Three Cheers for Kosova!

"When millions of people erroneously believe that they are a nation, conduct themselves like a nation and fight like a nation – well, then they are a nation."

A Serbian is driving down the highway in the wrong direction, listening to music on the radio. Suddenly the program is interrupted by an urgent announcement: "Warning! A crazy driver on the highway is going in the wrong direction!"

"Only one?" the Serb exclaims, "All of them!"

"Wow!" the thought crossed my mind when a Serbian friend told me this joke, "How much they resemble us!"

And indeed, much as Serbs are different from Israelis, it seems that we have a lot in common. Both peoples believe that "the whole world is against us". Both are completely convinced that they are absolutely in the right, even when everybody else is telling them otherwise.

Like the Israelis, the Serbs are also immersed in their past. For them as for us, history is more important than the present. The future is a hostage of the past.

Many centuries ago, the Serbs lived in Kosovo. According to them, that patch of ground was the cradle of their nation. There, in June 1389, the defining event of their history took place: the great battle against the Ottoman Turks. The fact that the Serbs were decisively beaten does not diminish the memory. It also does not matter to them that afterwards a people of Albanian descent took root in the country. In their eyes, the people that has now been living in Kosovo for many centuries is "foreign", the country is "the patrimony of our forefathers" and "belongs to us because our religion (the Eastern Orthodox) says so." Doesn’t that sound at bit familiar?

In World War II, the feeling of solidarity between Serbs and Jews was cemented. Our heart was, of course, with the courageous partisans. The Jews who succeeded in reaching Tito’s liberated areas were saved from the Holocaust. Serbs and Jews were murdered together in the Croatian concentration camps, which were so gruesome that even SS officers shuddered when they visited them.

The death of Tito and the collapse of his regime did not put an end to the feeling of solidarity. On the contrary. Our Rightists fell in love with Slobodan Milosevic. Ariel Sharon supported him publicly. Perhaps he liked the combination of deeply-felt victimhood and merciless brutality.

All this explains the mixed feelings many Israelis have towards the declaration of independence of Kosova (as the Kosovars themselves call their country.)

I am afraid that in this matter, too, my views diverge from those of many other Israelis. My heart was with the masses of Albanian Kosovars who rejoiced and danced this week in the streets of Pristina.

They reminded me of the masses celebrating in the streets of Tel Aviv some 60 years ago, when the UN General Assembly decide to set up a Jewish state (It also decided to set up a Palestinian-Arab state, but that has been well-nigh forgotten.)

This week, people throughout the world are debating the question: do the Kosovars have the right to a state of their own – or not? International law is being analyzed, possible precedents examined, learned arguments raised pro and contra.

To me this seems irrelevant. When a population decides that it is a nation, behaves like a nation and fights like a nation – well, then it is a nation and has the right to its own nation-state.

(I once told this to Golda Meir in the Knesset. She had denied, as usual, the existence of a Palestinian nation, repeating her famous dictum that "there is no such thing". Madam Prime Minister, I answered her, perhaps you are right, and the Palestinians are quite wrong when they believe that they are a nation. But when millions of people erroneously believe that they are a nation, conduct themselves like a nation and fight like a nation – well, then they are a nation.)

That is the only test that counts. And the Kosovars have stood this test. Therefore, there is a Kosovar nation, and it has a right to a state. Long live the Republic of Kosova!

The midwife of the independent Republic of Kosova was the genocidal Milosevic. When he decided to carry out a murderous ethnic cleansing and to drive out millions of Kosovars from their country, he put an end to the right of Serbia to go on ruling Kosova. It proved again how right Thomas Jefferson was when he demanded, in the American Declaration of Independence, "a decent respect for the opinion of mankind".

Milosevic, like his admirer Sharon, had only contempt for the opinion of mankind. They were both wrong, as was Stalin when he asked contemptuously: "How many divisions has the Pope?" The establishment of the Republic of Kosova is a punishment for Milosevic, much as the establishment of Israel was a revenge on Adolf Hitler (even if it was the Palestinians who paid the price).

The conscience of mankind was outraged by the monstrous expulsion, and this time it did have divisions – or at least squadrons. The US Air Force bombed Serbia and compelled Milosevic to stop the despicable operation. The Kosovars returned to their homes, and since then independence was only a matter of time.

(Many of my friends were shocked when I supported the bombing. To their mind, everything that NATO or the Americans did was necessarily bad. I told them that I am allergic to genocide. Even if God himself decrees genocide [as, according to the Bible, he did to the Amalekites, the Canaanites and the Persians of Esther’s time], I am against it. In order to prevent genocide, I am even ready to take the devil’s side.)

The lesson of the Kosova chapter is simple: since World War II, one can no longer commit genocide without the conscience of the world being aroused and action taken to stop it. Sometimes this happens late, even shockingly late, but in the end the selected victim will stand on his feet again.

