The Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7 and its massacre of over 1,400 sent shock waves across the globe. Among the 241 hostages taken by the terrorists to Gaza are citizens of more than 40 countries, including Serbia.
Thousands of kilometers away, the news hit Serbian Ambassador to the US Marko Djuric in a profoundly personal way. His cousin is among those who were kidnapped. As of this writing, his fate, as those of the others, remains unknown.
Djuric, who has represented Belgrade in Washington since January 2021, spent several of his formative years in Israel with his family, going to preschool and first grade in Kiryat Yam and Haifa (1990-1991); and living on Moshav Nahalal (1993-1995), where he was a third and fourth grader at the same elementary school that Moshe Dayan once attended.In an exclusive interview with the Magazine, Djuric talks movingly about his kidnapped cousin, highlights the strong historical ties between Jews and Serbs, and expresses hope that bilateral relations between Israel and Serbia will grow stronger.
Mr. Ambassador, I understand that you and your family were directly affected in a very personal way by the October 7 Hamas invasion of Israel. How so?
The horrific attack on Israel and the Jewish people that happened on Simchat Torah has global implications. Now, more than ever, the world should stand united in putting a stop to any form of violence, anywhere.
The attack on Israel is, at the same time, a very personal matter for my family. I have many relatives and dear friends in Israel. My cousin, Alon Ohel, a 23-year-old man, a dual Israeli/Serbian citizen with whom I share the same Jewish great-grandfather from Novi Sad, Serbia, on my mother’s side, was kidnapped by the terrorists on that day. Since then, together with the entire family and good people who are prepared to help, including from the Serbian and Israeli governments, we have been working 24/7 to try to get him back. Alon is a gifted young pianist with a great talent and pure soul, known widely for helping others. According to eyewitness accounts, he was trying to help his friends at the music festival, risking his life during the attack. He is also a brave man, and we believe he is doing the same – helping others – wherever he is. We miss him dearly and want him back right away.
The relations between Jews and Serbs stretch back for over 1,000 years and possibly even longer. Would you say that in some ways, your story and that of your Israeli cousin symbolize how Jewish-Serb relations are interconnected?
Alon’s great-grandfather Zeev Ashkenazi came from the city of Novi Sad. There, he was active as a member of the Hashomer Hatzair and other Jewish organizations. As a young man driven by Zionist ideals, he left Novi Sad for the Holy Land in March 1941. The rest of the family, including my grandmother Mira Schonbeger, stayed. This happened just a month before the Nazi German invasion of Yugoslavia.
Zeev came to the Holy Land and, among many thousands of people who came from Serbia, took part in the formation of the State of Israel. In addition, Serbia was a big center of the Zionist movement. The family of the father of Theodor Herzl comes from Zemun, Serbia. Zemun was also the hometown of Rabbi Judah Ben Shlomo Hai Alkalai, who is today acknowledged as a precursor of the modern Zionist movement. It is little known that the Kingdom of Serbia was the first country in the world to officially support and recognize the Balfour Declaration in 1917, thus supporting the idea of the formation of Israel more than 100 years ago.
Moreover, under the leadership of then-prime minister and our current President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia was the first European country to pass a law aimed at returning unclaimed and heirless Jewish property taken during the Holocaust, known as the Holocaust Heirless Property Law.
It is also worth noting that Serbs have 139 bearers of the Righteous Among the Nations award, which makes them by far the most represented nation in a region in which Nazi Germans and the Croatian Ustashe occupation committed unbelievable atrocities.
Serbs and Jews were both treated as subhumans and exterminated together in the hundreds of thousands at infamous Nazi and Ustashe concentration camps like Jasenovac. They also fought side by side in multiple antifascist movements in our region. Throughout history, Jews and Serbs have been interconnected.
I also firmly believe we have many good things we can and must accomplish together in the future.
How does Serbia view the Hamas massacre and Israel’s plan to destroy the terrorist organization?
The highest Serbian officials have unequivocally condemned the terrorist attack by Hamas. It is a matter of principle for Serbia. But let us not forget that for the Serbs, the Jewish people also represent a friendly, even brotherly, nation. In addition, Hamas is known in Serbia for sending terrorist “volunteers” against the Serbs during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
Since the Hamas attack, we have witnessed a surge in international support for Israel, but at the same time there has been a worrying rise in antisemitism across the globe. What do you think of this phenomenon, and to what extent is antisemitism an issue in Serbia?
We are watching with great concern the visible rise of various forms of historic revisionism and antisemitism alike. Serbia is different than many European nations in the sense that antisemitism is not only very rare but also appears exclusively as misbehavior of individuals. There is no underlying cultural bias against the Jews. On the contrary. If we can generalize, the Jews are looked upon with respect and are seen as brothers and sisters in suffering.
Serbia borders two Muslim-majority countries in the Balkans – Albania and Bosnia. Does Serbia face a threat from Islamic extremism and terrorism?
