslav Jewish Federation to care for the Serbian Jews.

“We’ve set up kindergarten and school classes for around 50 children,” said Israel Sela, the JDC’s country director for Hungary. “Many of them — especially from border cities like Subotica and Novi Sad — already speak Hungarian, so they fit in rather easily.

“Two of these parents are teachers from Serbia, and they are creating a curriculum that will keep these children current at home as well as translate for them on a daily basis.” Jewish youth in Budapest who speak Serbo-Croatian are volunteering to take families for shopping and visits to doctors.

B’nai B’rith International is providing fresh fruit every day, along with city transport and telephone cards.

British Jewish organizations such as World Jewish Relief and Connections have also made substantial contributions, much of monies earmarked for health insurance and health care. The European Council of Jewish Communities is also helping, and the European Jewish Congress transferred $20,000 to the Hungarian community to help.

While the younger children are settling into their temporary living arrangements, the college-age youth are having a more difficult time.

“I was three weeks away from my degree in theater,” Stefi, a Belgrade university student, said in mid-April as she sat softly playing jazz on the piano in the Balint center.

“Now I’m considering my options. It isn’t likely that I’ll be going home.”

Whether Stefi will go to Israel remains open. The Jewish Agency for Israel has quickly processed between 15 and 20 Jews who have already emigrated to Israel, said Joszi Croitoru, a Jewish Agency representative.

He said that 80 young Serbian Jews are taking a complimentary 12-day “pilot trip” to Israel, and another 80 have signed up.

Still, many of these university students are anguishing about their choices.

Students such as Olga Izrael said, “Don’t call us refugees. We are just here visiting.” She paused. “And thinking about our future.”

While they’re thinking, they watch CNN’s coverage of NATO’s bombing runs. They wring their hands while they lay awake at night and try to come to terms with the fact that, for many of them, the lives they led in Serbia are over.

Milica Afar and her sister-in-law, Lydia Afar — they married brothers — sat calmly as their children, David, Sara, Theo and Michael, scrambled around them, playing.

“My husband is a biochemist, and Milica’s is a property manager for a film production company,” Lydia said. “But thinking about the future for our children, I think Israel becomes more and more attractive.”

A week later, the two women and their families had already left for Israel.

All this began to take place in Budapest during the first days of Passover. In 1992, several of these Jews had opened the Belgrade community center’s seder to Sarajevo’s Jews, who were fleeing that war. Now they themselves are on the run, or at least waiting out what history will bring them.

One thing is clear: The post-Holocaust Jewish community of the former Yugoslavia was small and poor, yet these 6,500 Jews created one of the most lively small communities in Europe.

Beginning with the war in Croatia, in 1991, and the war in Bosnia, in 1992, many of the younger Jews in each of these communities made their way to the United States, Canada, Israel and elsewhere. Sarajevo’s Jewish youth will never return.

Now it appears as though Belgrade’s Jewish community is beginning to empty out as well.

Jews Thrived in Belgrade

Before WWII

Before the Holocaust, Serbia served as a European crossroads, and its Jewish population, with a mix of Sephardim and Ashkenazim, reflected this fact.

Belgrade’s community swelled to nearly 11,000 in the 1930s — around 5 percent of them refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Serbia’s Jews were always tied to its cities. Indeed, in a country where 40 percent of the population lived in small villages or on farms, more than 70 percent of the Jews lived in major cities.

Jews gravitated toward the professions in Serbia and made up a large percentage of Belgrade’s intellectual elite.

During World War II, Yugoslavia was quickly overrun by the Germans. Croatia became a Nazi puppet state, set up its own concentration camps and killed a great many Jews as well as Serbs.

The vast majority of Serbia’s Jews were killed by Germans, who found no friends in the Serb government of Gen. Milan Nedic.

After the Holocaust, 15,000 Jews were left in all of Yugoslavia from a prewar total of 76,000. Many who survived left after the establishment of Marshal Tito’s one-party state, leaving some 6,500.

The community was not particularly religious, but after the 1967 Six-Day War, many younger Jews reclaimed their Jewish connections and communities.

When Yugoslavia disintegrated into war in the 1990s, the Jewish communities in the successor states remained in contact as best they could.

Serbia’s Jewish community long had a reputation for generosity — having helped German Jews in the 1930s and Sarajevo’s Jews in the 1990s — and worked hard to stay out of politics. — Edward Serotta

An Israeli Mission

Soaring above the sea of green and white canvas tents in the dusty, wind-swept Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia are a handful of Israeli flags. It is a jarring sight whose incongruity is compounded by the fact that just a stone’s throw away are the Germans.

