HISTORY OF SERBIAN-JEWISH DIPLOMACY
How It All Began
By Stevan Nikšić
Tlhe history of diplomatic relations between Serbs and Jews is older than the state of Israel. The first contacts were established as early as 1869.
The first chapter of this story is the secret diary of chief of the Austro-Hungarian mission in Serbia Benjamin Kallay, who at the very beginning of his career as a diplomat and statesman was a consul in Belgrade; he would become better known as the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia and one of the chief creators of his country's Serbian policy, which led to World War One.
Benjamin Kallay was appointed by his government as the first representative of the "Alliance Israelite" of Paris.
The four books of Kallay's secret diary (preserved by the Central Archives of Hungary), which he kept during his service in Belgrade between April 18, 1868 and May 31, 1875,contain an interesting story about Jews in Serbia, one of his favourite themes and main diplomatic preoccupations.
He was very cautious, even a little suspicious, in the beginning. On February 13, 1869 Kallay wrote, "A Jew by the name of Levi, a representative of the Alliance lsraelite from Paris visited me with a friend of his and asked me to take action here on behalf of the local Jews. He said that my government would give me instructions in that respect. I received him rather coldly because I did not want to make any problems to the Serbian Government, and I replied that I could not say anything about that until I got instructions form my government."
Shortly afterwards, the first official Serbian-Jewish diplomatic contacts were made. The first note delivered to the Serbian Government by the Alliance Israelite, however was a complaint about discrimination against Jews in Serbia.
It was claimed that Jews were treated as equal citizens in Serbia only during the first and second reigns of Prince Miloš Obrenović because he appreciated their contribution to the development of the Serbian state, especially the development of trade. After Miloš's death, however, the enemies of the Jews managed to push through laws which restricted their rights to conduct trade, own real estate and even live in the interior of the country.
Five months later, on May 29, 1869, Kallay wrote that "I was visited again by Levi about the Jewish problem. I encourage him to be patient and reassure him that the Serbian Government will meet their demands." In those days Serbia was in turmoil because of the assassination of Prince Mihailo Obrenović. On June 1, 1869, the consul wrote, "Levi came to see me again…. He invited me to go to the synagogue tomorrow in the afternoon to pay tribute to Prince Mihailo."
Several days later, Kallay recorded in his diary what he had found out from his "confidential informant", Dr. Mihailo Rozen. Dr. Rozen was a doctor by vocation, but also a publicist who worked for the Serbian state press agency. He informed the Austro-Hungarian consul that "the Prussian consul in Belgrade and Levi, the secretary of the Alliance Israelite, were about to start an anti-Austrian paper." The news later proved to have been false, just like many other bits of news for which the Austro-Hungarian consulate paid fat fees to Dr. Rozen.
In July of the same year Kallay sent an extensive report on the new Serbian constitution to Vienna. Yugoslav historians, who have studied the text of the report in Vienna's archives have noticed that Kallay pays most attention to two restrictions in this document: that lawyers could not be elected to Parliament, which, in his opinion, was a curiosity in civilised Europe; and that Jews could not live in the interior of Serbia, which , he concluded, was in drastic conflict with the spirit of the time. Two weeks later, on October 10, the Serbian Government informed foreign diplomats in Belgrade of its lengthy answer to the note on the Jewish problem from representatives of Austria-Hungary, Prussia, France and England. The Serbs tried to prove that the status of Jews in Serbia was not so unequal as was asserted. If some restrictions which applied only to Jews, "they are due to spe¬ment cannot lift these restrictions because they have been established by the Constitution and the Iaw, adopted by the people's representatives in the National Assembly according to the wish and demand of the majority of the people."
The Serbian Government's answer stated that, according to the 1866 census, 1,500 Jews lived in Serbia. Most were in Belgrade, but a few lived in other towns, depending on the possibilities of trade: there were nine Jews in Smederevo, two in Kragujevac, seventy three in Požarevac, five in Negotin, fifteen in Obrenovac, fifteen in Svilajnac, six in Ub and fifty-five in Šabac. The Serbian reply stressed that their equality was best proved by their freedom to confess their faith and be educated in the spirit of Judaisrn. The restrictions imposed on them concerned only the right to carry out trade in the interior of the country.
The diplomatic correspondence between Belgrade and Vienna further shows that the Austro-Hungarian consul thought that Serbia had, after all, showed "good will" and "willingness to encourage the passing of laws on the full equality of Jews." In a message sent to Minister of Foreign Affairs Count Beist he wrote, "We should not insist on a solution which they themselves will find acceptable sooner or later." He thought the restrictions were merely the consequence of the envy of Serbia's merchant class, which was still so much weaker than its foreign competitors that it had to resort to coercive measures to remove that competition.
At that time Kallay placed his greatest hopes on "the spirit of liberalism prevalent in the Serbian Government." He believed that it would try to change this situation at the next session of the Serbian Assembly.
Kallay's diary shows, however, that half a year later his forecasts proved wrong. On March 20, 1870 he wrote, "Dr. Levi came and said that the Government had decided that from now on Jews were conscripts too and that it had already asked us to make a list. The Jews obeyed, but they also turned to the Regency, demanding to be given civil rights in return.
Prime Minister Ristić did not give them a definite answer. I told Levi that the Government would not do anything for the Jews even at the next session."
Day after day, Kallay made similar notes in his diary: he was trying to do his best, but very often he did not manage to do what he wanted….
Finally, on May 9, 1873, he wrote, "I have received a letter from the Alliance Israelite of Paris in which they express their gratitude for my work for the Jewish cause in Serbia."
HISTORY OF SERBIAN-JEWISH DIPLOMACY