This summer I spent four weeks touring the Balkans with 10 other Jewish students and 11 Palestinians from across the United States through an organization called Abraham’s Vision. Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro were all on the itinerary. The mission of the organization is to bring American Jews and American Palestinians (and some from Palestine who attend universities in the United States) together to compare the conflict that occurred between nations of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The group gathered at a children’s camp outside Sarajevo. Photos courtesy of Avi Smolen
Nothing could have prepared me for this experience. The countries that I imagined as Third World in fact had electricity, potable water, mass transit, universities, and modern shops. The bullet holes still visible in most buildings, however, betrayed the normality of the environment. Through exploring the war, learning about the ethno-nationalism that was the cause of much of the fighting, we were able to understand these bullet holes. We explored the relation between religion and conflict, as each of the major players in the Balkans is correlated with a religion: Croatia with Catholicism, Serbia with Eastern Orthodoxy, and Bosnia with Islam. Though religion can be a dividing factor, in these mostly secular societies, it was much less of a factor than the nationalism that accompanied identities of Serb, Croat, and Bosniak (the term for Bosnian Muslim). Whether born to Serbian parents in Serbia or Croatia, the child would still have a Serb identity, quite different from the nationalism in the United States, where if you are born here, you are American.
The comparisons that we were able to make between the Balkans and Israel-Palestine were much stronger than I would have imagined. The question arose concerning whether Zionism as a form of nationalism is a destructive force, as nationalism was in the Balkans, and whether Palestinian nationalism is any different. We also explored the question of religion: Is there animosity towards Israel in the Muslim-dominated Arab world because it is a Jewish state, or because it is a state that allegedly oppresses Palestinians?
Between touring tour host cities such as Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Dubrovnik, and speaking with academics and leaders of non-governmental organizations, we had time for discussion about these issues and the many others that arose from those conversations. We spoke about the need for a Jewish state — whether it arose from fears of a second Holocaust and if that was legitimate, or whether it was more of a nationalism steeped in language, culture, and religious practice. We spoke about the use of violence and the word terrorism, a term that can describe the acts of a state and its military as well as those committed by independent fighters. We discussed the role that language plays in the conflict — whether using the Hebrew term Yom Ha’Atzmaut or the Arabic, Nakba, to describe the events leading up to Israel’s independence in 1948.
Besides discussing these questions and hearing from local experts, we were also able to explore the meat-heavy cuisine, cigarette-clouded nightlife, and the ease with which proprietors of tourist shops took our money. We explored churches, mosques, and even synagogues, of which there were a surprising number, most of them having been established by Sephardic Jews after the Spanish expulsion in 149′. I also learned that nearly 90 percent of Jews in the Balkans were killed in the Holocaust, a profoundly sad fact that can be felt today when visiting the sparsely attended synagogues of centuries past. Throughout our experiences we learned about culture in the Balkans: Tap water is not served in restaurants, street signs are few and far between, and there is much nostalgia for life under the rule of the "benevolent" dictator Tito. Most striking is the distance at which each ethnic group holds the others. As the conflict in the ’90s ended, there was much movement within and between states. Many Serbs left Bosnia for Serbia and many Croats returned to their native land, while within states, members of different ethnic groups split cities and regions — Bosniaks to one side, Serbs to another, as happened in the other former Yugoslavian states. Many of the NGOs we visited were responding to this by working to arrange encounters between ethnic groups, because in such a divided society, it is too easy for one group to become an unknown "other" to a second. Similar projects are under way in Israel and Palestine, as most Israelis and Palestinians never interact with each other.
While discussing these issues and learning about the conditions in the Balkans, we were also able to learn about each other. I heard the Palestinian narrative of oppression and struggle for the first time, and some of my Palestinian counterparts similarly heard my American Jewish narrative of Israel as my homeland and a safe haven. We also learned about each other’s religious practices: observing Shabbat, halal and kashrut rules, the structure of a Christian worship service, and the five daily prayers required of Muslims. Most importantly, we learned to remove each other’s labels and see each other as human, no matter whether our grandparents were born in Israel, Palestine, Eastern Europe, or elsewhere. As with all good trips, I have returned more confused than when I left, but with an expanded mind and an open heart.
To learn more about Abraham’s Vision, go to www.abrahamsvision.org