The Wish To Be A Jew

If there is one thing over which all the sides in the Yugoslav conflict agree it is the power and importance of the media. The war which broke out in 1991 was preceded and fueled by a war of words and images. Propaganda, in general, has to accomplish two things - it has to mobilize one's own population against the enemy, and it has to elicit support from powerful international actors for one's own cause. In order to be successful, propaganda has to exploit existing features of, what for lack of a better expression, I will variously call "the symbolic landscape" or "symbolic space", or "quality space" -both domestic and international: neuralgic spots, sensitivities, historical grievances, deep seated prejudices, rhetorical frameworks, or "gradients of depreciation"1 So, for instance, the Slovenes and Croats in the North-West set themselves up against the Serbs and Montenegrins in the South-East Paper read at Ninth International Conference of Europeanists, March 31-April 2, 1994, at Chicago.
exploiting the full range of "orientalist" rhetoric2. The themes varied but clustered around depicting the hard¬working, Westernized, and democratic Slovenes and Croats as dominated and exploited by the Byzantine, barbarian and congenitally Bolshevik Serbs and Montenegrins. The Serbs retaliated by accusing Slovenes and Croats of being the "lackeys of the West" who had forgotten that it was the "barbarian", "Serb-dominated" army that liberated them from the centuries-long German and Austro-Hungarian rule.
In this paper, however, I will concentrate on another rhetorical strategy used in the Yugoslav media wars - the strategy that used the symbolic power associated with Jews and their suffering. For the domestic scene, I relied on the clippings from Yugoslav newspapers collected by the Jewish Historical Museum in Belgrade, as well as informal talks with members of the Jewish community there to which I also belong. I am aware that my sources represent a selection of a selection of a selection from the total field of Yugoslav media coverage spanning the period from 1989 to 1993, and that this procedure might serve to exaggerate the importance of the "Jewish issue in the Yugoslav "media wars". Being a so-called "native anthropologist", I am also relying on the native's sense for the bent of the public mind, again aware that as a member of certain circles, subgroups and subcultures and not of others, I can hardly claim perfect insider's knowledge of the total Yugoslav milieu.
In the post-war Yugoslavia, the Jewish community numbering no more that 6000 (largely assimilated) members kept a low profile and was mostly left in peace.3 With the imminent breakdown of the country, the Yugoslav Jews found themselves stranded in mutually hostile republics. Owing to their small numbers and relative inconspicuousness, the issue of loyalty to the new regimes turned out, however, to be less pressing than the dilemma posed by the symbolic charge of Jewish symbols that their respective republics sought to appropriate for their own political ends. Rather than with anti-semitism, those Jewish communities had to cope with the efforts their Croatian, Serbian, or Slovenian compatriots were making to woo them, identify with them, or co-opt them for the media struggle against the hated enemy.
Responses were varied - some Yugoslav Jews allowed themselves to be co-opted by their new regimes, some even enthusiastically offered their services, but the majority tried to walk the tightrope of politely refusing to lend their heritage of suffering and its attendant symbolic power to political uses while still affirming their loyalty to their new states. The power of the Jewish trope, however, was largely out of the hands of the Yugoslav Jews themselves. Alongside the orientalist strategies, the Jewish trope was used by the principal actors in the break-up of Yugoslavia as a powerful device for moving themselves into the most advantageous position within the "quality space", to use the idiom developed by Fernandez in his Mission of Metaphor. On the domestic scene, the "Jewish trope" served primarily to mobilize one's own population, in some cases even as an identity building device (Serbs mapping Jewish history of suffering onto their own history of suffering). In respect to the Western media scene, this card was played in order to position oneself as a victim, in fact an archetypal victim, elicit support for one's own cause and, if at all possible, bring sanctions, bombing, etc. against the opponent. Perhaps the best entry point into this maneuvering is afforded by the so called Cankarjev dom incident.
