Serbian-Israeli Relations Flourish, as if the 1990s Never Happened

The speeches during Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's visit to Israel this month contained not a word about Serbia's crimes during the 1991-95 civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

Yair Auron
Yair Auron
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Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, December 1, 2014.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, December 1, 2014.Credit: AP
Yair Auron
Yair Auron

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic paid an official visit to Israel in early December. It was a historic occasion, the first visit by a Serbian prime minister to Israel. In accordance with protocol, he began his visit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial. Then he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with President Reuven Rivlin and with former President Shimon Peres.

In his address to his Serbian guest, Netanyahu said, among other things: “We will never forget the role of the Serbian people in fighting Nazism. It’s a badge of honor, and one that is deeply felt in our hearts ....” There are great similarities between the complex history of Serbia and of Israel, he added. In response, Vucic said that Serbs, like Jews, would never forget those who helped them during the terrible period of World War II.

The facts are correct. Josip Broz Tito was the leader of the Serbian partisans fighting the Nazis and went on to become the long-time ruler of Yugoslavia. But that is only part of history, and only part of the truth. Of the 12,000 Jews living in Belgrade before the war, 11,000 were arrested and murdered in the nearby Semlin (Sajmiste) concentration camp by 1942. It was the Serbian police who arrested Belgrade’s Jews, and although Semlin was under the command of the German SS its guards were Serbs. The 1,000 Jews who survived were those who found refuge in small Serbian mountain villages. Serbs were also arrested and murdered in Semlin. I am researching the story of a Serb who was arrested and murdered there after an informer reported that he had rescued Jews, partisans and communists.

The speeches during Vucic’s visit contained not a word about Serbia’s crimes during the 1991-95 civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Serbia is guilty of the first instance of genocide in Europe after World War II, of ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Others — mainly Croatians — also perpetrated massacres, but there is no dispute that most of the victims, about 250,000 people, were killed by Serbs. Another two million civilians became refugees.

The Serbian prime minister is a young man who surely was not personally involved in those crimes. He was elected twice in democratic elections held in Serbia after the war and the genocide. But he is one of the leaders of the Serbian Radical Party, whose president has been in prison since 2003 after being tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Vucic’s foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, is a former leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, which was founded by Slobodan Milosevic. Dacic was party spokesman during the dark period between 1991 and 1995.

Israel’s criminal support of Serbia as the genocide was being perpetrated was also not mentioned during the visit. Both Likud and Labor Party governments in Israel openly and explicitly supported the Serbs, who hoped to establish “Greater Serbia,” in violation of the position of the international community (with the exception of Russia and world Jewry).

Both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres refused to condemn Serbia for four years, at least until July 1995. Israel established diplomatic relations with Serbia under Milosevic in 1991, when the war against Croatia was at its height. Serbs set up concentration camps where mass rapes were carried out. Serbs engaged in ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The Serbs bought large quantities of arms from Israel, evidently even after the United Nations embargo was imposed in 1991. But even after the infamous shelling of a Sarajevo market during a temporary lifting of the siege, in which 69 people were killed and hundreds more were injured, Israel did not explicitly accuse the Serbs. It issued an abstract condemnation, as if it was not obvious who fired the shells, or as if it were a natural disaster. According to testimony, some of the shells that were fired on Sarajevo were Israeli-made.

Indeed, there is a resemblance between the two countries: Neither has engaged in any genuine soul-searching and both continues to behave as if nothing happened.

The author has for 25 years been researching Israel’s attitude toward the genocide of other nations.

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