The World War II argument

Throughout, a central theme constantly recurs. I propose to call it the World War II argument. It goes like this:

  1. The current war in ex-Yugoslavia must be understood as the direct continuation of what happened in Yugoslavia in World War II.
  2. In those years, the Croats and Muslims were on the side of the Nazis, and helped them exterminate the Jews. The Serbs, on the other hand, fought against the Nazis, and helped and protected the Jews.

This is offered both as an explanation of the current events meant to be particularly enlightening and significant for us Jews, and as the argument that decides the moral and political issues for us Jews. The Croats and Muslims were Nazis in World War II, and persecuted and exterminated the Jews. The Croats and Muslims are Nazis. Accordingly, they richly deserve whatever they are getting today, and there is no reason whatsoever for us Jews to feel any sympathy for them. The Serbs, on the other hand, were anti-Nazis, freedom fighters, and friends of the Jews. That entails a "historical obligation" on our part to understand their cause and be at their side today. The indignation, revulsion, and hostility the international community has shown in the face of Serbia's wars on its neighbours does not count here, and must not be allowed to blur our sense of the historical debt we Jews have to the Serbs. The clearest and most consistent formulation of this conclusion was given by Mr. Yosef Lapid, one of the most prominent personalities in the Israeli media: we Jews have a clear and irrevocable "historical obligation" to the Serbs to be at their side and give them all the sympathy and support we can, "no matter what they might do." [5] No matter what they might do.

This argument has been used by Serbian propaganda in its attempts to win sympathy and support of Jews in Israel and the diaspora.[6] It has been used by every activist of the Serbian lobby in this country on practically every occasion. Some Israeli politicians have made use of it. Moreover, this is the argument I have been hearing since the beginning of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and to this day from innumerable Israeli News, secular and religious, at various walks of life and educational and ethnic backgrounds, including many members of this country's intellectual elite (and that means quite a few persons perceived, by themselves and others, as being deeply concerned with the moral aspects of politics and issues of justice, equality, and human rights, and completely free of any tribalistic mentality). I have heard this from Holocaust survivors too.

Faced with this argument, one might want to ask two questions: are the historical claims true and, if so, should they decide the moral and political issue here and now? Anybody who knows anything about the history of Yugoslavia knows that the historical claims are false - or, more accurately, that they amount to a half-truth, which has rightly been called the most dangerous kind of lie. For every Yugoslav nation had both its collaborators and its partisans. In the case of Croatia, the ratio between the two was particularly asymmetrical: while the Ustashe numbered in the tens of thousands, Croat partisans numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But I want to focus on the second question. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the factual, historical part of the World War II argument is true - that practically all Croats old enough at the time to do so did opt for Nazi Germany and the puppet Ustasha state set up in Croatia, and took part in the crimes that state committed during the war, or at least supported the commission of those crimes in some way. Would the conclusion of the argument then follow from its premises?

Even after being exposed to it time and again for almost three years now, I still find the World War II argument quite extraordinary. For what it says is that the wholesale slaughter of Croat civilians and the devastation of their country taking place today is somehow justified, indeed deserved, by the misdeeds the parents and grandparents of these Croats committed half a century ago. But how? The idea does not begin to make sense - except if one adopts a certain type of moral reasoning that is alien to modern Western civilization, since it contradicts one of its basic notions: that of individual, rather than collective, responsibility. Since the "discovery of the individual" in the Renaissance and the Reformation, our civilization has held, ever more clearly and consistently, that a human being is to be understood and judged in light of his or her free choices and actions, and not on the basis of membership in some objectively defined group, a fact independent of the individual's will and conduct. Ever more clearly and consistently - but, of course, there have been setbacks. In our century, in particular, there was one world outlook that adopted the view that individual human beings, just like animals, are to be seen and judged in terms of the biologically defined groups to which they belong. That was Nazism, and the Jews of Europe were its greatest victims. Actually, without this collective, biological view of humanity and responsibility, the Holocaust becomes utterly incomprehensible.[7]

Of course, it is this same view of collective, biological responsibility that has led the supporters of Greater Serbian ideology to wage the war of devastation, genocide, and "ethnic cleansing" on Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, to engage in "ethnic cleansing" within Serbia itself, and to impose a system of apartheid on the Albanians in Kossova. And it is on account of this crucial tenet of Greater Serbian ideology and the practices it logically leads to that the Belgrade regime has been characterized by so many, including the antiwar circles in Serbia, as neo-Nazi.

What I still find quite remarkable is that today, when we are witnessing the first case of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust, there should be Jews, of all people, in the Jewish State, of all places, showing understanding, sympathy, and support for Greater Serbia, and explaining their understanding, sympathy, and support in terms of the World War II argument.

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