Why Kosovo Loves Israel

There is nothing quite like walking around in Kosovo with a yarmulke on. While people in the capital of Prishtina were a touch more reserved, in the mountainous town of Peja, where I spent most of my time during a visit this past summer, you are greeted like a rock star.

Groups of people looking out their front doors or up from their cups of coffee at cafes waved and greeted me. Some would holler after me “Israelien?!” excitedly. Groups of school children would come up and ask me about whether I was Israeli.

A typical conversation on the street would go as follows:

“Israelien?!”

“No, American.”

“American?!”

“American!”

Smiles all around.

After getting over my initial anxiety (wearing a yarmulke or other distinctively Jewish dress in other parts of the Balkans or Eastern Europe is not always recommended), I came to realize that many Kosovars have a deep admiration for Jews, both Israeli and American.

At the Conference on Faith and Reconciliation that I took part in, I asked fellow participants why it might be that Kosovars had such a strong (and positive!) reaction to me as a Jewish person. A couple of diplomats explained that the role of key Jewish officials in the Clinton Administration in deciding to intervene on behalf of Kosovars accounted for a good part of it.

“But why would they so like Israel?” I asked. Some demurred and others gave general answers that seemed couched in diplomatic hedging. Some referenced Israel’s medical and humanitarian aid to Kosovars during the period of intense strife in the late 1990’s. Though significant, I still carried uncertainty that aid from a majority-Jewish to a majority-Muslim country would have such an enduring impact.

One of the few people who seemed willing to answer more openly was the owner of the inn where I was staying. He had personally welcomed me to Peja when I arrived and had gone out of his way to make sure I was getting a sense of the town, as well as Kosovo’s history and culture. He even offered to take me hiking in the mountains.

In the evenings, after the formal part of the conference was over, the innkeeper and I would have a beer together and talk a great deal (yes, a good many Kosovars drink and see themselves as secular Muslims, much in the way that many Israelis understand themselves to be secular Jews).

We quickly developed a positive rapport and spoke together about ideas large and small — business and politics, family life and sports, food and friends — with a particular focus on Kosovo. One evening, I ventured to ask the question that lingered with me: why was it that many Kosovars loved Israelis so much?

He explained rather openly that, more than anything else, many Kosovars see themselves as having a similar national story as Israelis. Facing the possibility of genocide or ethnic cleansing, Kosovars seemingly miraculously emerged with a country of their own.

Yet Kosovo has yet to be developed. It has only the buds of new industry and is still envisioning what it might become. The colorful words “Newborn” still adorn a main square in the capital of Prishtina. They look to Israelis as people who share both a similar history — and who took managed not simply to remember the pain of the past but also look forward with optimism.

The innkeeper was an entrepreneur, having grown his establishment from a small restaurant into a large inn, with a conference center, bar, and ample restaurant. In his mind, Israelis, too, seemed to have this entrepreneurial spirit.

The next day, I returned to the conference and had the good fortune of asking more specific questions about Kosovar enterprise — and whether it might follow in Israel’s example. I began to get more direct responses from diplomats and officials from countries in the region. Kosovo does indeed appear eager to follow in Israel’s footsteps in business, civil society, communications, and technology.

Just this month, the government of Kosovo took an even more official step to reach out to the Jewish community, and Israel in particular. It seems that with a sense of commonality, Kosovo could well hope to collaborate more directly with Israel.

Under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry, Kosovo held an Israeli Film Festival to celebrate Israeli culture — and, by implication, the similarities between the two countries.

An article by the organization Interfaith Kosovo (which convened the conference I attended this summer) endeavors to explain the Foreign Ministry’s motivations:

[Foreign] Minister Hoxhaj said that this undertaking reflects the need for understanding that should exist between our societies, to have more get to know each other more, stating that film is certainly helpful in this regard.

The festival was seen as a symbolic gesture to reach out to Israel and Israeli society and see if collaboration could well emerge in light of the sense of similarity.

While there are differences aplenty between Israel and Kosovo, the notion of being a “Start-Up Nation” with uncertain borders, oppositional neighbors, and a painful national past may well provide the basis for future collaboration. In the meantime, the love of many Kosovars for Israel seems well-established.

About the Author
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies. Josh was is in the 2015 - 2016 cohort of Germanacos Fellows and part of the inaugural group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows from 2013 - 2015. Previously, Josh served as Associate Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and before that as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He is a Founding Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a publication that has enabled inter-religious studies to grow into an academic field of its own. He writes for the Huffington Post and Times of Israel. Josh was one of just six finalists worldwide for the $100,000 Coexist Prize and was additionally highlighted by the Coexist Forum as "one of the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world." In 2011, the Huffington Post named him one of the "best Jewish voices on Twitter." The Huffington Post also selected two organizations he helped found as exemplary of those which effectively "have taken their positive interfaith message online." He authored one of "15 Blogs from 2015 that Show How Faith Can Be a Force For Good." Josh has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core, the Associates of Jewish Homes and Services for the Aging’s Annette W. and Herbert H. Lichterman Outstanding Programming Award, the Volunteer Hero Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the W. MacLean Johnson Fellowship for Action, the Wiener Education Fellowship, and the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Jewish Communal Service. Josh's work was highlighted in chapter of the official report and proceedings of the UNESCO Chairs for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. A sought-after speaker, Josh has given presentations, speeches, and convocations at seminaries, non-profit organizations, and religious groups across the United States and beyond. Last winter, Josh presented about the next generation of religious leadership at the Holy See's 50th Anniversary celebration of Nostra Aetate at the United Nations. The prior spring, Josh spoke about social media and interfaith dialogue at an international conference on faith and reconciliation in Kosovo (his one third there). He has also spoken at the Pentagon about religious diversity in March 2013; given a presentation about the prevalence of hate crimes against houses of worship during a White House conference in July 2011 and a follow-up presentation at the White House on the potential for Dharmic communities to enhance religious pluralism nationally in April 2012; an address at the 2010 Eighth Annual Doha Conference, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue; and a Closing Address at the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation at the United Nations in November 2009. Josh has had articles and interviews featured in newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, academic journals, publications, and blogs in ten languages. These include the Associated Press, National Geographic, Washington Post, German National Radio, Swedish National Radio, The Permanent Observer Mission from the Holy See to the United Nations, public radio's Interfaith Voices, the BBC, Vox, the The Daily Beast, The Sydney Herald, JTA, and the blog of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Josh has contributed to edited volumes, including Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Pastoral Care, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Questions, Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Likewise, he has been co-author of a number of academic articles for publications as diverse as Religious Education, Long-Term Living, The Gerontologist, and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies (a publication he co-founded). Prior to entering rabbinical school, Josh served as an Assistant to the Director of the European Youth Campaign at the Council of Europe and co-Founded Lessons of a Lifetime, a program that improves inter-generational relations through the recording of ethical wills. An alumnus of Amherst College, Josh graduated magna cum laude with majors in history, economics, and Spanish, as well as a certificate in Practical French Language from Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, France.
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