BELGRADE, Serbia — Every Sunday night at 8:00 for the last four years, Rabbi Yitzhak Asiel, an Orthodox priest, and the grand mufti of Serbia have met at the Belgrade broadcasting studio of “Pravac” (“Direction”) — a TV program about politics and religion.
“Sometimes we discuss spousal abuse and other social issues,” Asiel told The Times of Israel in June. “Last Sunday, I chose to talk about freedom of speech and thought in our Jewish traditions.”
The program is so popular that several months ago while traveling in Switzerland, Asiel, 52, encountered a Serbian taxi driver who immediately recognized him from the show.
“Let’s say I represent the spiritual heritage of Judaism,” said the Orthodox rabbi.
Asiel enjoys remarkable name recognition, considering there are barely 3,000 Jews in the economically struggling, predominantly Christian nation of 10.3 million.
More than half of Serbia’s Jews live in Belgrade — mostly older people in their 50s, 60s and beyond — with smaller communities in Novi Sad, Subotica, Niš and several other cities.
Asiel is one of only two rabbis in Serbia. The other, Rabbi Yehoshua Kaminetzky, heads the new Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue, which caters mainly to Israeli visitors.
Asiel, interviewed at the Belgrade headquarters of Serbia’s Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC), said his weekly interactions with Muslim leaders give windows into an increasing radicalism in Serbia, where about three percent of the population claims Islam as their religion.
“The muftis are telling me stories about how these ideas penetrate their society,” Asiel said. “But they can’t do much, because the extremists capture good kids from good families with no sign of radicalization, and then these kids suddenly show up in Syria or Iraq.”
More common is the garden-variety anti-Semitism among Serbia’s Christian Orthodox majority, said attorney Robert Sabadoš, the FJC’s newly elected president.
“It comes from all parts of society,” said Sabadoš, whose office is decorated with plaques from the World Jewish Congress and posters of famous synagogues. “Teachings in the name of the church or faith always raise accusations that ‘the Jews killed our god.’ This sentence is taught from one generation to the next. Everyone grows up with the idea that the Jews killed Jesus.”
Yet not all Serbs feel that way: A recent exhibit at the Ministry of Defense in downtown Belgrade told the story of Dijana Budisavljević, an Austrian aristocrat married to a Serbian doctor, who rescued more than 7,500 children from Croatia’s horrific Jasenovać concentration camp during World War II.
More than 90% of Serbia’s 36,000 Jews died in the Holocaust. Between November 1941 and May 1942, most of Belgrade’s Jews were gassed at the Sajmište concentration camp just outside the city. By August 1942, the Nazis had officially declared Serbia “judenrein” (free of Jews).
“Some people do believe in conspiracy theories, but Serbs were also victims of the Nazi regime, and there are lots of places where Jews, Gypsies and Serbs were killed together,” said Asiel, who studied at Yeshiva Har Etzion in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Jerusalem. “Somehow this has created a certain mutual understanding.”
Serbia’s post-Holocaust revival is a dominant theme at the rather dilapidated Jewish Historical Museum, located on the first floor of the same building that houses the Jewish community’s offices.
Curator Barbara Panić says she receives about 3,000 visitors a year. On display at the museum, which opened in 1969, are dozens of religious artifacts in glass cases, as well as faded black-and-white photos of famous synagogues in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Vukovar and Zagreb, and a huge wall map of the former Yugoslavia showing the location of key Jewish communities.
“Our Jewish life is very active despite the tiny number of Jews in Serbia today,” she said. “We celebrate all the holidays, we have a women’s group, a cultural society, and so on.”
The biggest current challenge is Serbia’s stagnant economy. Things took a turn for the worse in the early 1990s following Yugoslavia’s collapse, the outbreak of Balkan ethnic wars and the imposition of economic sanctions by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Between 1990 and 2000, Serbia’s GDP tumbled from $24 billion to $8.7 billion. By 1993, nearly 40% of Serbia’s people were living on less than $2 a day.
“We still haven’t recovered from this,” said Sabadoš, 65, noting that the average Serb today earns only 400 euro ($465) a month.
“Jews don’t have it better than anyone else here,” Sabadoš said. “It’s been like this for more than 10 years. You can say it’s because of the sanctions. There are some signs we’re coming out of this, but it’s not as fast as we want it to be.”
One reason is that Serbia is still blocked from joining the EU amidst continuing problems with Kosovo, a predominantly Albanian-speaking province that declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Because of the standoff, Sabadoš and other Jewish leaders in Belgrade have no official contacts with their counterparts in Prizren, home of Kosovo’s 56 known Jews.
Only three synagogues still function in Serbia — one each in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Subotica. Outside the Belgrade synagogue, located at 19 Marsala Birjuzova Street about a 10-minute walk from the community center, concrete boulders are spray-painted with graffiti and obscenities.
Despite budget constraints, Serbia in April 2017 agreed to pay 950,000 euro ($1.1 million) a year over the next 25 years as compensation to its few remaining Jews for property nationalized by the communist regime after World War II. According to Sabadoš, half of that money goes directly to the Jewish communities, 20% to Holocaust survivors, and the remaining 30% to projects that aim to preserve Jewish traditions.
During a July visit to Belgrade, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin thanked his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucić, for passing a 2016 law allowing those restitutions to take place. Yet only 10 days later, top Serb officials erupted in anger after three Israeli F-16 fighter jets took part in a military parade to celebrate Croatia’s 1995 “Operation Storm” victory, which the Serbs say killed at least 2,500 people and made another 250,000 — mostly civilians — homeless.
“It was the biggest exodus of a nation since the Second World War,” Serbia’s ambassador to Israel, Milutin Stanojević, told The Times of Israel on August 5. The day before, Vucić said in a Belgrade speech that “Hitler wanted a world without Jews; Croatia and its policy wanted a Croatia without Serbs.”
Nevertheless, Sabadoš said Serbia’s relations with Israel remain very strong because of the high rate of emigration to the Jewish state, and that all the Jewish children participate in free Taglit-Birthright trips there. This may inadvertently be contributing to the community’s gradual shrinking.
“Everyone has relatives in Israel,” said Sabadoš, whose own family lives in Beersheva and Eilat. “We also have lots of Israeli construction companies here, and for Shabbat services, we always get a minyan [prayer quorum] — no question about that.”
Yet the Serbian Jewish community’s rate of intermarriage exceeds 90%, almost no one keeps kosher and the last bar mitzvah took place five years ago. About the only place where Jews are becoming more numerous are Serbia’s many graveyards.
“There are lots of cemeteries, and I don’t know what to do with them,” lamented Sabadoš, who has one son in Prague and another in London. “We are getting older and older. The young ones are leaving — going to Israel, Germany, France or England. It’s sad, because I can’t give them any reason to stay.”
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