|Israel Resource Review
||1st June, 1999
the Israel Resource
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Journalist Pressured not to Report Jewish Dimension of Balkan War
by Michael J. Jordan
Budapest, Hungary - I'm a journalist and a Jew, but it was only recently
that I became a Jewish journalist.
Not by choice, mind you. It was thrust upon me. And larded with Jewish
guilt, no less.
Curiously enough, it all began with Kosovo conflict.
This two-month war has spawned a number of large-type headlines: the first
NATO attack on a sovereign state; the first mass exodus of refugees in
Europe since the Holocaust; and the first post-Cold War standoff between
Russia and America.
But far from front pages is a story that is perhaps only of interest to
Jewish audiences - the possible demise of two more Jewish communities in
As bombs rain down on Yugoslavia, Serb forces continue to kill, loot and
expel ethnic Albanians from their homes. The refugees pour over the border
into Macedonia (among other places) and threaten to tip the country's own
delicate ethnic balance.
All the instability has Jews in both states considering flight to safer
Sounds pretty straightforward, no? Who wouldn't want to get the heck out -
especially if you had the connections to do so?
Now here's the rub. Despite traditionally friendly relations with their
countrymen, these Jews fear their exodus may be denounced by their
neighbors as a "betrayal" of the nation. That would unleash anti-Semitism,
which would further discourage these Jews from ever returning home.
In reporting on their fate for the NY-based Jewish Telegraphic Agency
(JTA), I have been torn by the following issue: present "the facts" and
"the truth" of their plight, or assume a partisan role that feels, to me,
like something bordering on complicity.
Is my first obligation to you, the reader, or to the safety of these small,
nervous Jewish communities? For in this case, the two objectives are
incompatible, even diametrically opposed.
My father, of course, had some wisdom to share. Quoting my deceased
grandmother, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, he emailed me: "Do nothing
that might harm a single hair on any Jew's head."
So, journalistic credos be damned!
But as a committed, career journalist, the choice isn't so clear-cut. For
five years I've been a freelancer based in Budapest, writing mostly for,
among others, JTA and the Christian Science Monitor. (Quite a tandem,
But the events of March 24 shattered my illusion of neutral observation -
environmental conditioning notwithstanding. On that day, NATO launched
airstrikes against Yugoslavia. In turn, Serbs accelerated their ethnic
cleansing of Albanians from the southern province of Kosovo.
And within hours, busloads of Yugoslav Jews were on the road to Budapest,
250 miles north. They'd been invited by the Hungarian Jewish community, a
plan that was kept hush-hush. I only learned of it days later, after JTA,
informed by other sources, ran a short bulletin on its newswire.
Now JTA wanted me to follow up with a feature story.
On Monday morning, March 29, I walked to the local Jewish community center,
a couple blocks away from my apartment in downtown Budapest. Overnight, the
airy, newly renovated center had been transformed into a hostel. And
instead of its normal quiet - until dozens of Holocaust survivors stroll in
for their afternoon card games - the place was bustling with 150 or so
Jewish youth and older women, speaking Serbo-Croatian.
The din didn't last long.
When the crowd saw me approaching with pen and notepad, they became edgy
and suspicious. I asked to be de-briefed by the local representative of the
Joint Distribution Committee - which was offering assistance to the
newcomers - and by the Yugoslav group's appointed spokeswoman.
And soon, the stonewalling began.
After a few general details of the situation, the Joint rep, normally a
media-friendly type, suggested we wait a few hours until "we" received
clearance from headquarters in New York. Then I could go ahead with my
story. I politely informed him that, regardless, I would be writing an
article that day.
Next came the spokeswoman, who is also head of the Jewish women's
organization back in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. From the outset, she
insisted that her contingent not be referred to (and consequently
stigmatized) as "refugees." They were, she said, officially "tourists," and
wished to be described as such. (Later, a second Joint official suggested I
refer to them with the awkward phrase "bombing escapees.")
I wondered aloud about the definition of refugee: one who seeks refuge, no?
And this group certainly fit the bill - here they were, welcome and safe in
serene Budapest; meanwhile, back home, family and friends were tormented
each night by air-raid sirens and bone-rattling bombs.
I told the spokeswoman that frankly, I'd have trouble playing along with
the "tourist" euphemism. But her reasoning was clear: Nationalists could
easily twist and sensationalize the news of their departure, and portray
them as "traitors."
And that, of course, would make life more miserable for the 3,000 Jews
remaining in Yugoslavia. This, after all, is a totalitarian state where
media is so tightly controlled - and libel and slander are alien concepts.
Once you've been branded a traitor, there's little hope of defending
Still, I wondered if this woman wasn't being just a bit overly paranoid.
"They'll read what we're saying," she said, through the Yugoslav Embassy in
I scoffed: if it were in the New York Times or Washington Post, sure. But
why would any Yugoslav read JTA?
Besides, I thought, who could blame someone for leaving? Any other Yugoslav
citizen would do the same - especially if they had the cash or connections.
(Indeed, tens of thousands of Serbs are camped out in Hungary's hotels, and
Serbo-Croatian can be heard throughout Budapest's streets and cafes.)
The real reason for the spokeswoman's anxiety, then, is that Jews -
especially those in Eastern Europe - know better than anyone that in a
flash, anti-Semitism can rear its ugly head. Anytime, anywhere.
