Michael Totten

An Israeli in Kosovo

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Imagine what would happen to a handful of Jewish veterans of the Israel Defense Forces who tried to move from Tel Aviv to an Arab country to open a bistro and bar. In only a few countries could they even get through the airport without being deported or, more likely, arrested. If they were somehow able to finagle a permit from the bureaucracy and operate openly as Israelis in an Arab capital, they wouldn’t last long. Somebody would almost certainly kill them even if the state left them alone.
Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country, but it isn’t Arab. The ethnic Albanians who make up around 90 percent of the population reject out of hand the vicious war-mongering anti-Semitism that still boils in the Middle East. Israelis can open a bistro and bar in Kosovo without someone coming to get them or even harassing them. Shachar Caspi, co-owner of the Odyssea Bistro and the Odyssea Bakery, proves it.
Caspi’s bistro is in the hip, bohemian, and stylish Pejton neighborhood in the city center of Kosovo’s capital Prishtina. A huge number of café bars that look expensive but are actually cheap make up the core of the area. The hyper-local economy in Pejton is apparently based on fashionably dressed young people selling espresso and alcoholic beverages to each other. If you ever visit Prishtina, book a hotel room in that neighborhood.
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Pejton, Prishtina, Kosovo
An Israeli woman who manages the Odyssea Bakery didn’t feel like being interviewed, so she directed me to her boss Caspi at the Odyssea Bistro around the corner. “He will be more than happy to talk to you,” she said. “He will tell you anything you want to know.”
She was right. I showed up at the bistro unannounced and introduced myself. “Let’s sit at the bar,” Caspi said. The bartender served me an espresso with milk on the house.
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Espresso, Odyssea Bistro, Prishtina, Kosovo
“So how did you end up in Kosovo?” I said.
“It started in about October of 2005,” he said. “I came to work for an Israeli businessman. He has a big company that he wanted me to work for. After a year we thought there was a good potential in the food business, so I contacted a friend in Israel — he is one of my partners — and we started with a small coffee place with two local partners. But we didn’t get along too well, so we went our separate ways and we sold our part. The next thing we got another local partner and another partner from Holland who is a silent investor. And the four of us established this company. And now we have this bistro, and now we have the bakery, and another sandwich bar in the EU building. This concept is very similar to what we have back home, that is why we did it. This looks very similar to places in Tel Aviv.”
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Odyssea Bistro, Prishtina, Kosovo
“I notice that a lot of places in Prishtina remind me of Tel Aviv,” I said.
Though the aesthetic is similar, the building materials in Kosovo are of a bit lower quality than what’s available in Israel. Restaurants in Prishtina — aside from Caspi’s — are not designed to resemble those in Tel Aviv on purpose, but the resemblance is incidentally there nevertheless. (The aesthetic in Serbian restaurants and bars, meanwhile, reminded me of those in Lebanon. And, yes, that is a compliment. The Lebanese have more style than just about anyone.)
The Israeli contribution to the local food and drink scene isn’t a secret. I found Caspi’s establishment in the Bradt Guide which lists Odyssea as Israeli-owned. I knew already that Kosovo is friendlier to Israel than most countries in the world — especially compared with other Muslim-majority countries — but I was still slightly surprised to see this. It only takes one Islamist fanatic to blow up a bistro. And it would only take a small amount of the right kind of threatening pressure to drive Caspi, his business partners, and his employees out of town or at least underground. But nothing like this has happened.
“People know you are Israeli?” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course. Everybody knows we are Israelis.”
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Shachar Caspi, Prishtina, Kosovo
“Nobody cares?” I said.
“On the contrary,” he said, “people like it. They come to speak to us. They want to be in contact. Here I didn’t see anybody that was negative. On the contrary the people are very warm, very nice. They take Islam to a beautiful place. Not a violent place. When they hear I am from Israel they react very warmly.”
Lots of Kosovar Albanians confirmed what Caspi is saying.
“Kosovars used to identify with the Palestinians because we Albanians are Muslims and Christians and we saw Serbia and Israel both as usurpers of land,” a prominent Kosovar recently told journalist Stephen Schwartz. “Then we looked at a map and woke up. Israelis have a population of six million, their backs to the sea, and 300 million Arab enemies. Albanians have a total population of eight million, our backs to the sea, and 200 million Slav enemies. So why should we identify with the Arabs?”
“Israelis are okay,” said a waiter named Afrim Kostrati at a cafe named Tirana. “The conflict is not our problem. We are Muslims, but not really. We have respect for Israelis because of the U.S. I have good friends from there.”
“Albanians everywhere are aware that Jews want to help them in this conflict,” said Professor Xhabir Hamiti from the Islamic Studies Department at the University of Prishtina. “And Jews are aware and thankful to Albanians for saving their lives during the Second World War. So we have our sympathy for Israel. I don’t think the Muslims here are on the side of the Palestinians.”
