Divided We Stand: American and Israeli Jews Split Over Kosovo

Reference: Salon

Thursday, April 8, 1999

By J.J. Goldberg

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
important.”

“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.”

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