Belgrade: A Small Jewish Community Under Fire

The Jewish Community building in Kralja Petra street, Belgrade.
The Jewish Community building in Kralja Petra street, Belgrade.

In the small old street of Kralja Petra, the Jewish community building is to many a monument of Jewish resilience and survival. The building, as well as the small Jewish community that resides in the city, have always managed to stay out of the spotlight. Yet, in recent months they have managed to do the exact opposite — to be in the centre of media reports, as well as attracting the country’s attention.

Still, the situation remains unclear to many of the less-informed members of the community, as well as to the wider public. The fact that community members and leaders are trading accusations and insults in public is not only new to this small and quiet community, it is also inconceivable to many.

In recent days, I have approached several parties within the community in order to gain a better grasp of the situation and try to point out how it all began. All the fingers that I have come across hitherto have pointed towards one individual, Danilo Medić.

Who is Danilo Medić?

Danilo Medić, 48, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish, became a member of the Jewish community of Belgrade back in 2006. Since then he had been entirely absent from and unengaged in all aspects of community life. He then resurfaced out of nowhere back in 2015.

In October 2017, Medić was one of two candidates for the presidency of the community. He won an election that he could have hardly lost given that the other candidate was disqualified from the race.

Justice for Some, an Opportunity for Others

When asked to explain why he thinks that Medić is the problem, one member of the community who preferred to stay anonymous has said:

“We didn’t see it coming. He came to the community in 2015 when the negotiations concerning the national law on restitution surfaced. A devil lurking in the darkness, Danilo Medić returned to the community with the sole interest of benefiting from the potential money and property that would be returned to the community through restitution”.

In February 2016, Serbia passed an exemplary bill on restitution that granted the Jewish community — among others — the right to regain the properties of Holocaust victims with no living heirs, in addition to sizeable financial reparations. It is widely believed by community members that this law, while it represents the fulfilment of historic justice, was also viewed as a chance by the opportunistic at heart. Thus, many link Medić’s return to the community with the restitution, believing that he came back with the intention of seeking financial gain.

A Legacy of Scandal, Violence and Corruption 

Since becoming president in October 2017, Medić began to spark controversy. In a move that clearly violated the by-laws of the community he dismissed the democratically-elected Supervisory Board, because they were asking legitimate questions, and replaced them with loyalists who ensured that his era would be an era of darkness with no oversight, accountability or transparency.

The law on restitution requires that the community delivers reports to the relevant state agencies on how the allocated reparation funds are spent, but Mr Medić systematically refused to comply with these requirements, delivering almost no reports at all.

He also presented a draft proposal for new community by-laws that would allow him to be president while publicly participating in national politics, and has even suggested he would create his own political party. In order to safeguard his dominion, he even opened up community membership to individuals of suspicious or no Jewish genealogy. All of which is against the current community by-laws.

Moreover, Medić did not refrain from scandals. Not only did he create a private firm to manage the property which was returned to the community, but he continued to manage these properties in an absolutely indiscernible manner. One of the scandals he managed to make was his attempt to evict a family of six vulnerable Roma citizens from a 26 square meters apartment with no regard to their humanitarian situation and in spite of the outcry of the community’s Rabbi and members.

Another scandal involved him writing a letter of consent for the demolition of one of the city’s two Nazi concentration camps (Topovske Šupe) so that a certain tycoon can build a shopping mall on its grounds. Not only did this move ignite the anger of the community’s members, it was also a move that Medić had absolutely no legal right or authority to do. When confronted on this matter by the Rabbi and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia, Medić attempted to create a parallel federation in order to ensure the demolition of the concentration camp. He also started a vicious and systematic defamation campaign in the community as well as the media against the Rabbi and the Federation’s president. Some even believe that he is behind a shot from an air-gun which was fired at the community’s Rabbi Isak Asiel in the summer of 2018.

Several documents and pictures have surfaced suggesting Medić’s alleged connections to several suspicious figures from the city. Also, some documents supposedly suggest some of these individuals have received unjustified payments from the community’s cashier.

The Voice of Reason – Glas Razuma

A group of concerned older members of the community came together and established a website as well as a forum they called “The Voice of Reason”, in order to expose and confront the actions of Medić’s administration. On their Youtube channel they went on to film a series of revealing videos, all of which have English subtitles. Ever since they started it, they have received hundreds of calls and expressions of support from fellow community members. In October 2018, they came up with the initiative of scheduling an extraordinary assembly with the aim of holding Medić’s administration accountable for the turmoil they have caused in the community.

Following this initiative, 77 members (above the required quorum of 50) of the community signed a request for an extraordinary assembly and delivered it to the community’s board. The board, however, refused to consider their request and did not interact with it.