When working in other countries I sometimes have to wonder if my interview subjects are only telling me what they think I want to hear. It happens sometimes, especially in the Arab world — not so much because Arabs want to be deceitful but because they want to be polite and agreeable. Caspi’s ability to work openly as a Jewish Israeli bistro owner in Kosovo, though, is strong evidence that the Kosovars I spoke to about this weren’t just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. Besides, invective against Israel and Jews is not something many Arabs feel they should have to conceal from reporters.
Jews and Israelis in Muslim-majority countries are like canaries in coal mines, as are women in Muslim-majority countries. You can tell a lot about a place by observing how each are treated. The Taliban impose an oppressive dress code on women at gunpoint, for instance, and the Hamas Charter is explicitly genocidal. It’s possible to take the radical Islamist temperature of a Muslim society simply by measuring the misogyny and anti-semitism at both the government level and among the general population. The only country in the entire Middle East that isn’t anti-semitic at the government level, the popular level, or both, is the state of Israel.
Kosovo is clearly well outside the mainstream of the Middle East. At the same time, it is one of the few countries even in Europe that isn’t at least anti-Israel, if not blatantly anti-semitic, at the government or popular level.
“We have very much in common with Israel,” entrepreneur Luan Berisha said. “In Albania and Kosovo we are in support of Israel. I would never side with the Muslim side to wipe Israel off the face of the world. 90% of Kosovo feels this way. The reason why is we sympathize a lot with the people who have suffered the same fate as us. We were Muslims even in the Second World War — stronger Muslims than we are now — but even then we protected them with our lives. Our grandfathers protected the Jews wherever they were in the region.”
Berisha is right. Albanians did shelter Jews during the Nazi occupation, more than any other people in Europe.
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Classical Ottoman-era architecture, Prizren, Kosovo
More than half survived the Nazi occupation of Kosovo because so many Albanians sheltered them from the Nazi authorities. According to Dan Michman, Chief Historian at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, there were three times as many Jews in Albania at the end of the Holocaust than at the beginning. Albanians were well-known at the time as a friendly population that could be trusted. They refused to surrender Albanian Jews, and they refused to surrender Jewish refugees from elsewhere in Europe.
The dark side of the Nazi occupation of Kosovo were the 6,000 or so ethnic Albanian collaborators who joined the so-called Skanderbeg Division of the Waffen-SS. The Germans had serious problems with them, though. Thousands deserted within the first two months, and the rest were disbanded after a mere eight months of “service.”
I met some Kosovar Albanians who were actually somewhat philo-semitic. One woman who gave me the rundown on local culture and politics showed me a book that I would never expect to see in any Muslim country other than Bosnia (though Bosnia is only 48 percent Muslim.)
It was a copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah.
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This book has an interesting history. It’s the text of the traditional Passover Haggadah and was written in 14th Century Spain. It made its way to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, possibly when Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition and were welcomed as refugees in the Balkans by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Muslim clerics saved the book from destruction during the Nazi occupation, and it was hidden in a bank vault during the Serbian Nationalist siege of Sarajevo. It is one of the most valuable books in the world.
It’s hard to describe how startling it was to see any book written in Hebrew in a Muslim-majority country. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Lebanon where something like that just would not happen. What ails the Arab world begins to seem “normal,” at least by the standards of the Islamic world, after enough constant exposure. The Kurds are startlingly different. The Albanians are startlingly different. The story behind the Sarajevo Haggadah is especially salient considering where and by whom the original was saved from destruction.
The Arab Middle East has serious cultural and political problems that deeply affect even a large number of Christians who live in the region. Muslim countries elsewhere sometimes reject these derangements entirely. It’s strange that a huge number of Christians in Syria support Hezbollah while so many Muslims in Kosovo sympathize with Israel, but that’s how it is.
I rented a car in Prishtina so I could meet up with American soldiers at Camp Bondsteel for a brief embed in Eastern Kosovo. And I laughed out loud to myself when I found a CD of Israeli music in the car stereo that the previous customer left behind.
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Israeli music left behind in rental car in Kosovo
I was obviously not in Syria, nor was I in Gaza.
“They tell me that in the Holocaust they used to keep the survivors inside of shelters,” Caspi said. “And vice versa. In 1999 the first plane that landed in Prishtina for support was an Israeli plane.”
“To support what?” I said.
“The war,” he said.
“Was it humanitarian?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “The plane was medical support and doctors and some security, and they took refugees to Israel. I know some Albanians who live to this day in Israel.”
“Muslims?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “They took them. Most of them came back here. I have talked to more than five people already that lived between 1999 and 2001 in Israel until everything was quiet here. Then they came back.”
Israel accepted Muslim refugees from Bosnia, too. And I know of at least one Bosnian Muslim from a friend in Jerusalem who was rescued from Sarajevo by Israelis and given Israeli citizenship.