Approximately 700,000 Albanians from Kosovo are said to have been uprooted in the past month — and Israel filled a critical void in neighboring Macedonia by setting up an army field hospital for refugees. A second medical facility followed within a week, operated by the German Red Cross.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that the two nations most familiar with ethnic cleansing have felt the greatest moral obligation to act. But that they are doing it in tandem has struck an emotional chord in at least one German team member.

“This is so touching for me, as a German, to be working so closely with the Israelis,” said Joachim Gardemann, dean of the nursing school at the University of Munster in Germany. “There are so many historical, diplomatic and ethical linkages here — the Israelis as victims, the Germans as murderers — that it makes me happy for us to cooperate to help a population in danger because of ethnic conflict.”

Indeed, for many Jews, the gut reaction to Kosovo has been one of horror that the world is witnessing yet another attempt at genocide. But Israelis on the ground say they see the situation more clearly.

“That this is happening in Europe, in 1999, is unbelievable,” said Dan Engelhard, a pediatrician and army reservist who also served in Israeli field hospitals in Cambodia and Rwanda. “But you can’t compare this with the Holocaust. No way. The Nazis tried to kill every Jew. However, when we see these pictures of Albanians forced out of their homes and into trains, it certainly reminds us of the Holocaust.”

Imbued with such memories, Israeli rapid reaction to crisis has become a niche of sorts.

In addition to setting up hospitals in Cambodia in 1979 and Rwanda in 1994, Israel sent a rescue team to Kenya after the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi last year.

Gardemann, who proudly displays a red Star of David pin given him by his Israeli colleagues, touts them as “world champions” of army field hospitals.

But that is a dubious distinction, indeed. It is a specialty borne out of necessity, say the Israelis, what with so many wars and grisly terrorist acts in the Jewish state’s 51 years of existence.

“One of the greatest things about Israeli society is our ability to improvise and be creative,” said Ron Maor, a 14-year army surgeon who also served in Nairobi. “If something urgent needs to be done, we don’t need a lot of bureaucracy to do it. For a country almost continuously at war, we can’t afford the luxury of being surprised or caught unprepared for any mission.”

By any yardstick, the Israeli reaction to Kosovo was lightning quick. On March 24, NATO launched its bombardment of Yugoslavia — a federation of two republics, Serbia and Montenegro. It was aimed at curbing the repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province. In response, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accelerated the emptying of Kosovo, where 90 percent of the 2 million inhabitants had been Albanian. The vast majority of them are Moslem, in contrast with the mostly Orthodox Serbs.

Within days of the air assault, Albanians were on the move en masse, heading mostly south and southwest into the impoverished countries of Macedonia and Albania.

Macedonia, a nation of 2 million, now wheezes under the strain of more than 200,000 refugees, while Albania’s more than 3 million citizens, the poorest in Europe, cope with 400,000 refugees.

It wasn’t long before the flow overwhelmed local authorities and international relief agencies. They appealed for help.

On April 4, the Israeli Cabinet made a snap decision to contribute a field hospital for two weeks, at a cost of roughly $1.3 million.

Two officials from the Israeli Embassy in Athens were dispatched north to Macedonia to lay the groundwork. The next day, the Macedonian officials advised them to set up shop at Stenkovec — 10 miles north of Skopje, the Macedonian capital, but within sight of Kosovo’s snow-capped Shara Mountain range, located 20 miles farther north.

At that time, however, the camp housed only 2,000 refugees. So the Israelis were a bit mystified.

“They assured us that within a week, there would be 30,000 refugees,” said Jacob Dayan, one of the two Israeli coordinators and the No. 2 at the Athens embassy. “But just two or three days later, we were already up to 30,000.”

With a site secured, Dayan gave the thumbs-up to the Israeli Defense Forces. Six IDF cargo airplanes were soon airborne, laden with pieces of the hospital, plus blankets and tents. It arrived on April 6, and the entire Israeli contingent of 80 — including doctors, nurses and medics; some of them army staff, others reserves — worked feverishly through the night, erecting the hospital.

By 2 p.m. the next day, they were open for business.

Working round-the-clock, the Israelis treat about 200 patients a day, including refugees bused in from the 10 refugee camps scattered around Macedonia.

And while the Stenkovec camp itself is wracked with commotion, sunrise to sunset, the hospital compound, set on the camp’s western edge, is almost surreal in its order and tranquillity. Under its drab-green tents, the setting is straight out of the television series “M*A*S*H.”

