Donate to RNS

NEWS FEATURE: Kosovo’s Minute Jewish Community Roiled Over Who Speakes For It

c. 2000 Religion News Service PRISTINA, Yugoslavia _ There are two men here who claim to be working to save Kosovo’s miniscule Jewish community. They don’t get along. “He does more harm than good,” says Eli Eliezri about Myrteza Studenica. “He is not even Jewish. He is a Muslim.” Eliezri, 65, an Israeli, is the […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia _ There are two men here who claim to be working to save Kosovo’s miniscule Jewish community. They don’t get along.

“He does more harm than good,” says Eli Eliezri about Myrteza Studenica. “He is not even Jewish. He is a Muslim.”

Eliezri, 65, an Israeli, is the representative in Kosovo of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the largest Jewish humanitarian aid organization in the world with an annual budget of $200 million.

Studenica, 53, of Pristina, is the president of the Kosovar Jewish Committee, author of the self-published “2,000 Years of Albanian-Jewish Friendship” book and promoter of a $700,000 project to build a Jewish memorial complex and synagogue on the edge of this city _ where only one Jew lives.

Speaking English, one of the 12 languages he claims to command, Studenica bristles at Eliezri’s attack, denies everything and calls the Israeli “a tourist who doesn’t understand the situation here.”

The one thing both men agree on is that Kosovo has less than 50 Jews in total. According to the distribution committee’s estimates, there are 38 Albanian-speaking Jews living in Prizren, Kosovo’s second largest city. Eliezri counters that between 40 and 50 Jews live in three different cities in Kosovo.

Judging from tax records and other documents, Jews have lived in Pristina since at least the 15th century. They have been in the region for at least 2,000 years. In the Book of Acts (17:1-2) there is a reference to the not-too-distant, modern-day city of Salonika, Greece: “…they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom ….”

Studenica’s mission is to lure back the hundreds of Kosovo Jews he says are now living abroad.

“It is very important. The Jews are very smart people, economically smart people. They have a lot of good ideas for economic development,” he says.

Explaining his plan to revitalize Pristina’s Jewish community, Studenica brandishes a freshly printed plan for the construction of “Bernard Kouchner Park,” dedicated to the United Nations administrator who Studenica calls, in French, “le petit roi” _ the little king _ of Kosovo.

The park, located on 1.2 hectares of land just outside this city of 500,000, will include a synagogue, he said. Before construction can begin, however, Studenica said, the area must be cleared of mines laid by the Yugoslav Army and cluster bombs dropped by NATO planes. He hopes money for the project will come from nongovernmental organizations, the 2,000-member Kosovar Jewish Committee and Jews living in Kosovo.

Asked for contact information for members of the Kosovar Jewish Committee, Studenica says this is impossible, explaining, “They are businessmen. They say to me, `Don’t mention my name.”’

Perhaps the businessmen could speak anonymously?

“They are Masons. They don’t speak even to me. I talk to their secretaries,” Studenica answers.

According to Studenica, hundreds of Kosovar Jews are poised to return to the region to live and work now that a NATO-led force of more than 40,000 soldiers is restoring order. These are the Jews who would make use of the planned synagogue memorial park. But these people, too, are impossible to speak with.

“They don’t like to speak. They are very scared. There are hundreds of secret police,” Studenica says.

With more than 400 nongovernmental organizations working in Kosovo, Studenica may well find funding for his project. But it won’t come from Eliezri and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known as the Joint.

Eliezri, a forthright man who arrived in Kosovo shortly after NATO troops in June of last year, dismisses Studenica’s plans as ludicrous. Instead, he focuses on the Joint’s accomplishments, neatly presented in a slick, rousing CD-ROM video that he plays on his laptop computer.

Since NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign ended, the Joint rebuilt three primary schools, renovated 23 others and has set up five computer laboratories and one vocational training center. It also gave out 20,000 pairs of children’s shoes and 5,000 school bags.

For Prizren’s 38 Albanian-speaking Jews, Eliezri says the Joint organized the first Rosh Hashanah celebration since World War II and continues to provide them with economic aid.

The notion that Serbian-speaking Jews will return to Kosovo is nonsense, Eliezri says.

“It is just too dangerous. The street will not accept them,” he said in reference to scores of attacks and killings by vengeful Kosovar Albanians on Serbian speakers in Kosovo.

However, Eliezer says the Joint is committed to supporting those Jews who choose to remain.

“There won’t be a problem. There will be support for them always,” Eliezri said. “Because the Jews here are not strong and the economy is less than zero, we will continue to help them.”

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

After sharply criticizing Studenica and his ambitious plans, Eliezri took a swipe at the Jewish Agency, the Jerusalem-based, semi-governmental organization charged with facilitating Jews’ return to Israel.

“I would like them to come here but they are lazy. They are (expletive),” he said, adding that no one from the Jewish Agency has visited Kosovo since June 1999.

In a telephone interview from Jerusalem, a spokesperson for the Jewish Agency objected to Eliezri’s characterization. While acknowledging that a Jewish Agency representative has not been in Kosovo for at least a year, spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said there is a good reason for this.

“There are hardly any Jews left in Kosovo. The Jews who are there have no interest in going to Israel,” he said. “If Eliezer tells us of a family that wants to emigrate, the Jewish Agency will dispatch an emissary to Pristina to interview the people.”

DEA END BROWN