As frightened refugees continued to flee Kosovo, many Israelis, haunted by the Holocaust, voiced dismay Tuesday at the unfolding human tragedy and at their government’s measured response.
For several days, in sharp contrast to its wholehearted backing of U.S. strikes against Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refrained from direct support for NATO’s air war in Yugoslavia and from explicit condemnation of the republic of Serbia for its actions against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The reasons, according to government officials and historians, include the memory--still strong here--of Serbian aid to Jews during World War II and a reluctance to anger Russia, which has close ties to Serbia and is home to more than a million Jews. Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has criticized the NATO air campaign.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu toughened his comments, condemning “every mass murder carried out by the Serbs, or by anybody else,” and a spokesman at his office said that Israel supports NATO’s actions in the Balkans.
Israel also made arrangements to send a plane today loaded with $100,000 worth of medicine, blankets, tents and children’s jackets for the Kosovo refugees in Albania and Macedonia.
But the relatively mild statements issued by Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon since the crisis began have produced an anguished reaction from many Israelis, who accuse the government of trying to maintain a dangerous neutrality in the face of Serbian aggression.
In newspaper columns and on radio talk shows Tuesday, many here argued that Jews, with their history of suffering at the hands of the Nazis, should be the first to denounce attempts by any government to carry out “ethnic cleansing,” as the Serbs are accused of trying to do in Kosovo.
“The Israeli response vis-a-vis this terrible, dark and barbaric behavior of the Serbs must be very clear and very strong,” said Shevah Weiss, a Holocaust survivor, Labor Party legislator and former speaker of Israel’s parliament.
“As democrats, Jews and the victims of a genocide, we have a unique position when we talk about the moral behavior of the international community,” Weiss said. “We must speak out against every kind of massacre and genocide, and that is what this is.”
Added Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry: “This is the worst kind of ethnic cleansing in Europe since 1945. We cannot be neutral between a murderer and his victim.”
Netanyahu, who is engaged in a heated campaign for reelection, also came under sharp attack from his political opposition. Yossi Sarid, leader of the leftist Meretz Party, said Israel’s silence on the Kosovo crisis has been “deafening.”
“Israel laments when Jews get killed, but when others get killed, this wretched government has nothing to say,” Sarid said. “Sending one plane to Albania is a cynical way to cover up the shame.”
Labor Party leader Ehud Barak also urged the Israeli government to stand firmly behind the United States and Europe as the bombing campaign intensifies.
“An end should be put to this horror in Kosovo,” said Barak, who is Netanyahu’s main challenger in the May 17 national elections.
But Israelis, Weiss noted, feel a historical gratitude toward Serbs, some of whom have been credited with protecting Jews during the Holocaust and resisting the policies of the Nazis and their Croatian collaborators.
That has translated into a certain ambivalence now, he said, even as the U.S. and other Western democracies accuse the Serbs of hounding thousands of Kosovo Albanians from their homes, torching their villages and carrying out atrocities.
Israelis, Weiss said, have a “deep sympathy” toward the Serbs. “But we have to recognize that in the last five years, on the issue of Kosovo, their behavior has been the behavior of the Nazis.”