Divided we stand

American and Israeli Jews are split over the crisis in Kosovo.

Published April 8, 1999 8:09AM (EDT)

On Monday morning, April 5, as the American Jewish Committee was reopening its New York headquarters after the four-day Passover holiday weekend, executive vice president David Harris found himself on the phone with the Albanian Mission to the United Nations. The ambassador, Agim Nesho, was anxious to talk. Could he come right over?

Nesho, it turned out, wanted Harris's advice on how to respond to the growing crisis of Kosovar refugees pouring into his homeland -- or, more precisely, how to respond to the American response to the crisis. The sudden flood of refugees the week before had sparked a flood of phone calls to the understaffed Albanian mission from Americans eager to help. To the Albanians'
bewilderment, most of the callers were Jewish.

"We have been receiving, without exaggeration, 30 to 50 calls a day, and most of them are of Jewish background," said Sokol Kondi, first secretary of the Albanian mission. Some volunteered their religion, he said; "Others, you can tell by their last name."

Harris spent an hour with the Albanians developing a short-term response strategy to the Jewish community. He then directed
them to the nearby offices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an overseas relief agency funded by the United Jewish Appeal, which had called for Kosovo relief donations before the weekend and found $78,000 in Monday's mail.

"I must say, we've been so nicely surprised that the Jewish community all over the United States has been responding so fast," diplomat Kondi said. "We've been profoundly touched by their reaction."

The Albanians aren't the only ones. From the White House to Capitol Hill to various NATO capitals, officials reported this week being stunned by the speed and passion of the American Jewish response to the Kosovo crisis. "They just came forward," said a White House official. "All the major Jewish groups spoke out. We didn't even have to orchestrate it. It was very

"Name me another religious group that's responded so strongly," said another Washington official.

But while diplomats and policymakers were praising the work of American Jews this week, the officials were more critical of Israel's ambivalent position. The Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu, while sending a large refugee aid mission to Macedonia, has maintained a studied neutrality between the Serbs and their ethnic Albanian victims. Beneath the neutrality, key Netanyahu allies -- beginning with Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon -- were openly backing the Serbs this month.

Sharon has warned repeatedly that an independent Kosovo could become a European base for Islamic extremism. Other Netanyahu allies were warning that the precedent of NATO bombers imposing a territorial settlement could be turned against Israel. One pro-settler journalist wrote an op-ed piece this week, reprinted in American Jewish weeklies, entitled, "Will we soon see NATO planes over Tel Aviv?"

The pro-Serb arguments have been echoed extensively by Likud supporters in the United States. No major Jewish organization endorsed the position -- not even the major pro-Likud organizations -- and some community leaders bitterly decried it in private. Yet the arguments were featured prominently in key Jewish media outlets, carried as op-eds in the ethnic Jewish press and repeated by leading pro-Israel voices like New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal.

In some outlets, pro-Serb coverage virtually blanked out pro-NATO coverage. The Jewish Press, a weekly Brooklyn tabloid with a mass readership among Orthodox Jews, ran a lead editorial and two major op-ed essays this week defending the Serbs and ridiculing the Muslims' case. A statement from the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation's main Orthodox rabbinic group, calling for international action against the "genocide conducted by the Milosevic regime," was run as a letter to the editor.

The result of the Israeli-led pro-Serb campaign, coupled with skimpy news coverage of the mainstream organizations' actions, was to create an image this week of a Jewish community that is divided and uncertain on the Kosovo issue. Thus, while diplomats and government officials who were in direct contact with the organizations were praising their work -- including Jewish philanthropies that offered major sums for refugee relief, and Jewish religious and public affairs agencies that provided badly needed public support for the military campaign -- other players, including human rights activists, congressional aides and even some Jewish organizational leaders complained of an unseemly silence.

"I haven't heard of anything they've done," said a Balkans expert at one leading human rights agency. "And I assume I would have if they'd done anything."

Some critics insisted the image accurately reflected the reality. "The truth is, the response (among Jewish organizations) has been tepid," said a Capitol Hill source who follows the Balkans conflict closely. "A few statements, some humanitarian money and 'contact me if it turns serious.' They just aren't sure where Kosovo is or why it should matter, the same as the rest of America. But they should know better."

Critics of the Jewish community's response cite the Bosnia crisis of the early 1990s by way of contrast. As early as 1992, long before it was widely understood by the general public, the cause of Bosnia's embattled Muslims was virtually a grass-roots movement among American Jews. One senior community official, Abraham Bayer of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, was so active on Bosnia's behalf that he was eventually accredited as a member of the Bosnian U.N. delegation.

Not all Jews agreed back then, either. A small but influential faction bitterly opposed supporting the Bosnian Muslims, arguing that the Serbs had fought valiantly against the Nazis in World War II -- and that the Muslim world was Israel's enemy.

Still, "when all is said and done there was an overwhelmingly positive response in the Jewish community," said Mohamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's U.N. ambassador. "Part of it was the human factor, the sense of how much Jews had suffered in Europe. But there was also a sense of protecting the legacy, that if you say 'Never again' it has to have a universal application. This was very well understood in the Jewish community at the time."

That said, Sacirbey acknowledges a sort of genocide fatigue may be emerging in parts of the Jewish community. "I think there may be, at least in part, less sophistication and sensitivity on the part of the Albanian community as to how to address this issue. And maybe the Jewish community feels a little more tired of it, after so many years."

Jewish community leaders say the limited public response has a much more mundane explanation: timing. The crisis erupted on the eve of the Passover holiday, when most identified Jews are at home with their families.

"People were scrambling," said Rabbi David Saperstein of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the organized Jewish community's most respected human rights activist. "It was hard to make decisions
because it was hard to reach people."

The long Passover holiday even affected events on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said he and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), longtime head of the House Albanian Issues Caucus, whose Bronx district includes one of the nation's largest Albanian-American communities, had decided shortly after the bombing began to dramatize the mounting tragedy by signing all 24 Jewish members of the House onto a joint statement calling for NATO to send ground troops into Kosovo. "All human beings have an obligation to speak out, but it's especially appropriate for Jewish members because of our history," Nadler said.

By the time the statement was drafted, though, most Jewish members had left Washington for the holiday. "In the end it was just Eliot and me signing," Nadler said.

"Life won't really resume for Jewish political activists until after the holidays are finally over next week," said Saperstein. "That's when people will decide what to do. And I suspect that when they do, they'll do it with a bang."

Timing intervened in a larger sense, too. The Bosnian war dragged on for years before the United States intervened. That allowed plenty of time for a grass-roots movement to emerge, fueled by repeated television images of slaughter. In the case of Kosovo, Washington and NATO acted relatively early, before the atrocities reached overwhelming proportions.

Whether they acted effectively is another question. Tragically, there may yet be plenty of opportunity for American Jews -- and Americans of every other creed and color -- to protest the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. In the words of one Capitol Hill aide, "things will get better as things get worse, if that's any comfort."

"As Jewish Americans we may have a special sensitivity to what's going on, because of what our people suffered in the Holocaust," said Engel. "I've been warning for five years that Milosevic would like nothing better than to push a million Albanians out of Kosovo. I'm sorry to be proved right."

By J.J. Goldberg

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