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.