There is room for 100 beds, and each tent serves a special purpose — emergency room, surgery, X-rays, laboratory, etc. What they lack, the Israelis say, is medicine and facilities to treat chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, epilepsy and diabetes.

But the tent drawing the most attention — including a steady stream of journalists from around the world — is the pediatric ward. As of Sunday, the Israeli team had already delivered 11 babies. Among them is 1-week-old Sara Berisha, whose Albanian Moslem mother gave her a Jewish name out of gratitude to her Israeli doctors.

But that celebration was fleeting. On April 15, twin 3-month-old boys arrived in the camp, suffering severe malnutrition and respiratory infection. Serb forces had flushed them from their homes two weeks earlier, leaving their parents no choice but to hide in Kosovo’s hills. Lacking milk, they were fed only tea and cookies.

They now lie in an Israeli army incubator in critical condition. But they weigh less than when they were born, and their tiny chests heave uncontrollably.

Monitoring their condition is Yael Goldman, a 20-year-old army medic. She also delivered Sara Berisha.

“In Israel, we feel helpless watching this on television,” said Goldman, who is on her first mission abroad. “Jews have been through so much hatred, it’s difficult to watch it happening to others. So when I was given an opportunity to help, I felt I had to do something.”

But there’s just so much she and her colleagues can do. At the Stenkovec camp, busloads of hungry, traumatized Albanians arrive daily. The food line is never less than hundreds deep. Scores of refugees crowd the various message boards, desperate for information on missing relatives.

Making matters worse, there are no portable toilets, only holed-out wood planks across large pits; the scent of human waste pervades the camp. In a murky stream nearby, men bathe, kids swim and women wash clothes.

For now, the weather is still cool, with intermittent rain and sunshine. But as the temperature warms, there will likely be epidemics such as measles, polio and dysentery, said pediatrician Engelhard, a professor at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Macedonian officials and relief agencies have been slow to provide good sanitation and immunization; without it, children in particular are vulnerable to diarrhea, vomiting, and skin infections, he said.

But the Israelis won’t be around to see it. Their two-week mandate expires soon, and they were expected to ship out Thursday.

However, they leave knowing the Kosovo refugees are in good hands — the Germans and a newly arrived team
from Taiwan will take over hospital care.

“These refugees are luckier than my grandparents were in Poland and Hungary during the war,” said Maor, the army surgeon. “When they were thrown into ghettoes, no one cared. At least for the Albanians, there’s an international effort to help them.”

Passover Refugees

It was March 31, the first night of Passover, and his native Yugoslavia was again convulsed by war.

So it was fitting, perhaps, that young Ismael chose melodies from the repertoire of the old Sephardic rabbis of Bosnia and Kosovo while leading his first seder.

In Bosnia, during the Yugoslavian civil war earlier this decade, and now in Kosovo, the policy of ethnic cleansing had prompted the mass exodus of entire local populations. Yet any parallels with the Exodus recorded in the Haggadah were lost on Ismael’s audience — Yugoslav Jews who are now into their second week as refugees in Budapest.

They were preoccupied with thoughts of family and friends back home, where NATO’s intensifying air assault is aimed at ending Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s repression of 2 million Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo.

All of which made for a pretty gloomy seder. Despite the glittery Christmas decorations hung by their well-meaning Hungarian hosts, the 150 Yugoslav Jews were crammed shoulder to shoulder in a dimly lit hall and eating with plastic cutlery and off paper plates. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to bring three Serbian-language Haggadahs with them from Yugoslavia.

Since he is studying to be a cantor, Ismael was pressed into service.

“It’s the first one I’ve led, but I’m not really in the mood for it,” said the amiable 22-year-old, who asked to be identified by his Hebrew name rather than his Serbian one. “We’re all tired, and everyone’s nervous.”

Indeed, the seder underscored the pain of people separated from their families. Olga, her parents and two older sisters traditionally celebrate Passover with the local Jewish community in Yugoslavia. But when NATO began shelling on March 24, her father didn’t take any chances. He sent away his wife and youngest daughter.

The Nazis had killed his father in 1941, when they invaded Serbia.

“After his experience with World War II, this frightens him,” said Olga, a 23-year-old sculptor. “People are confused and panicked, and the sirens are on most of the time. So tonight, he’s not celebrating Passover. He’s in a bomb shelter.”