The Battle for an Extraordinary Assembly

According to the community by-laws if the board of the community does not respond to such a request within 30 days, these members then have the right to organise an assembly on their own. A day before the expiration of this 30 days term, another request was presented by another group of 75 members, in a clear manoeuvre by Medić and his team to avoid being held accountable. The board then issued a statement in which they called for an extraordinary ‘electoral’ assembly to be held on the 3rd of March 2019 based on both requests but they completely ignored the order of the day suggested by the first group.

The first group then went on to rightfully organise an extraordinary assembly for the 2nd of December 2018. They were forbidden from using the community’s building to hold their assembly, so they went and rented a hall at the Faculty of Chemistry.

Medić then sent a letter to the faculty claiming that this assembly was a meeting of an opposition political group, a move that prompted the faculty to cancel the lease agreement. As these members went on to attempt to lease other venues, Medić and his mob kept following them and sabotaging their efforts. This forced them to arrange for the assembly to be held at an unannounced location, first gathering the people in the city centre then driving them using a private bus to a hotel in the city where the assembly was finally held.

Members of the Jewish Community of Belgrade voting during the extraordinary assembly on December 2nd 2018.

At last, the assembly was held with an overwhelming presence of 233 members (way beyond the required quorum of 50 members). All of these members voted to overthrow the Medić administration, as well as to appoint an interim administration of 5 members with a mandate to evaluate the state of affairs of the community and to organise – within few months – an electoral assembly in which a new president, board and supervisory board were to be elected.

Medić in Denial

Medić and his administration refused to acknowledge the results of the vote, claiming it is illegal and was not held in accordance with the community’s by-laws. This claim stands refuted by the fact that every step leading to the assembly was conducted in accordance with the strictest interpretation of the by-laws. The vote was also held in compliance with all requirements with all members being identified before being allowed to participate in the vote.

The Government Has My Back

According to countless members of the community, Medić often boasts that he is backed by the Serbian government and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

Apparently this is indeed true. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia, as is the practice, presented a request to the Ministry of Justice so they could register Dubravko Vaić, the head of the newly-elected interim administration, as the president of the community in the Registry of Churches and Religious Communities. The ministry continues to delay the processing of this request, citing a lack of documents, an absurd claim given that the complete documentation was attached to the request at the time it was presented. According to the President of the Federation, Mr Robert Sabadoš, the ministry continues to stall the procedure and prolong the process by sending letters back and forth requesting further explanations. This is particularly inexplicable given that, according to Serbian law, it is not the ministry’s job to approve the request but merely to update the records as requested.

According to the Serbian constitution, minority religious and ethnic communities are autonomous and the state has no right to meddle in their affairs. Also, according to the Law on Churches and Religious Communities, the Ministry must process the request within a deadline of 60 days from receiving the request. The same law also states that, should the ministry fail to process the request within the deadline, the request is then considered approved and processed. Thus, the ministry’s behaviour is a flagrant violation of the country’s constitution and laws in a move to buy some time for Medić and his mob to try and get out of the situation.

Mr Sabadoš added that he personally handed a letter to the country’s president Aleksandar Vučić in which he explained the situation and implored the president to ensure that the Ministry of Justice carries out its duty, but to no avail.

A Rightful Takeover and Violence

On Thursday February 28th, the elected Interim Administration peacefully took over the community’s building in the early morning hours. The move came as the deadline of 60 days was about to expire, thus the registration of the new president was considered to be legally approved. Medić and his mob were taken by surprise, and violence erupted.

During the morning hours of Thursday, Medić and Avram Izrael, also known as Deviza-Deviza (currency-currency) for allegedly exchanging currencies off the books during the 90s, as well as Pažnja-Pažnja (attention-attention) for the way in which he began his radio broadcasts during the bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999, physically assaulted a member and an employee of the community as he arrived to work. Security cameras at the entrance of the community building have caught the outrageous attack.

Medić and Izrael then left after bringing private security to guard the door, forbidding anyone from entering as well as barricading the Interim Administration inside the building. These same individuals attempted to forcibly stop me from entering the community as I arrived to enquire about the takeover, an attempt that was also caught by the security cameras.

They later moved these individuals from the community building to the synagogue, where they completely put the place under siege, allowing only few residents to go in and out.

The Sukkat Shalom Synagogue in Belgrade. Photo taken of 07/03/2019. Medić associates could be seen at the gate, holding the entire synagogue under siege.

Nazi Era Parallels and Yellow Badges

“We are under fire, members of this community were not violently denied access to this building since 1941… This time the only difference is that it’s Medić mob instead of Nazi Storm-troopers… It’s all a big war on the community, this diabolical circle goes all the way to Vesić and Andrej Vučić… They are keen on robbing us of the money of our dead, they will neither leave them to rest in peace nor us to live in quiet”, M.A a member of the community commented about the situation in reference to Mr Goran Vesić, the deputy mayor of Belgrade, and Mr Andrej Vučić, the brother of Serbia’s president. However, the allegations against Mr Goran’s and Mr Andrej’s involvement have not been proven.