From Slovenia: Albanians = Jews; Slovenes = Albanians; Slovenes = Jews ^> Serbs = Nazis
In the early Spring of 1989, the tension in Kosovo culminated with the strike of 1300 Albanian miners who demanded the resignation of the pro-Milosevic leadership of the province. While the strike was still going on, in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana a meeting was held (Cankarjev dom concert hall) to express Slovenian support for the Albanians. The Slovenian youth organization - one of the organizers of the meeting - distributed to the participants traditional Albanian skull-caps with a Star of David affixed. The intended message was clear - Albanians are the Jews, a persecuted minority, and by implication, the Serbs are the Nazis. Underlying this was also the identification of Slovenes, as a minority in Yugoslavia supposedly dominated by the majority Serbs, with Albanians in Kosovo, so that the link could also be read as: the Slovenes equal Albanians equal Jews. The meeting, which was televised live throughout Yugoslavia caused a burst of outrage in Serbia.
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia, as an official representative of all the Yugoslav Jewish communities with its seat in Belgrade was faced with a delicate situation. Reacting too strongly against the Slovenes could be interpreted as a Jewish support for the Serbian regime, especially as it would come from Belgrade, while, on the other hand, there was an urge to react officially and demand that the Jews and their suffering be left out of Yugoslav squabbles. After a period of agonizing over what the right and properly diplomatic response to the abuses in the Cankarjev dom should be, the Federation issued its public protestation. The Slovenian Youth Organization was reminded that during the war Jews were wearing that same Star of David while being taken to concentration camps and gas chambers, and that there were no gas chambers in Kosovo. The Federation saw such political uses as trivializing and debasing symbols burdened with heavy associations to an all too real experience of suffering. The precarious position of the Jewish community, as well as the outburst of rage this incident provoked in Serbia, however, could not be properly understood without understanding the peculiar Serbian identification with Jews that had already gained wide currency in the public discourse before the Cankarjev dom incident.
From Serbia: Serbs = Jews; Albanians = Palestinians; Croats = Nazis
In 1985, Vuk Draskovic, now an influential opposition leader in Serbia, but at that time a raving Serbian nationalist, had written a letter to the Writers of Israel that is considered by many to be a manifesto of the Serbian philosemitism. The five hundred years Serbs endured under the Turkish rule were likened by Draskovic to the Babylonian slavery; Kosovo, as the cradle of the conquered Serbian Empire, was proclaimed to be the Serbian Jerusalem; and the waves of Serbian migrations from Turkish domains were likened to the Jewish exodus. Even after the liberation from the Turkish rule, Draskovic wrote, the Serbian Golgotha continued - one third of the population died in the two world wars - and, I quote, "it is by the hands of the same executioners that both Serbs and Jews have been exterminated at the same concentration camps, slaughtered at the same bridges, burned alive in the same ovens, thrown together in the same chasms". It is as if, Draskovic writes, "we Serbs are the thirteenth lost and the most ill-fated tribe of Israel". And he concludes: "I hail you (the Israeli writers) as our brothers and with the same oath that our ancestors heard from the Jews the meaning of which is carried in the heart of every Serb expelled from Kosovo: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten … "
After this proclamation, the following set of correspondences gained currency in the symbolic space in Serbia: - Both Serbs and Jews are the "chosen peoples" -slaughtered, sacrificed, denied expression, yet always righteous, always defending themselves, never attacking.
- The Kosovo Albanians stand to the Serbs as the Palestinians stand to the Israelis.
- Serbs are the ones who should say "Never again" like Israel and rely on their military power to defend their brethren wherever they happen to be living in Yugoslavia, and bring them together in a unitary state which alone can guarantee them safety in a hostile world.
What was only a theory "hanging up in the air" came to be embodied in the Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society established in 1988 by a number of prominent Serbian writers and intellectuals together with a smaller number of Jews. The majority of Serbian Jews, as well as the officials of the Federation who initially supported, or joined the Society soon distanced themselves feeling that it had become mainly a political organization openly backing the Serbian regime. The Society immediately set itself on improving the ties between Israel and Serbia. (the Federal authorities, or what was left of them, were still refusing to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel at that time). It organized a delegation of 440 businessmen, politicians and intellectuals who went to Israel in 1990, and helped establish sister-city relations between 15 Serbian and Israeli cities. During the Gulf War, a delegation of 12 city mayors from Serbia went to Israel to demonstrate Serbian solidarity with Israel's plight. Underlying this activities was a naive hope of eliciting Israel's support for the Serbian cause, and even obtaining Israeli weapons for the reconquest of the Kosovo - the Serbian Jerusalem. All these moves could not but provoke the main Serbian opponent -Croatia.