As the war heats up, it’s unclear how many more Jews will head north to Hungary. Some 250 to 300 of Yugoslavia’s 3,000 Jews are now waiting out the conflict in quiet Budapest. Most are teen-agers and twentysomethings. But the Yugoslav government has now ordered all men 16 to 60 years old to stay put — in case they are needed for combat if NATO sends in ground troops. Women and children are freer to go.

Nothing epitomizes the disruption of the lives of Yugoslav Jews more than the story of Branka and Stephane. Branka, a single mother from Yugoslavia, was slated to marry Stephane, a Frenchman, on April 8 in her hometown of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. When missiles began raining down, Stephane insisted that Branka take her 5-year-old, Brian, by train to Budapest; he flew from Paris to meet her.

This week, however, they failed to get the requisite permission from Hungarian and Yugoslav authorities to marry in Budapest. The only bit of luck was that they didn’t plan a lavish wedding. Few people even knew about it.

“I was so superstitious, I only told a few friends,” said Branka, a university Hebrew teacher. “And I guess I was right.”

Like the others here in Budapest, they are in limbo. But at least the Yugoslav Jews are welcomed with open arms, unlike the Kosovo Albanians, who are pouring into the neighboring countries of Macedonia and Albania each day with nowhere to go.

“What we are doing is nothing more than Jewish solidarity,” said Gusztav Zoltai, executive director of the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities.

The Yugoslav Jews are indeed grateful, but they are anxious to get home. Some are concerned for the security of cars and apartments they left behind. Most of them, though, are anxious to resume their lives.

“We have so many problems with our lives, with our futures,” said Olga. “What the Hungarians have done for us is great, but we want to go home. This is not a solution.”

Others are actually looking for a fresh start. Even before the NATO campaign, Yugoslavia’s economy was already in ruins, and Milosevic had cracked down on most forms of freedom. One Jew already found her way to England, another to Italy. Seven have made aliyah to Israel, including a family from Kosovo.

Ismael, also a theater student and talented pianist, is looking toward Israel as well. He may accept a one-year offer to continue his cantorial studies there.

“Even if the bombing is over in a few days,” he said, “Yugoslavia was a rough place before. Now it’ll be even rougher.”

Kindness for Kosovo

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles made a special $10,000 donation to the Kosovo Refugee Relief Fund of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “As the largest representative body of the Los Angeles Jewish community, the Jewish Federation wishes to show its deep concern for the men, women and children who are suffering as a result of this conflict,” said Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel.

Donations can be made to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee at:

Kosovo Mailbox, 711 Third Ave., 10th Floor, New York, N.Y., 100017;

or to UJA Federations of North America,

111 Eighth Ave., Suite 11E,

New York, N.Y., 10011.

What To Do About Kosovo?

Israelis are divided over NATO’s military campaign against Serbia — and opinions and policy are being informed as much by history and the Holocaust as by current political realities.

Israeli sympathy for the Serbs, who were fellow victims of the Nazis during World War II, is countered by the images of massacres and streams of refugees as ethnic Albanians flee their native Kosovo.

Some 72 percent of Israelis support Israel’s relief efforts for the ethnic Albanians who are fleeing Kosovo, according to a poll by the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke for many when he said last week: “Israel condemns the massacre being carried out by the Serbs and denounces any mass murder.”

Others, recalling how some Albanians actively supported the Nazis, find themselves less sympathetic to the plight of the Kosovar Albanians.

And still others, believing that the “friend of my enemy is my enemy,” are focused on the outside support for the Kosovo Liberation Army, which spearheaded the fight for independence from Serbia before Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic clamped down on the region with an iron fist.

Elyakim Haetzni, an outspoken supporter of Israeli nationalism, lashed out last week at the “leftists” who, in their support for the Kosovo refugees, are “ignoring the fact that the KLA was collaborating with the Iranians and other enemies of Israel.”

But even left-wing Israelis are not unanimous in support of the NATO raids.

Among them is Raul Teitelbaum, a veteran journalist who, at the end of 1943, was among the Jews of Prizren, Kosovo, who were put on a transport to Bergen-Belsen by members of an Albanian division that was working on behalf of the Nazi SS.

“Of course, there were among the Albanians those who fought against the Nazis,” Teitelbaum told JTA. “But those who now say that the Albanians were known to have given shelter to the Jews are manipulating history.

“Clinton says the bombings in Yugoslavia are a lesson of the Holocaust. How can one compare this with the Holocaust? How can tiny Serbia be compared with a world power like Nazi Germany? How can Milosevic be compared with Hitler?”