Yugoslav and Macedonian Jewry, like so many of their European counterparts,
were decimated by the Holocaust. (It must be noted, however, the deed was
not carried out by homegrown fascists).
Then came four decades of repressive Communism: the public was conditioned
to never challenge authority, or else pay a price - like unemployment,
prison or even death.
That's why the president of the Yugoslav Jewish community, himself a
Holocaust survivor, instructed this spokeswoman not to utter a single
politically oriented comment while abroad.
So the more I probed, the more nervous she became. She didn't want her name
used. Then she wanted to retract much of what she'd already told me. Soon,
a crowd formed around us; from all sides I was being pressured not to write
anything at all.
I tried to explain my predicament.
How could I act as if I had not seen these people? Their very reaction -
their fear of exposure - convinced me this was even more of a "story." How
could I conceal the fact there were Jews in the world who felt endangered?
Moreover - and from a practical, but purely competitive standpoint - I'd
just learned from someone in the crowd that the Israeli and Hungarian media
had also gotten whiff of their exodus.
Their story would get out one way or another, I told them.
Understandably, the Jews surrounding me were unsympathetic to my cause.
After all, this was their life I was writing about. And here I was, upset
about mere journalistic principles.
"As a Jew," they pleaded, "you have certain responsibilities."
They were right, of course. But I didn't like it.
Deflated, I managed a couple more half-hearted interviews (names and
identities withheld, of course) and headed home.
I still had an article to write. My thoughts raced as I outlined how I'd
word it. As soon as I got home, I fired off an elaborate email to my
editors, describing the pickle I was in. (They would later tell me to
proceed, but cautiously.)
And then I wrote. Among other points, I danced around the "refugee" vs.
"tourist" distinction; touched on their anxiety about the loyalty issue;
and went to great lengths to illustrate the Jewish community's fondness for
Yugoslavia and their desire to return home soon.
No lies, mind you. Just a case of emphasizing certain angles, downplaying
others. It was an article I could live with.
The only slip up - in the eyes of the Yugoslav Jews and Joint officials who
read it later - was to quote an unnamed young woman as saying "Milosevic is
a jerk" among her comments.
Too political, I was told later. Too dangerous.
Over the next couple of weeks, I wondered how the Jews in Macedonia were
holding up. I'd visited them a year and a half earlier, and was impressed
with how actively this small, tight-knit community - officially 190 members
- was in preserving its identity, history and traditions.
However, early on in the Kosovo crisis, JTA had reported that eight
university-age men from the community had fled to neighboring Sofia,
Bulgaria. (Not true, I was later told.) And I'd been reading in the papers
how the influx of Kosovo Albanians was exacerbating relations between the
Macedonian majority and its own large, restive population of ethnic
When I finally met Macedonia's Jews a few days later, in mid-April, it was
deja vu all over again. I'll spare you all the details, but it was more
linguistic acrobatics. I was free to ask them anything, they said, but they
wouldn't tell me everything. Again, the truth was too risky - it might rile
My meeting with community leaders was two hours of cat and mouse: I
chiseled away for nuggets of information; they responded diplomatically,
with grand but bland statements like "Jews have always shared the fate of
the Macedonians." Later, someone finally stumbled and admitted that the
Bulgarian Jews in Sofia - like the Hungarian Jews in Budapest - had offered
some sort of escape route, just in case.
Today, it seems that offer may come in handy. Most people I spoke with
during my week in Macedonia - Macedonians, Albanians, Jews and others -
predicted that their country, too, was ripe for civil war. Tomorrow,
perhaps, or in 10 years.
So that's what I wrote for JTA.
What, then, are the lessons learned from these two experiences?
I still wrestle with the moral dimensions of the question: does publishing
the truth serve the greater good? I think it does. Certainly, heeding
grandma's words, I don't want to be the cause of harm to any hair on any
But in this case, writing that everything is honky-dory within Yugoslavia
and Macedonia - for Jews or any other minority - only misleads the outside
world. And sadly, it is the outside world that will be needed to resolve
After living in Central Europe for six years, I've learned close-up about
this Jewish tendency to avoid "making waves." Yet it's a hopeless Catch-22.
A synagogue is vandalized, or a politician says something anti-Semitic.
Rather than speak up -- for fear of making it worse -- they suffer in
silence. Which means no one knows there's a problem, so it happens again.
I'd wager that if a reporter had asked the Hungarian Jews (my favorite
example, for familial reasons), how they were doing in early 1944, I'd bet
they would have responded -- on the record -- with an enthusiastic "Fine. No
Within a few months, of course, half a million were dead.
Today must be different.
Writing about the dilemma Yugoslav Jews face today - as of this writing, up
to 500 have made their way to Budapest; some are considering aliya to
Israel - has helped mobilize numerous international Jewish groups.
But more importantly, it illustrates the precarious situation confronting
all minorities in the Balkans.
These conflicts are not simply about ethnic hatred between Serbs and
Albanians, or Macedonians and Albanians. It is more the overall lack of
respect for human rights, and a general lack of democratic tradition,
culture and institutions.
Which is what spurred Western intervention in the first place - and will,
hopefully, continue to do so in the future.
The author, a New Jersey native, can be emailed at
tel/fax (+36-1) 332-1640.
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