Angry members of the community have pledged that should the violence continue and should the government continue to support Medić’s mob then they would protest in the streets wearing yellow badges.

Brane Popović, 72, is a retired technologist who has served in the community in various capacities for almost 50 years, including being president for 6 years from 1992 to 1998. He is now one of the elected members of the Interim Administration. I asked Brane what he thinks about the yellow badges threat and he said:

“This situation can in no way be compared to Nazi atrocities. It’s a bit of an exaggeration from community members who have been pressured by injustice and feel vulnerable and under fire. I personally would not wear a yellow badge to protest in the street and I hope it won’t come to that. As our Rabbi said to the government, if they keep pressuring the community, anger could erupt like a volcano and we will not be able to control the situation then; if the members would want to protest with yellow badges, we wouldn’t be able to control the situation”

When asked if he has anything to say to the government, Brane added:

“They must be objective and complete the registration of the new president. Medić is a nightmare that befell our community, he only cares about his personal interest, he has violated our by-laws, he has violated our dead by continuously trying to give the green light for the demolition of the concentration camp, and he has exercised mobbing, threats and violence against community members all the time. The government cannot afford to support such a man, and they should cease to do so immediately.”

Miloje Todorović, a member of the Glas Razuma (Voice of Reason) group, commented on the yellow badges threat, saying:

” They want to brand us as a political group. They want to box us in as the opposition and say ‘these are merely political activists’. However, everyone knows that we are not, we never got involved in politics and this isn’t politics. This is a religious community that demands that its constitutional right to autonomy be respected and that its new elected leadership be registered as requested.”

The government’s absurd behaviour went to even further lengths when a request by Mr Sabadoš to meet the Minister of Justice was continuously put off on the grounds that the Minister’s secretary who needs to schedule such a meeting is on sick leave!

“Same Old Anti-Semitism” 

Comments on social media, as well as in media reports, suggest that the Jews are fighting amongst each other because of money. Brane Popović said in relation to this:

“It doesn’t surprise me, it’s the same old anti-Semitic story of Jews and money. I’m a man who has given his life to the service of this community and all I want is to see that these hands of evil and corruption will be lifted from our community. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a lying fool”.

Overwhelming Support

The newly elected Interim Administration received overwhelming support from other Serbian Jewish communities. The communities of Sombor, Niš, Novi Sad, Subotica and some members of the community in Kikinda all sent letters of support.

In a letter to Serbia’s Minister of Justice dated February 17th, the World Jewish Congress demanded that the government comply with its legal obligations and ensure that Mr Dubravko Vaić is registered without any delays. The minister did not respond to this letter.

Embassy of the State of Israel: NOT ENOUGH

The Embassy of the State of Israel has failed to intervene throughout these months of turmoil.

“We all know how many Israeli businessmen are here. In fact some of them are the worst kind of Israeli businessmen, the forex, binary and scam businessmen. Medić and his connections give them guarantees,” said D.P, a member of the community.

Israeli Ambassador Alona Fisher Kamm sent a letter of support to the community calling for unity and dialogue. However, according to Mr Sabadoš, this is hardly enough:

“The role of the Israeli Embassy here is, of course, to safeguard Israeli interests and the relations between the two countries. However, we also feel that it is the embassy’s role to ensure the safety and well-being of the local Jewish community. The proactive, proper approach would be for Her Excellency to engage with the Serbian government in order for them to process the registration request. However, she chose to send a letter which is merely a declaration.”

Legal Battles

Since the takeover of the building many contracts and documents have been found suggesting very suspicious deals by the Medić mob. The Interim Administration have assigned a legal team to review all of these documents and present their recommendations on whether there is something worth taking to court.

On the other hand, a member of the community that was physically assaulted by Medić and his marionette, Avram Izrael, is pursuing charges against these two.

No Light at the End of Tunnel

With Medić attempting to gather an “extraordinary electoral assembly” on March 17th (initially scheduled for March 3rd but later postponed) and the government appearing to be clearly giving him a free pass, no light can yet be seen at the end of the tunnel. An extraordinary electoral assembly is something that absolutely does not exist in the community’s statute. Thus, the Interim Administration sent out a communiqué calling on members of the community to refrain from attending or participating in such a ludicrous convocation.

The community’s Rabbi has continuously stated that if Medić were to succeed in whatever it is that he is scheming, the Jewish community in Belgrade and Serbia as we know it would simply become a thing of the past.

In Persia we had Haman, in Serbia it is Medić. However, it is yet to be determined if there is an Esther for the Serbian Jewish community and if salvation will ever come.

About the Author
David is the president of Olam Center for the Preservation and Advancement of Jewish Values. He has a degree in Arabic language, literature and civilization and is pursuing further studies in the fields of diplomacy, international relations and journalism.
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