Teitelbaum also questioned the effectiveness of the NATO raids.

“In a way, President Bill Clinton is the best ally of President Milosevic,” he said. “Thanks to the bombings, there is no longer any [internal] opposition to Milosevic. Thanks to the bombings, Milosevic is able to carry out ethnic cleansing on a scope he had never dreamed of before.”

On the other side of the divide, people such as Labor Knesset member Shlomo Ben-Ami, a historian, had only praise for the NATO operation. In his view, the operation has changed international norms of behavior in the face of atrocities that used to be considered “an internal matter.”

“Kosovo is a belated response to the Nazis,” said Ben-Ami. “From now on, intervention on a moral and humanitarian level is justified.”

Just the same, he conceded — as the Pentagon has already done — that the NATO strikes were unable to stop Serbian roundups of the ethnic Albanians.

“Alas, even the greatest military power in the world, the NATO alliance, cannot prevent a genocide,” said Ben-Ami.

As the public debate continued, the Israeli government, caught up in an election campaign, appeared uncertain how to respond to the NATO offensive.

Israel’s relations with Serbia have been problematic ever since the disintegration of Yugoslavia earlier in the decade. Despite memories of the Serbs as fellow victims of Nazi oppression and despite the fact that Bosnian Moslems were being aided by volunteers from Iran, Israel could not allow itself to support Milosevic, an international outcast.

Israel’s diplomatic relations with Serbia were resumed only three years ago, after the war in Bosnia had cooled. Since then, Israel’s arms industry has sought to sell military equipment to Serbia.

The Serbs have reportedly appealed to Israel for military supplies, according to the April 1 edition of the newsletter Foreign Report. In addition to what the London-based newsletter described as a “shopping list of military equipment,” it says the Serbs are also seeking medicines and credit. The Israeli response is not known.

It was not until March 31, a week after the offensive began, that Netanyahu, denying allegations that he had failed to express his position on the Kosovo crisis, came out in support of the NATO operation.

But his foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, was less enthusiastic regarding the NATO strikes. In remarks quoted last week by Yediot, Sharon told a closed-door audience that Israel had reason not to support the strikes, out of fear that the Jewish state might one day be similarly targeted.

The newspaper said that he asked his audience to imagine what might happen if the Arab residents of the Galilee ever demanded that their region be recognized as autonomous — with links to the Palestinian Authority. Would NATO strike at Israel under such a scenario, as it had done in the wake of the Kosovo Albanians’ attempts at autonomy, Sharon asked.

“Israel must look to the future. It should not give legitimacy to an intervention like that exercised by NATO,” Yediot quoted Sharon as saying.

Sharon subsequently denied the report, as he stated that Israel expects “NATO forces do their utmost to end the misery of innocent people and renew the negotiations between the parties as soon as possible.”

But the subject came up again during a meeting with European ambassadors, when Sharon was asked by the ambassador of Italy what Israel would do if the Palestinians asked for international intervention, as the ethnic Albanians had.

“I hope the question remains hypothetic,” said Sharon. “Israel will never succumb to international pressure.”

While most Israelis are spurning such historical analogies, one journalist saw a parallel between the Kosovo Albanians and the Palestinians.

Harking back to the 1948 War of Independence, Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz wrote: “Kosovo has already been here. At the time, there was no NATO and no television from all over the world, but during 20 months, between December 1947 and September of 1949, between 600,000 to 760,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were deported from their homes and turned overnight into refugees.”

Meanwhile, as the debate continues, Israel has begun sending aid to the Kosovo refugees.

Last Friday, an Israeli plane carrying warm clothes, tents, medicines and other equipment was sent to help those refugees who had fled to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

And during a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, the government agreed to send additional aid, including a medical team of eight doctors to set up a field hospital in either Albania or Macedonia. Health Minister Yehoshua Matza is leading the mission.

JTA correspondent Douglas Davis in London contributed to this report.

Hungarian Haven

In other circumstances, there would be nothing unusual about busloads of Yugoslavs visiting the capital of their northern neighbor, Hungary.

But with NATO’s daily assault on Kosovo and other locations throughout Yugoslavia, these are no ordinary “tourists.” Roughly 200 Yugoslav Jews — some of whom arrived one day before NATO fired its first missile, on March 24 — are now in Budapest, hosted by the Hungarian Jewish community.

As the Jews here wait and see how events unfold at home, more buses are on their way.

“We are not refugees; we’re still tourists, who crossed the border legally with our passports,” said one woman from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, who arrived on March 23 with her two grown children.

