Kosovo is a test of Israel’s moral character

In the 1990s, 10,000 Kosovo Albanians died and about one million were displaced as a result of Serbia’s aggression.


Jews and Albanians share a history of suffering and persecution. Albanian leaders have paid tribute to Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust, visiting the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem and praying before the Eternal Flame. Israel should honor the victims of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo by recognizing its independence and establishing diplomatic relations.

In the 1990s, 10,000 Kosovo Albanians died and about one million were displaced as a result of Serbia’s aggression. Targeting Albanians because of their ethnicity meets the definition of genocide in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Convention was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 to prevent what happened to the Jews of Europe from happening elsewhere.

Kosovo might not exist if not for the worldwide Jewish community, which played a critical role opposing Serbia’s insidious plan to deport ethnic Albanian population in order to change Kosovo’s demography. Appeals by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and other Jewish leaders led to NATO’s intervention in 1999, which prevented the escalation of genocide against Kosovo Albanians, liberated Kosovo from Serbia’s tyranny and put Kosovo on the path to independence.

After nearly a decade of stewardship by the UN, Kosovo declared its independence on February 17, 2008. The legality of this decision was upheld by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). To date, 111 countries have recognized Kosovo and established diplomatic relations, including the United States and 24 EU member states.

However, Israel is conspicuously absent from this list of recognizers. Israel’s recognition of Kosovo would affirm its commitment to justice and ethics in international relations. Recognition would have practical benefits, boosting peace building and reconciliation in Kosovo, Europe’s newest state that still struggles to recover from Serbia’s aggression.

The Serbian government deployed its military, police, and paramilitary forces in the 1990s. It shut democratic institutions of self-rule. Peaceful pro-democracy protesters were beaten, jailed, and killed. Serbia banned Albanian language media and education. It fired physicians and teachers. Villages were burned. Elderly, women and children were executed.

Serbia’s legacy is found in mass graves, as well as in many individual stories of suffering. The International Criminal Tribunal, modeled on the Nuremberg Trials, convicted Serbian officials of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

These convictions, however, do not go far enough. About 1,700 Kosovo Albanians are still missing. There can be no closure for the families of the disappeared until Serbia reveals their fate and hands over the mortal remains to loved ones.

Instead of contrition, Serbia has cynically launched a campaign to discourage countries from recognizing Kosovo’s independence. Working with Russia, it is even pressuring countries that have recognized Kosovo to withdraw recognition of it. Notably, the Serbia government has welcomed an “Embassy of the State of Palestine” in Belgrade.

Serbia believes its obstructionism can compel Kosovo’s return. This fiction must be dispelled; Serbia has irrevocably lost Kosovo because of Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes. Kosovo may be a small and struggling state, but it will never rejoin Serbia. To Kosovo Albanians, suggesting that Kosovo rejoin Serbia is like asking Jews who survived the Holocaust to submit to Nazi rule.

To our consternation, Serbia’s pressure campaign has effectively discouraged many states from normalizing relations with Kosovo. It has stoked fears that recognition would set a precedent for other situations, including Palestine’s separation from Israel.

The ICJ determined that the Kosovo case is “sui generis,” a legal term meaning unique. Recognition would not imply support for international recognition of Palestine, nor can it be seen as endorsing the legal separation of the Basque region from Spain or the Turkish occupation in Cyprus.

Recognition is much more than symbolic. It would also have practical benefits, galvanizing the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Israel’s recognition of Kosovo is critical to stability in Southeast Europe and reconciliation between Kosovo and Serbia.

Establishing diplomatic relations would bolster Israel’s credential as a proponent of justice. It would enhance Israel’s moral authority by making a powerful statement of solidarity with victims and oppressed people. The vow “Never Again” must not be trivialized.

Just as Israel was born from the ashes of the Holocaust, Kosovo was born from intense suffering. Establishing relations with Kosovo would affirm Israel’s moral character.

Alush Gashi is a political adviser to Kosovo’s prime minister. He served as health minister and as a member of parliament in the Assembly of Kosovo. David Phillips directs Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights. He previously served as executive director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.

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