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:
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.