“The plan was just to come for a couple of days until things settle down, then go back. But we’re still waiting.”

Indeed, there is a huge distinction between these citizens of Yugoslavia — composed of two republics, Serbia and tiny Montenegro — and the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province.

During 14 months of conflict, the Yugoslav army and Serbian police have forced tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians — known as Kosovars — to flee south into Albania proper. And more are coming every day. In all, 500,000 of the 2 million Kosovars have reportedly been uprooted from their homes.

Escalating tension in the province, fueled by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, prompted NATO to launch its unprecedented air campaign. Soon, there may be other ethnic minorities in Serbia seeking relief from the warfare.

Hungary, for example, is bracing for a wave of ethnic Hungarians from northern Serbia, and many Serbs themselves are believed to be already staying with relatives in Hungary.

All the activity in Serbia is reminiscent of what happened earlier this decade, as Milosevic orchestrated the wars in Bosnia and Croatia next door. From 1991 to 1995, some 200,000 Serbian citizens emigrated abroad, many of them to avoid the army draft. At that time, some Yugoslav Jewish parents also sent their draft-age sons to Israel.

This time around, as NATO strikes loomed last week, the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities offered shelter to the estimated 3,000 Yugoslav Jews.

With Yugoslavia a pariah state, Hungary is one of the few countries in the world that hasn’t slapped visa requirements on Yugoslavia’s citizens.

So, on March 23, the Belgrade community took up the Hungarian offer and rented the first two buses to make the 400-mile trip.

As NATO bombing has intensified in the days since, so, too, has the stream of Yugoslav Jews into Budapest. Two-thirds of them are teen-agers and young adults, sent away for safekeeping — and for their parents’ peace of mind.

“I’m here because my mom made me,” said Iva, 23, a university student who, on Monday, sent her first e-mail back home. “She said: ‘Go, while you can. You can always come back.’ But I have just a few more exams before I graduate, so now I don’t know what to do.”

Other arrivals include a handful of families, a few elderly people and several young children.

The visitors are spending their days gathered at the center, the adults sitting on wooden chairs, chain-smoking, nervously talking about the war. Community officials are trying to come up with activities for the kids — such as arts and crafts and basketball games — especially those separated from their parents.

Thrown into the mix are a pair of young sisters, Bosnian Jews who are on the move for the second time in their short lives. They were among the 200 Jews evacuated from Sarajevo to Belgrade in 1992.

Up to 150 of the visiting Jews are being housed at the Jewish Community Center in downtown Budapest, in dorms usually reserved for 40 Hungarian Jewish students from the provinces. But those students are home for Passover. So extra foam mattresses have been crammed in to sleep seven to 10 per room.

The other Yugoslav Jews are sleeping at a Jewish high school in town, which lacks shower facilities.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has quickly swung into action, assisting with individual needs of the Yugoslav Jews, including counseling and finding better accommodations.

In Budapest, when the number of Jews streaming in jumped from 40 to 200 over the weekend, the local Budapest community, which had initially thought it could assist their neighbors on its own, asked the JDC for help.

But now thinking longer-term, the JDC’s priority is to find better housing. One possibility is the Szarvas international Jewish camp, located two hours from Budapest.

Yugoslav Jews want to return home when the dust clears. Many have opted not to come to Budapest — yet — for fear of losing jobs difficult to come by in a country in economic ruin.

And when it comes to the NATO assault, most share the hostility of their compatriots toward the United States and Europe.

“Milosevic is a jerk, but this does nothing to him,” Iva said, echoing the views of many here. “Instead, they’re killing people like my friends, who are forced to serve their military service in Kosovo.”

Meanwhile, Jews in Kosovo have declined offers to help them leave, according to Jewish aid workers who have been active in the former Yugoslavia.

Plans have reportedly been drawn up to extract the approximately 50 Jews remaining in the Kosovar capital of Pristina if necessary, the workers said.

Meanwhile, eight Jewish men from the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia fled to Bulgaria over the weekend and are being cared for by local Jews near the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. The men, all college students, expressed fears that the conflict may spill over the Serbian-Macedonian border. *

Why Are We in Kosovo?

I always thought that historical perspective helped sharpen the mind by illuminating the choices that loomed ahead. But when I look at the awful state of affairs in Kosovo, I am not so certain that history offers much guidance. Maybe, though, if we try to look at the past freshly and innovatively, we might just find a better solution for Kosovo and its moslem victims than the one President Clinton is offering. More about that later.