Serbia has already suffered greatly from various forms of extremism, including Islamic extremism. We are home to a small, but sprawling Muslim community, and they are well integrated into the society and treated equally.
There are regional powers and malignant actors who are constantly trying to stir Islamic fundamentalism. We are at a constant risk because their funds seem endless and their commitment lasting. Some of our neighbors, however, do not have the situation fully under control, and we are seeing a sliding into extremism in many communities. Some regional capitals are literally transformed beyond recognition, with tens of thousands of new inhabitants from the Middle East, many of whom are ideological/religious missionaries and extremists. The consequences of this will be felt in the coming decades.
Three years ago, under pressure from the United States, Israel recognized Kosovo, causing a strain in the bilateral relationship. How is the relationship between the two countries now?
Recognition of the so-called Kosovo by the government of Israel was, beyond any doubt, the most significant blow to the Serbian-Israeli relationship in 75 years. Kosovo is a sacrosanct land for the Serbs. It is not merely 13% of our sovereign territory, it is a cradle of Serbia’s statehood, spirituality, culture, and identity.
Kosovo (or Kosovo and Metohija as we call it) is recognized as a part of Serbia by the UN and 110 countries around the world, with a total population of 79.8% of humanity supporting Serbia’s position on the status of Kosovo.
In the past three years, 27 countries have revoked or frozen the recognition of Kosovo, to allow a solution through dialogue. Israel was the sole new recognizer. Bilateral relations did take a serious blow. But the relations between the Serbs and the Jews are so strong and well founded that I can proudly say that we are continuing to develop our relations in so many spheres again, and I am convinced we will continue to do so at an even greater pace. Serbia sees Israel as one of its close friends.
There is a large Jewish diaspora around the world, and Israel makes great efforts to foster strong ties with world Jewry. Do you think that Serbia, which also has a sizable diaspora of its own, can learn something from the Israeli model?
Serbs have a saying – ‘Only unity shall save the Serbs.’
However, we are one of the most diverse and heterogeneous nations on Earth. We have to quickly learn how to preserve our identity across time and space, and to master skills such as lobbying, mobilizing, and organizing our numerous communities across the globe. For example, there are 137 Serbian churches and more than a million Serbian/Americans in the US. If we are to survive and thrive, we have to learn from the best.
And the Jews are the best when it comes to facing many of these challenges. The Jewish state has also accomplished impressive results in this field, and we can definitely benefit a lot from the exchange.
In 2012, Serbia became a candidate for membership in the European Union. How are things progressing on this issue? Do you feel that the EU has been dragging its feet?
EU membership is Serbia’s strategic commitment, and we remain fully devoted to the process of European integration as we continue to implement the reform agenda in accordance with our European orientation and national interests.
Serbia has made significant progress on its reform path, particularly in the areas of economy and the rule of law, as noted in the annual reports of the European Commission.
Regrettably, I don’t think that any of the EU candidate countries are pleased with the current EU accession dynamics, especially given the fact that we have been witnessing the phenomenon of ‘enlargement fatigue’ over the last few years.
However, we remain hopeful that EU member countries will recognize Serbia’s efforts and results and that by the end of the year, we will be given the green light for the opening of Cluster 3, which our country is fully prepared for.
Iran is moving dangerously closer to obtaining nuclear weapons, even as its proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis destabilize the Middle East. What is your position regarding Tehran?
Serbia has often emphasized the importance of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue through peaceful dialogue and diplomacy, simultaneously sharing the international community’s concerns about nuclear proliferation. Being an EU aspirant, Serbia strives to align its foreign policy to the EU positions, specifically by condemning heinous activities by Hamas and designating Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization.
Serbia and Iran have many differences in culture, religion, and historical experiences, but we do appreciate Tehran’s respect for Serbia’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, as well as its stance on Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.
Serbia has seen its share of domestic turmoil over the past year, with large demonstrations against the government in Belgrade. How would you describe the current atmosphere in the country?
My country was struck by unprecedented tragedies in two consecutive days in May.
What started as protests against violence as democratic expressions of people’s grief and shock by mass murders, quickly turned into political games by certain opposition parties and their abuse of people’s emotions for political purposes. At the very first opposition’s formal request for elections, our government responded by acceding to demands for extraordinary elections, thus demonstrating its commitment to democratic principles and accountability to the people. I rest assured that the legitimacy of the current state leadership will be bolstered at the upcoming elections by a revived expression of the people’s will and trust in the policies established by our president and will be developed, followed, and executed by our government.
Israel’s embassy is in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, and not in Novi Sad, the second-largest city. But Serbia’s embassy in Israel is in Tel Aviv, even though Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. When will Serbia move its embassy to Jerusalem?
Our desire to move our embassy to Jerusalem was, unfortunately, suspended by Israel’s recognition of the so-called Kosovo in 2020. Nevertheless, we went ahead and opened a Trade Office in Jerusalem in 2021, hence reaffirming our commitment to building stronger economic and business ties with Israel.