From Croatia: Serbs are actually more anti-Semitic than we are Croatia has been largely successful in presenting itself as a Westernized, democratic, and free-market oriented republic oppressed by the Byzantine, totalitarian, Bolshevik Serbs. Yet there were a few blemishes on that image, most importantly the atrocious record of the Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War when Croatian fascists committed wholesale slaughter against the Jewish, Gypsy and Serbian populations. The other blemish was the anti-Semitic statements of their president Tudjman. The media in Serbia tried their best to exploit these soft spots both on the domestic and the international fronts. On the domestic front, harping on the genocide of 50 years ago was largely successful in mobilizing the Serb population in the Croatian Krajina region which rebelled against the Croatian authorities, but on the international scene this strategy achieved much less.
Predisposed to let bygones be bygones and charging Serbs with being obsessed with history, the Western media did not, with some exceptions, unduly pester Croatia with its unsavory past. Tudjman's anti-Semitic statements, on the other hand, especially in his book "Wastelands of Historic Reality" (published in Zagreb in 1989) earned him the opprobrium of international Jewish organizations, such influential figures as Simon Wiesenthal, and criticism from the Croatian Jewish community, while Israel refused to establish diplomatic relations with Croatia. Protestations were, of course, made that the English translation (provided by Serbs) was misleading, that the quotes were out of context, etc., while Tudjman himself even apologized recently and revised the controversial parts for the new edition. This damage control, however, does not seem to have been particularly successful. As for the atrocious Croatian Second World War record, whatever the successes or failures of Serbian propaganda in exploiting it, in Croatia it was perceived as a dangerous threat to their media image. To simplify what was often a convoluted struggle over numbers of victims and interpretations of history, the Croatian media essentially pursued a two track strategy in dealing with this issue. On the defense, the main strategy has been to present anti-Semitism in the Independent State of Croatia as a purely Nazi import, the Croatian population at large as strongly opposed to the puppet fascist regime, as exhibiting solidarity with their Jewish compatriots and as perishing alongside them in the anti-fascist struggle. Yet, while this strategy might have worked well domestically in calming any lingering sense of guilt, the record of who did what during the war was far too reliable and complete for this strategy to really work on the international Jewish organizations, Wiesenthal, or Israel. The second track, therefore, relied on the maxim that attack is the best defense and rather than minimizing one's own responsibility, the attempt was made to show that the Serbs were actually no better and possibly worse than Croats when it came to the genocide against their fellow Jews during the war. By the end of 1990, the official Catholic newsletter (Glas Koncila) in Zagreb published a series of texts entitled: "The Jewish Question" in Serbia during the Second World War. The author, Tomislav Vukovic, tried to show that anti-Semitism was firmly entrenched in Serbian mentality and that it was the Serbian quisling authorities under German occupation who were largely responsible for the Holocaust in Serbia - thus transferring the blame from the Wermacht, SS and Gestapo who were in complete charge of the Holocaust to the Serbs themselves. The same author published a 200 page book titled Overview of Serbian Anti-Semitism in 1992 with some 400 footnotes and over 100 references. For the international media campaign, however, the Croatian Ministry of Information relied mainly on a few simple points like the report to Hitler in 1942 proudly proclaiming Serbia as the first judenfrei country in occupied Europe - that is to say, completely cleansed of the Jews. The trick consisted in not mentioning that the report was sent by Harald Thurner, the Head of Wermacht Military Administration in Serbia to Lieutenant General Alexander Lohr, Commander for South East Europe and thus implying that it was the Serbian authorities who did the dirty job.