Of course, we know from history that the relations between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians are bitterly divided along lines of religion, ethnicity and nationalism. We know as well that the Serbs of Yugoslavia, who comprise only 10 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million population, have mythological feelings about Kosovo: It is their Jerusalem. Not auspicious.

Also, if we look back to the eve of World War I, we can discover a curtain raiser for today’s atrocities. In 1912, the Serbs overthrew their Turkish rulers (for more than 500 years) and set about gaining revenge on a population self-identified as Turks or Albanians, nearly all of them moslems. Their villages were burned; about 20,000 were killed; and some moslems were forced to convert. We can hazard a guess as to what had occurred during the 500 years of Turkish rule.

Now we have new players: President Clinton, the United States and NATO…. Having brokered a peace with Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic four years earlier in Bosnia (which is holding up, albeit with the presence of NATO troops), Clinton is trying again with Kosovo. His hope is to secure autonomy for the Albanians within Yugoslavia, with NATO troops present to enforce the peace over a three-year period.

At first, the Kosovo Liberation Army was an unwilling participant. Although clearly on the defensive, the rebels held out for independence. The KLA at various times has been described as a state of mind, and on other occasions as a ragtag band of guerrilla fighters spread throughout Kosovo’s villages. Today, they number about 30,000, hiding in the mountains and beyond the reach of Milosevic’s security forces. They were pressured to accept Clinton’s terms about a month ago.

Not so, Milosevic. NATO troops on his territory were too much for him to swallow. They could lead to his political downfall, and so he stalled. In the interim, his security forces began to seize Albanian homes and drive out Albanian villagers. When NATO moved in with planes and bombs about 10 days ago, he stepped up the pace. It now looks as though he is intent on purging Kosovo of its Albanian population.

In the face of his aggression, the United States and NATO are now clearly embarked on a humanitarian mission — save the Kosovar Albanians, whose tragic situation may have been accelerated, ironically, by our own course of action. Our policy is to bomb Yugoslav forces and not send in ground troops. The premise is that, in the long run, bombing will cost the Serbs more than they are willing to tolerate for the sake of a bleak stretch of land. That approach has thus far proved unsuccessful in Iraq.

In Yugoslavia, however, even the bombing is restricted and is almost “humanitarian” in scope. It is aimed mainly at air defenses and military units. We are avoiding civilian targets, refraining from any devastation to cities, transportation systems or the Yugoslav economy. It is a tactic that is calculated precisely not to bring the Serbs to their knees…or quickly to the bargaining table. But it is humane — or as humane as bombs raining on a populace can be.

Meanwhile, Milosevic’s security forces are changing the conditions on the ground in Kosovo. They are murdering Albanian leaders; sending vast numbers into refugees camps outside of Kosovo, minus papers, money, belongings; and, in short, creating a stateless people.

What is our goal? And, if uncertain, as I think it is, what should it be? Perhaps we are moved by the fact this is taking place in Europe. Perhaps we are shamed by our ignoble behavior with regard to the Jews in this self-same Europe 60 years ago. We are following a Churchillian path and avoiding the appeasement road taken by Britain’s Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s. We can congratulate ourselves that we have embarked on a morally correct policy. Why, then, am I uneasy about that policy and its possible/probable outcome?

In part, I suppose I am dubious about the effectiveness of our air campaign. It is designed to prevent — or at least limit — the devastation of Kosovo and the elimination of its population. That seems to be failing, and time looks as though it favors the Serbs rather than our humanitarian bombing policy.

I also have difficulty imagining that day down the road when some face-saving rapprochement is finally arranged. We have demonized Milosevic — who is perfectly cast for the role — so that it will be difficult not to try him as a war criminal. In which case, why should he negotiate with us? And even if we all swallow our wounded pride and end this callous struggle by feigning ignorance, what will follow? Written agreements aside, what will become of the Kosovo Liberation Army? Taking the past as prologue, either the KLA or some new Albanian nationalist group will soon search for ways to even the score. And who then will we support?

Most likely, we will edge silently away, as we did in Somalia. Our dilemma is that in order to prevail, we need to ignore domestic politics and humanitarianism, and, for obvious reasons, we cannot take those necessary steps. We are engaged in a war, no matter what we call it, and if we are to win, we have to be willing to do the unpalatable: to send in ground troops; to be hardhearted and bomb Yugoslavia into the early stages of ruin. Who among us is willing to embrace such policies? Certainly, not I.