“So why did Israel get involved?” I said to Caspi.
“It is like when Israel went to India when they had an earthquake.” he said. “They went to Africa when there was a disaster in Mombasa. This is what Israel does.” He sounded slightly irritated, as though I didn’t know this already. I did know this already, I just wanted to hear what he had to say about it. “They send medical assistance to places that have disasters.”
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Destroyed house, Kosovo countryside
“Arab countries wouldn’t accept help like that,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
“No,” he said. “Actually after the tsunami they wanted to send it to Indonesia and they didn’t let them because it was a Muslim country. But Israel and Kosovo have a very good relationship. The prime minister visited Israel a few months ago.”
“Why so you suppose it is different for Kosovo?” I said.
“I think that a lot of people in the world think that the war in Israel is a religious war,” he said. “I don’t think it is a religious war. I think it is totally about lands and the occupied territory, and the religion is what leaders try to take advantage to promote their own interests. Like what Yassin did with the suicide bombers and said they will go to heaven. They try to make it a religious war but it is not. It is about lands. I have a lot of friends here. And my girlfriend, she is Muslim, I am very serious about her. And to tell you honestly, most of the Israeli people are not religious people. The last time I was in Synagogue was when I was 13 years old. I had to do the Bar Mitzvah and since then I haven’t gone. If you go to Tel Aviv, 98 percent of the people are super liberal, and they will accept you if are a Palestinian, if you are Chinese, if you are Jewish. If things go well I want to bring my girlfriend back home to Israel.”
“If you are married,” I said, “would she get Israeli citizenship?”
“Here is the big problem in my opinion,” he said, “that the religion and the state are connected. You need to be Jewish to be an important citizen. But now things are changing. Now we have civil marriage in specific places that are recognized in Israel, and she can get citizenship.”
Lebanon also has issues with inter-sectarian marriages. If, say, a Christian wants to marry a Sunni they have to get married in Cyprus or another third country.
“Do you know about the Wahhabis that are coming here?” I said to Caspi. Well-heeled Gulf Arabs set up shop in Kosovo after the 1999 war to rebuild destroyed mosques and convert, so to speak, liberal and moderate Albanian Muslims to the fanatically fundamentalist Wahhabi sect out of Saudi Arabia. If anyone in Kosovo would give Caspi a hard time or worse for being Israeli, it would be someone from that crowd.
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Mosque on the outskirts of Gjlian, Kosovo
“There are people telling me that people from outside are coming here to try to make religion a bit stronger,” he said, “but I don’t have a clue.”
At least they haven’t bothered him yet.
“You don’t have any problems with those people?” I said.
“Since I came here,” he said, “nobody has shown any kind of problems against Israel. On the contrary, because everybody here loves the U.S., and they all know that Israel is like a state of the U.S. That is a good thing. Everybody knows the support that Israel gets from the U.S. You don’t need to be well-educated to know that the amount of money Israel gets from the U.S. means Israel owes them a lot. And that’s how it works. When Israelis wanted to do military business with China, they had to cancel it because the U.S. didn’t like it.”
“So you think the primary reason Kosovars like Israel is because of the United States?” I said.
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Albanian, Israeli, and American flags fly together in Gllogovc-Drenas, Kosovo, on the day Kosovo declared independence. (Photo copyright K. Dobruna.)
“No,” he said. “I think it is many things. They had good relations with the Jewish people back in the old days. If you go back 40 or 50 years you will find that there were good relations with the Jewish people, they lived here happily. Also I think it is what happened in 1999. That showed them that Israel cares and wants to help them. And the people who came back here from Israel say that it was amazing, and they are still in contact with the families in Israel. Nobody here is radical. It is a Muslim country, but I think it is a beautiful Muslim country. I think Israel is a more religious country than here.”
“Have you been to Serbia?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I was in a Jewish meeting for all of the Balkans about two years ago. I usually don’t go to these kind of meetings because I feel much more an Israeli than a Jew, but I went because I used to work for this company, and my colleague who was also Israeli and was a bit more religious wanted company. So I went to Belgrade and Novi Sad. But since then I haven’t visited. I can tell you honestly I like it better here than in Bosnia and Serbia. I don’t know why. Maybe because I am living here, and what happened, I was a part of it, I don’t know.”
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Young Albanian women, Prizren, Kosovo
Caspi’s Israeli employee at the Odyssea Bakery around the corner thought I was slightly strange for wanting to interview someone in Prishtina for no reason other than the fact that he is Israeli. Caspi, though, understood.
“I know why it is an interesting story,” he said. “An Israeli business in a Muslim country.”
“It just wouldn’t happen in the Middle East,” I said. “I don’t even think it would happen in Jordan.”
“No,” he said. “It won’t. And that’s the whole point. Religion can co-exist. For example, my girlfriend, you know, I am in love above my head. I want us to be together. I don’t think religion should… I think the opposite, I think religion should integrate.”
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