Israel and Kosovo Should Rise Together

It is a small country, in a brutal region, whose people have faced the prospects of annihilation because of their culture and religion. While these descriptions also ring true for Israel, I am talking about Kosovo.

I first visited Kosovo in 2013 for an international interfaith conference. The country was then only five years old, and it felt somehow like I was stepping back in time to a nascent Israel. Many of Kosovo’s leaders had fought for their lives and carried with them both grim determination and hope: They must build the economy. They must establish diplomatic relationships. They must improve the education system. If they did, their people could finally thrive. If they did not, the darkest of days could return.

This sense of kinship proved to be more than just my own projection. I was met at my hotel by the entire staff, who had all lined up to greet the first rabbi they had ever known.

Later, as I walked around the city of Peja, I found that people were drawn to my Kippah. Entire groups of people followed me at points – but they were smiling, running over to shake my hand, and asking me with joy whether I was Israeli or American. (As it turned out, both would have been winning answers, given the help that each country had provided to Kosovars.)

I have returned twice since then with delegations of young Jewish professionals, thrilled by the chance to be in a place that evokes Jewish ideas and ideals. Each time, we came away feeling strangely connected to a place that is far from our home in the United States, and whose citizens are mostly progressive Muslims.

It is difficult to describe the energy and excitement that one gets in Kosovo. As a Jew, one feels connected to the people on the streets in a way somehow similar to the connection one has with Israelis while walking the streets of Tel Aviv. People are savvy, sweet, and family oriented. Most are progressive, culturally affiliated Muslims in the way that many Israelis are deeply Jewish and avowedly “secular.”

At a deeper level, Kosovars and Jews might also process grief in culturally similar ways. During my second trip, on an unexpected day trip with Kosovo’s former Economics and Finance Minister to the gravesites that dot the countryside, we stopped at the family home of a leader who had lost most of his family to genocidal violence. He told us in detail about how it came to be that there were fifty graves across the street from his home – and yet somehow maintained a lightness about him while speaking. I asked him how he could bear such suffering and still have so much life within him. After gently qualifying his response by acknowledging the unique pain that Jews have experienced, he replied that each morning he walks his grandson to the school bus – and that doing so filled him with hope. He lives for the future of his family.

Hope as a response to grief is deeply Israeli – and Kosovar. Grim determination is deeply Israeli – and Kosovar. Hospitality. Family. Friendship. Food. Language. Loyalty. Wanderlust. Storytelling. The list goes on.

This past month, the leaders of Kosovo and Israel announced their intention to normalize diplomatic relations. But they share a far deeper kinship.

Both are on similar paths in similar settings. But Israel is much father along. Its economy is dozens of times larger. It is six decades older. Its cities are bustling hubs of the information age, and its countryside is filled with high-tech agriculture.

Israel has a unique opportunity to help a kindred spirit grow and thrive – investing in it, sharing best practices, and building deep social ties. It has the chance to welcome another country out of isolation, while further building its own presence on the world’s stage. Two countries, one majority Jewish the other majority Muslim, can now rise together. It would be a blessing to the world if they did.

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.