What then? Perhaps some imaginative replay of history. We could have accepted the Jews from Germany in the 1930s, but did not. Today, there are all the NATO countries, including the United States, whose immigration policies might expand to accept refugees from Kosovo, and support them until they are on their feet economically. Even 1.5 million refugees. After all, tiny Israel has taken in more than half that number of Russians. Would the budgetary cost be that much more than our bombers and the lives of troops on all sides of the battle?

And we could demand that Yugoslavia pay settlement costs. If Milosevic refuses, there is still the option of sanctions on everything from his economy to the exclusion of Yugoslavia from the Olympic Games. No nation is comfortable in the role of pariah — we saw that with South Africa.

The fact remains that Yugoslavia’s policy toward Albanians in Kosovo, while reprehensible, even genocidal, is, nevertheless, national policy. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where tyranny exists, where nation states treat some of its citizens abominably, and where collective action is probably still best exerted in a nonviolent manner. By all means, let’s save those Kosovar Albanians who wish to be rescued — in precisely the way we could have, and failed to, rescued the Jews of Europe: Accept them as new citizens in our new NATO world. And, until the Yugoslavs shape up, ban them from joining the civilized world in which we are struggling to live. — Gene Lichtenstein

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.

Overshadowed Again

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat came to town this week, seeking Washington’s blessing for Palestinian statehood in return for postponing a unilateral declaration on May 4, when the interim Oslo period expires.

Despite the fears of some Jewish leaders, he didn’t get it; instead, he simply came away with new assurances of U.S. friendship and a promise by the Clinton administration to accelerate mediation of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks after the May 17 elections in Israel.

A noncommittal Arafat refused to say much about his one-hour session with President Clinton or his plans for May 4; an administration official, briefing reporters, said that U.S. policy, which regards statehood as a matter to be decided as part of the final-status talks, remains unchanged.

The unlucky Arafat, whose visit to Washington last year came on the day the White House sex scandal exploded across the nation’s front pages, once again saw his arrival buried under a avalanche of other news.

On Tuesday, as the Palestinian leader was shuttling between Capitol Hill and the White House, officials and reporters alike were focused on the frantic effort to break the negotiating deadlock in Kosovo and, when that failed, to prepare the American people for NATO action against the Serbs.

Arafat was trailed by a crowd of Mideast reporters, but the real action centered on the impending showdown with Serbia.

On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin indicated that Arafat’s meetings went about as most observers had predicted. He restated that the United States opposes any unilateral actions by either side, and added that “we would like the permanent-status negotiations to be resumed as soon as possible, move ahead on an accelerated basis. We don’t think they should be open-ended.”

But he refused to be pinned down on a deadline for completion of the final-status talks — which were due to be completed by May 4, but which have, in fact, not seriously started.

Administration officials say that they may set tentative target dates for completion of the final-status talks, but reject the notion of a hard-and-fast deadline.

That formula — greater U.S. activity on the peace process after the Israeli elections and speeded-up final-status talks, the forum originally conceived to consider the nature of the Palestinian entity as well as issues such as Jerusalem, water and refugees — was the best deal Arafat could get this week, according to Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The administration was simply never prepared to mention ‘statehood’ in any positive way for obvious reasons,” she said, referring to pressure from the pro-Israel community.

After the White House session, Arafat refused to provide details about his meetings or his statehood plans, saying only that he was engaged in a series of international “consultations” on the May 4 deadline.

“I listened very carefully to the valuable advice and opinions of President Clinton,” he told reporters. “The most important thing that came out of the meeting…is that despite all the difficulties we face today, President Clinton has shown me the determination to move forward in the peace process.”

Palestinian officials reiterated that the impending deadline, set by Oslo, has taken on enormous meaning in Gaza and the West Bank, and that the date couldn’t simply pass with no tangible signs of progress.

David Kimche, a former division head of the Mossad, said: “I see very little danger that he will actually declare a state on May 4; he would be crazy to do so. But some politicians are trying to create a frantic reaction by saying he will.”

Kimche, now on the advisory council of the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum, said that it’s not enough to simply reject any suggestion of statehood.

“You can either say Arafat is the enemy and we have to bludgeon him until he comes back on his hands and knees — or we have to say he was our enemy, but he’s our partner now and we have to work together and try to give him something positive,” said Kimche.

The administration was right to restate its opposition to a unilateral declaration, he said.

“At the same time, it’s important to include a positive message, to make it clear that they would be supportive of a Palestinian state that came into being through negotiations with Israel,” he said. “That’s the kind of message Arafat needed to come back with, and it would be completely in compliance with Israel’s interests.”