Israel and the war in the Balkans

Professor Igor Primoratz
Department of Philosophy
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

© On this web with kind permission of Dr. Primoratz


All Israeli governments since the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia have adopted a consistently pro-Serbian stand. Israeli public opinion has failed to respond to Serb atrocities in a way comparable to the response in many other countries. An important part of the explanation of this remarkable state of affairs, which puts Israel at odds with most of the western world - and the Jewish diaspora, is to be found in Israel's history. Israel was set up at the price of turning the larger part of the native Palestinian population into expellees of refugees. Its continued existence as an ethnic, Jewish state is predicated on not readmitting the exiled Palestinians. Collective repression and denial of these facts help explain the unwillingness or inability of Israeli society and its political establishment to condemn the Serbs' war of expansion and `ethnic cleansing'.

From the beginning of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia to the summer of 1995, the world community failed in its efforts to effectively stop the carnage [Rieff, 1995]. But it did alleviate the suffering of the civilian population by providing considerable humanitarian aid. And it did make clear what it thought of the conflict: it condemned Serbia's aggression against Croatia and Bosnia - Herzegovina, and the crimes of war and crimes against humanity, including genocide, that the Serbs were perpetrating in the course of the conflict. It set up an international tribunal to try those responsible for war crimes, committed for the most part by Serbs, but also by Croats and Muslims. And it imposed economic, political and cultural sanctions on Serbia, both as an expression of condemnation of Serba's crimes and as a means of pressure on the Serbs to stop their onslaught.

World Jewry too made clear where it stood: together with the rest of the world. Some of those speaking for major Jewish organizations emphasized that Jews had a special obligation to speak out. For instance, in a front-page article entitled `US Jews Call for Action against Serb Atrocities', the Jerusalem Post reported that:

American Jewish organizations are taking comparisons of reported Serbian actions to the Holocaust seriously, and have taken a public role in calling for US and international action to stop the atrocities. `As Jews, we are commanded to remember and we have a historical imperative not to remain silent when we hear words such as ethnic cleansing, cattle cars, selections, concentration camps,' said Abraham Foxman, national director of Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.[1]

This, however, does not include Israel. From the outset, Israel's stand on the Balkan conflict has been quite different from that of most of the world, including the Jewish diaspora: it has been clearly and consistently pro-Serbian.

In this essay, I describe the main aspects of the Israeli response to the war in the Balkans, and offer some suggestions towards its explanation. I argue that an important part of the explanation of this remarkable state of affairs is to be found in Israel's history: in the way Israel was established, and has been maintained since, as an ethnic, Jewish state.

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