Should Israel recognize Kosovar independence?

This week I saw an interview on TV with Knesset Member Arieh Eldad of the ultra-Right. For a moment I was about to panic: it seemed as if he was supporting the independence of Kosova. But his next sentence put me at ease. He vigorously objected to recognition.

What are we coming to?! he exclaimed. If the province of Kosovo can secede from the Serbian state, what is there to prevent Galilee from seceding from the Israeli state? The majority of the Galilean population are Arab, and tomorrow they will demand an Arab-Galilean state of their own. If the Kosovars are allowed to do so, why not the Palestinians inside Israel?

The parallel is, of course, absurd. First of all, because the Arab citizens in Galilee do not dream of secession. On the contrary, they demand to be integrated in Israel. The proof: when Eldad’s ultra-Rightist colleague, Avigdor Liberman, proposed that Israel give up the areas in which the Arabs are in the majority, no Arab citizens stood up to support the idea. Obviously, they want to remain citizens of Israel – but with equal rights.

So, who can be compared to the Kosovars – the Israelis or the Palestinians? That depends on the point of view. Israelis can say: Kosova resembles Israel. It declared independence unilaterally, as we did in 1948. But the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip can argue that it is they who resemble the Kosovars and have the right to declare their independence. Indeed, one of the leaders of the PLO, Yasser Abed-Rabbo, has already said so. However, both comparisons are spurious – neither Israel nor Palestine really resembles Kosova.

But a more general question arises: when does a national minority have the right to secede and establish a nation-state of its own? If the Kosovars have this right, why not the Basques in Spain? The Corsicans in France? The Tibetans in China? The Tamils in Sri Lanka? The Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria? The Luo in Kenya? The Darfurians in Sudan?

That is a subject best left to professors of political science. Reality has its own language. No one case is the same as another. There is no international tribunal to decide, according to established standards, who has this right – and who does not. The matter is decided in practice: when a particular population is determined to achieve independence at any cost, and when it is ready to fight and sacrifice for its independence – then they have the "right" to independence.

The aspirations of a minority depend also on the attitude of the majority. A nation that is wise enough to treat its national minorities with decency and accord them real equality will succeed in keeping the state intact. Countries like Canada and Belgium understand this and endeavor to prevent the breaking up of the state. But when the dominant people mistreat the minority – as the Serbs did in Kosovo and the Russians are doing in Chechnya – they reinforce the motivation to achieve independence.

I remember a conversation I had with Helmut Kohl, then the German Kanzler, when he was visiting Israel and invited four German-speaking Israelis for a private dinner.

While the corpulent Kanzler was eating his meager meal (and protesting to no avail as he was served the tiniest of portions) we had a lively discussion about Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was then the focus of international attention. I expressed my view that there was no alternative to partitioning the country between the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosniaks (Muslims). One cannot compel two peoples to live together against their will, I said.

"We cannot set up new states!" Kohl asserted vigorously. "Borders in Europe cannot be changed! If we start with that, there will be no end. What about the German-Polish border? Or the German-Czech?"

I wanted to say that, with all due respect, this attitude is wrong. But I checked myself. After all, he was a head of government, and I only a lowly peace activist. But later, when I visited Bosnia, my conviction became even stronger. In theory, Bosnia has indeed remained "united", but in practice there are two states that hate each other’s guts. On the ground, there is hardly any contact between them. In practice there are two states, even though there is formally only one.

Now Germany itself is leading the process of changing a border in Europe. It recognizes the new Kosova.

Yugoslavia has broken up, and now even Serbia has broken up. The unity of Canada and Belgium is fragile. Kenya is breaking apart between ethnic units ("tribes"). In many place around the world, minority peoples are dreaming about new nation states of their own.

Apparently, a paradox. A small state, even a medium-sized state cannot maintain real independence in a world that is inevitably moving towards globalization. States like Germany and France are compelled to transfer large chunks of their sovereign powers to regional super-states, like the European Union. The French economy and the German army are subject to Brussels more than to Paris and Berlin. So what is the sense in creating even smaller states?

The answer lies with the power of nationalism, which is not decreasing, but rather the opposite. One hundred or two hundred years ago, Corsica could not defend itself. To be secure, it had to be part of the French kingdom. The Basque homeland could not sustain an independent economy and needed to be part of a larger economic unit, like Spain. But today, when decisions are made in Brussels, why should Corsicans and Basques not have their own states and be separate members of the EU?

That is a world-wide tendency. Separate nations do not unite in new states, but on the contrary, existing states break up into national components. Anyone who believes that Israelis and Palestinians will unite tomorrow in one state does not live in the real world. The slogan "two states for two peoples" is relevant today more than ever.

So Israel, approaching its own 60th anniversary, should recognize the Republic of Kosova and wish it well.