North Macedonia’s First Jewish Minister Fired After Using Country’s Old Name

What's in a name? Rashela Mizrahi claims her ouster was politically motivated, not because she spoke in front of a sign stating ‘Republic of Macedonia’

North Macedonian lawmaker Rashela Mizrahi.
Marija Nikolovska

North Macedonia’s first-ever Jewish government minister was fired last weekend after using the country’s previous name, violating a controversial agreement the country has with neighboring Greece.

Rashela Mizrahi’s dismissal, initiated by Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski, was among the last acts of the caretaker government in the tiny Balkan state. Lawmakers voted 62-26 in favor of Mizrahi’s dismissal after she was seen in an official video in front of a sign featuring the country’s former name, “Republic of Macedonia.”

North Macedonia’s name was officially changed in February 2019, bringing to an end a three-decade-long dispute with Greece over the usage of the name “Macedonia.” “North Macedonia” now offers a clear geographical distinction from the Greek region of Macedonia, although the move has led to friction between left- and right-wing Macedonians.

Mizrahi’s short-lived tenure as a minister still proved an eventful one. Born in the capital of Skopje, Mizrahi – a member of the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE party since 2017 – became the country’s first Jewish minister when she assumed the top job in the Labor and Social Policy Ministry last month. Her appointment came as part of a 100-day power-sharing agreement with the ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for April.

Mizrahi, 39, holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, and previously served as an adviser in North Macedonia’s Health Ministry. Her appointment as labor minister was almost immediately met with criticism, as well as several anti-Semitic attacks – mostly made by supporters of the ruling Social Democratic party.

North Macedonia's Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, left, is greeted by European Council President Charles Michel as he arrives for an EU-Western Balkans Summit in Brussels, February 16, 2020.
AFP

“The anti-Semitic attacks were a surprise. People in Macedonia are not anti-Semitic,” Mizrahi told Haaretz this week. “I find those attacks to be part of a vile political scenario that rose to the levels of anti-Semitism, mentions of yellow stars and unpleasant verbal attacks.

“The whole Jewish community in the country was in shock because of that,” she added.

In an official statement earlier this month, the Jewish community and the country’s Holocaust Fund condemned the attacks on Mizrahi.

“All those who incite these feelings should have a deep look at their conscience and figure out what exactly they are trying to achieve with such attempts,” the statement said. “We emphasize that the Jewish community, as well as any other communities and their members, should not be used by anyone as an object in a political, ideological and party-related verbal confrontation.” 

The attacks were also denounced by Israeli historian and Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff.

The anti-Semitic slurs prompted the Social Democratic party’s leader and former prime minister Zoran Zaev to offer Mizrahi a public apology.

Zoran Zaev, center front, leader of the ruling Social Democrats, taking part in a rally titled "Walking for Justice" in Skopje, North Macedonia, February 17, 2020.
Boris Grdanoski/AP

North Macedonia’s Jewish community has some 250 members, out of a total population of around 2 million. Skopje is also home to one of the biggest Holocaust memorial centers in the world.

The most recent incident involving Mizrahi’s Jewish heritage occurred on February 6, when journalist and public figure Branko Trickovski wrote in a Facebook post that “he heard how Mizrahi ate hummus made from dead Jews.” The police launched an investigation into Trickovski, a hard-liner against Mizrahi’s right-wing party, for allegedly spreading hate speech and xenophobia. The Social Democratic party denied any connection to the journalist, condemning the hate speech and anti-Semitism in his Facebook post.

“People must not identify with those posts, and we need to recognize that all of those attacks were just part of an infantile political campaign. I will never allow anti-Semitism to become part of Macedonia’s story,” Mizrahi told Haaretz.

Regarding her dismissal from the Labor Ministry, North Macedonia’s foreign affairs minister, Nikola Dimitrov, one of the signatories to the deal with Greece in June 2018 agreeing to the name change (the Prespa agreement), claimed that Mizrahi violated the constitution by using the country’s previous name.

He also said Mizrahi had jeopardized relations with Greece, as well as the country’s bid to join the European Union. The agreement with Greece is one of the main conditions for starting accession talks with the EU.

A year into the implementation of the Prespa agreement, North Macedonian society remains divided regarding the country’s new name. While for some its use – especially when it comes to domestic purposes – is inexplicable, for others it is seen as part of a bigger picture of getting into the EU. The authorities insist on the new name being used during official events and being seen as wholeheartedly respecting the agreement.

Mizrahi’s stance on the Prespa deal is in line with her party’s, which is that “although the agreement is a new reality, it is harmful and unacceptable,” according to the party.

Mizrahi maintained that she never violated the constitution and that the sign stating “Republic of Macedonia” was the only one available to use. But according to Mizrahi’s predecessor in the ministry, Social Democratic party Vice President Mila Carovska, the ministry had four North Macedonia signs or banners that could be used during press events, as well as an official board with the new name at the ministry’s entrance.

Mizrahi also said her dismissal happened just as she was about to uncover a number of wrongdoings in her ministry.

“I firmly believe that they didn’t care at all about the sign. For them, it was more important not to hear about the criminal acts and wrongdoings that happened in the ministry,” she said. “The situation that started with the anti-Semitic attacks escalated with the sign.”

She added: “My dismissal was witnessed by the public, and it was yet another indication of the Social Democratic party’s aggressive and violent policies.”