As Jews worldwide celebrated the deliverance from bondage in Egypt, a modern exodus of horrific proportions was spurring soul searching and urgent action by an array of Jewish organizations.
Jewish groups, responding to the intensifying Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the tidal wave of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing for their lives, are mobilizing to provide immediate humanitarian relief. At the same time, Jewish leaders are preparing to help with what most expect to be a crushing influx of refugees to this country — despite the administration’s promise to help them return to Kosovo.
And several Jewish legislators, citing the grim lessons of the Holocaust, have taken the lead in pressing the Clinton administration to immediately introduce NATO ground troops to halt the Serbian onslaught.
options must be on the table,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), who first warned about Serb intentions in Kosovo in 1991. “If you remove options, you play into [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic’s hands. He knows what our limits are, and he acts accordingly.”
Engel said the stunning speed and scope of the latest outburst of ethnic cleansing — the State Department reported Monday that more than 320,000 refugees had been forced from Kosovo since the NATO bombing began last week — necessitate quick and forceful U.S. action.
“We have many refugees, and we don’t know how many have been massacred, but it’s at least in the tens of thousands, perhaps more,” he said. “It’s important to consider ground troops now because in only a few days, Kosovo will be totally purged of any ethnic Albanian presence; it will be almost as if they never lived there. It’s almost like the Nazis trying to make Europe Judenrein.”
Engel said that European NATO members should play the lead role in a major effort on the ground in Kosovo. He conceded that Congress will strongly oppose escalation.
“It won’t be popular,” he said, “but sometimes you have to lead and not just do the popular thing.”
Engel also called on the administration to shift gears and demand independence for Kosovo.
“They’re still talking about some kind of half-baked autonomy, but it’s clear to me that Kosovo can never go back under Serbian rule,” he said. “Milosevic should not be rewarded; independence for Kosovo is the only long-range solution.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), who joined Engel last week in calling for ground troops, criticized the Clinton administration for its handling of the crisis.
“They just didn’t think it out properly,” he said. “They didn’t anticipate the scale of Milosevic’s reaction. And at this point, it’s a bad mistake to announce you’re not going to use ground troops. Even if that’s true, why tell the Serbs in advance? I don’t understand a lot of things they’re doing.”
Nadler called for rapid reaction forces to occupy parts of Kosovo not currently under Serbian control, creating safe havens for Albanian refugees.
This week the Clinton administration announced plans to airlift up to 20,000 refugees to undisclosed sites for protection. There were reports they would be brought to the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba pending a return to Kosovo.
But Jewish groups, worried that the Serbian onslaught was all but unstoppable, were talking this week about permanent refugee admissions. Representatives of numerous Jewish groups said they would support an emergency admission of refugees, but that they would also press the Congress and the administration to add additional refugee slots to cover the influx rather than cut other parts of the refugee program.
“Right now the situation is very fluid,” said Leonard Glickman, executive director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “In terms of resettlement, it’s too early to say what is likely to happen. At this point, humanitarian relief has to be the first priority. The hope is that people can eventually go home.”
But if they can’t, he said, “resettlement here and in Europe will have to be a doable option. We expect to have a role in that. HIAS assisted in the resettlement of Bosnians and Kurds in recent years. In this situation, we will do everything we can to help.”
The Council of Jewish Federations in November had urged the administration to increase the overall number of refugee slots.
“We anticipated the growing need in both Africa and Kosovo,” said Diana Aviv, the group’s Washington director. “One answer to today’s problem is to do what they should have done before. The refugee program is supposed to be an accordion — expanding and contracting to meet changing needs. Now is the time to expand.”
She said there is significant support in Congress for raising the refugee ceiling but that until now, the administration has balked. But the White House, still insisting that the Kosovars will be able to return, is not yet talking about permanent admissions.
A more urgent priority for Jewish groups is providing immediate assistance to refugees now clogging Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is coordinating a communitywide drive to support the humanitarian effort (see box).
“We are currently assessing the needs, and we expect to start bringing in crews of medical personnel this week to treat refugees, probably on the Albanian border,” said Steve Schwager, JDC’s associate executive vice-president.
“We expect that the Jewish community will respond in a very vigorous way,” he said. “It brings back very powerful memories of the Holocaust days. The JDC handled more than 400,000 people in the DP camps after World War II; this is a crisis of that magnitude, and our community will respond.”
B’nai B’rith also has opened a disaster relief fund for Kosovo. The money will be used initially to help Serbian Jews who fled to Budapest, said Rhonda Love, director of the Center for Community Action. But it will quickly be extended to Kosovar Albanians.
Israel, too, is responding. On Monday, the government in Jerusalem announced it was sending an army field hospital and associated personnel to assist refugees, the government reported. The hospital unit was expected to remain in the region for at least two weeks.
And this week the Jewish Agency collected tents, blankets, baby food and other items for airlift to Kosovo.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Belgrade, the bombing did not prevent the Jewish community from holding its annual seder on the first night of Passover. However, only some 160 people attended the communal meal in the center of the capital, less than half the normal number, said Aca Singer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia.
“We have other worries,” Singer said of the bombing, which as of Tuesday had not injured any members of the Jewish community or damaged any Jewish sites.
The seder, led by Rabbi Cadik Danon, the community’s retired spiritual leader, lasted about 90 minutes. “It was not so long,” Singer said. The participants were anxious to return to their homes.
Some Belgrade Jews who live near military buildings that are likely targets of NATO bombing have moved temporarily to other quarters within the capital city, in some cases having to rent new apartments.
“Jews live everywhere” in the capital, said Yechiel Bar-Chaim, the JDC’s representative for the former Yugoslavia.
While some Jewish parents in Belgrade have expressed relief that their children traveled to safety in Budapest for Passover (approximately 300 did so), some, especially older members of the community, say they “have been through worse” — the German and Allied bombings of WWII, Bar-Chaim said.
A shelter for those Jews who live near military targets has been established near the Jewish community building in Belgrade, but only a few people have moved there, Singer said.
“We are prepared for more,” he said.
Staff writer Steve Lipman contributed to this report.