The Jewish Community in Serbia was again faced with a delicate situation - the historical facts were well established for that period in Serbia4 and it was relatively easy to refute the gross distortions in Vukovic's thesis, but the Serbian record in the Second World War, while definitely better than the Croatian, was nevertheless far from spotless. If the Jews in Serbia had taken it upon themselves to refute the Croatian claim that Serbs were equally responsible for the Holocaust, this could easily have been construed as rehabilitation of Serbian quisling authorities and para-military units who had, in fact helped the Germans in carrying it out in Serbia. Such absolution, because it would come from the Jews themselves, would indeed carry much weight. The dilemma then was how to counter the abuses of history and instrumentalization of Jewish suffering coming from the Croatian side while at the same time avoiding the corresponding instrumentalization by the Serbian side. While the majority of Jews in Serbia and the leaders of the Federation tried to hold to this precarious line, some members of the Jewish community argued that Serbian Jews should side more strongly with the Serbs and defend them more actively against the satanization carried out in the ex-Yugoslav and international me di a.
From Bosnia: Moslems=Jews; Serbs=Nazis
The jockeying for position on the "Jewish issue" in the former Yugoslavia was from the beginning heavily influenced by the surrounding "symbolic landscape" of the Western media which all the participants rightly perceived as highly sensitive to the history and legacy of Jewish suffering. It was, however, only with the start of the war in Bosnia that the Holocaust, and more generally, the Second World War definitively emerged as the dominant metaphor, particularly in the American media. Milosevic was cast as Hitler, a number of Western leaders seen as appeasing him were likened to Chamberlain in Munich, the International Commission for the War Crimes in the former Yugoslavia was seen as the Court in Nurnberg, and Bosnian Moslems were presented as Jews facing another Holocaust at the hands of Serbs.5 Here are a few characteristic titles appearing in the leading American daily newspapers over a period of several months in 1992 and early 1993: What do we say when "never again" happens? (Stuart Goldstein USA Today August 5, 1993); The Holocaust analogy is too true, (Henry Siegman, President AJC, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1993); "Never again" - Except for Bosnia. (Zbignew Brzezinski, New York Times, April 22, 1993); Make "never" mean never. (USA Today, April 22, 1993); Are comparisons to Bosnia valid? (Interview with Patrick Glynn, USA Today, April 20, 1993); Stopping Holocaust. (Abraham Foxman, Atlanta Constitutioin, Aug. 6, 1992); "This is a Holocaust": Surrounded by Death, Sarajevo Resolves to Live , (Storer Rowley, Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1992); It's not a holocaust: Rhetoric and reality in Bosnia, (Richard Cohen Washington Post, Feb 28, 1993).
The rhetorical strategy of presenting Bosnia as Holocaust reached its crescendo with the two powerful symbolic events of April 1993 - the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The war in Bosnia haunted both occasions and there was hardly a dignitary in attendance who failed to draw a parallel to it. The Museum in Washington, in particular, was generally seen as a reminder to the Civilized World never to let Holocaust happen again.6 Situated so prominently on the Mall, in the center of American memory and power, the Holocaust Museum emerged as perhaps the most important nodal point in the emotionally charged debate over Western policy in the Balkans. In the light of all this, it is quite understandable that the Moslem-led Bosnian government did its best to present the plight of Bosnian Moslems as another Holocaust. What is less easy to understand is the quickness and zeal with which American Jewish organizations and a number of prominent Jewish intellectuals jumped on the band-wagon. While the Jewish community in Yugoslavia for the most part tried hard not to get involved on anybody's side, and remain neutral in the ongoing conflict, their American counterparts seemed only too eager to unquestioningly embrace the Bosnian Moslem's political agenda thus joining the Balkan game of the political instrumentalization of the Holocaust. The opening of the Museum in Washington undoubtedly boosted the symbolic power of the Holocaust, and thus of its guardians - the Jewish community. By predicating the Holocaust metaphorically onto the war in Bosnia did the American Jewish community hope to further reinvigorate their main symbolic asset; did they hope, so to speak, to "flex their symbolic muscles" in the American and International political arenas?
Marko Zivkovic left Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1989 to study anthropology at The University of Chicago. He was a visiting professor at Reed College, Portland, Oregon for five years, and is currently teaching at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.


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