In Kosovo's Tiny 'Jerusalem,' a Struggle To Sustain Jewish Life in Corner of Balkans

Letter From Prizren

liam hoare

By Liam Hoare

Published July 02, 2013, issue of July 05, 2013.
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Votim Demiri led me through a warren of narrow streets and buildings with sloping red-tiled roofs to his home in this city of 178,000, set on a bend in the Prizrenska Bistrica river. In his office, Demiri, president of the Jewish community in Kosovo, proudly showed off photographs of his family meeting leaders, including Israeli President Shimon Peres. He pointed to a calendar given to him by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC has done extensive work in this breakaway former province of Serbia, from which it declared independence in 2008.

Demiri’s house — “the Jewish house,” as he referred to it — forms one point of a triangle in his neighborhood with two Islamic holy places. Later, he took me into the historic center of Prizren, situated around an old stone bridge spanning the Prizrenska Bistrica. He noted that the Sinan Pasha Mosque sits within walking distance of a Serb Orthodox Church and a Catholic school.

“This is our Jerusalem,” he said.

liam hoare

Prizren is more like Jerusalem than one might think, for better and worse. As Demiri boasts, the city 40 miles south of the capital Pristina has a polyglot of ethnicities, including Albanians of various Muslim denominations, Catholics — and a grand total of 56 Jews.

“Albanian Sunnis, Sunni Sufis, Catholics and Jews enjoy a warm sense of common municipal identity in Prizren,” said Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington.

Still, the city is no stranger to the ethnic hatreds that have ravaged the Balkans for two decades since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Although it was spared the worst of the excesses of the Kosovo War, Serb forces did systemically clear some Albanian areas of the city. Albanians drove out most of the small Serb community after winning a tentative victory in 1999, and forced almost all the rest to leave in a round of riots in 2004.

“While the town is lovely, animated and hospitable,” Schwartz said, “Albanians and Serbs do not get along there.”

It is within this uneasy admixture that virtually all of Kosovo’s Jews live. The tiny community has “not been a significant presence in public life for a long time,” Noel Malcolm, senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, explained to the Forward. The community has shrunk significantly, even from the 360 or so who survived World War II and the Holocaust.

And yet in Prizren and Kosovo as a whole, the community’s very existence is valuable because it serves as a powerful example to Europe and the world of how a Jewish minority can survive among Muslims.

They enjoy “a real history of positive coexistence and mutual acceptance in what was a predominantly Muslim society,” Malcolm said.


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