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MONTENEGRO: Interview - Chief Rabbi: Montenegro is Thankfully Freedom From anti-Semitism

Samir Kajosevic Podgorica BIRN January 8, 2021 06:07

Hostility to Jews has never been a state ideology in Montenegro, and so has never taken root among citizens, Luciano Mose Prelevic tells BIRN.

Courtesy of BalkanInsight [link to the website: gttps://balkaninsight.com]

di Emanuele G. - domenica 10 gennaio 2021 - 454 letture

Montenegro is one of few countries in the world where anti-Semitism does not manifest itself in public at all, the Chief Rabbi of Montenegro and Croatia, Luciano Mose Prelevic, told BIRN, stressing the community’s deep historical roots in the tiny country.

The 66-year-old rabbi, whose father was Montenegrin and mother Jewish, also serves the Jewish community of Croatia as its chief rabbi in Zagreb.

Montenegro is an unusually multi-confessional and multi-ethnic country. Of its 625,266 inhabitants, 45 per cent declared themselves Montenegrins in the last census, 28.7 per cent said they were Serbs and most of the rest declared themselves Bosniaks, Albanians or Croats.

Jews barely figure. According to the 2011 census, the Jewish community counts a mere 110 people, although the World Jewish Congress estimates 400 to 500 Jews now live in the country.

“Anti-Semitism has never become or been part of the state ideology in Montenegro, so it has never taken root among citizens,” the rabbi said. “Montenegro is among the few countries in the world where there is no public manifestation of anti-Semitism or negative attitude towards the Jewish people,” he added.

The small community, one of the youngest Jewish communities in the world, having been officially registered in July 2011, has no synagogue. The World Jewish Congress says only about 10 per cent of Jews in Montenegro are actively involved in the community.

But despite their tiny number, they are active in different fields, especially in organizing the annual “Mahar Conference”, a central meeting point for Jewish communities in the Balkan region.

The conference aims to prevent the assimilation of Jews in the region and establish closer cooperation between its Jewish communities.

In January 2012, the Jewish community and the government signed the Act on Mutual Relations whereby Judaism was recognized as the fourth official religion of Montenegro.

Prelevic said the act guarantees Jews in Montenegro full autonomy in regulating their religious and national relations to the extent that they do not conflict with the law.

“The Jewish community has an excellent relationship with state institutions. We receive a certain budget on an annual level. And, as well as recognizing Judaism as an official religion, the state has allocated land for the construction of a synagogue in the capital, Podgorica,” Prelevic explained.

The government in 2013 gave the Jewish community land on a 99-year lease to build the country’s first synagogue when the Jewish community was led by Yasha Alfandari.

The aim is to prevent the community’s assimilation The chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Montenegro, Luciano Mose Prelevic, during the conference in Budva, Montenegro.Photo:Pierre Lavi

According to the European Jewish Congress, Jews have been present in Montenegro at least since the Middle Ages, though it is not known whether they ever had their own synagogue.

Prelevic said that besides building a synagogue in Podgorica, the construction of a cultural center is also planned.

“As for other parts of Montenegro, depending on the need, time will tell,” he said.

“Our goal is to preserve our ethnic and religious affiliation in order to prevent assimilation. We need to create the conditions for Jewish values to be realized within the community,” Prelevic said.

Although his father was from Montenegro, Prelevic spent most of his life in Croatia, where the much larger Jewish community was decimated in the Holocaust.

His father was a member of Tito’s Partisan resistance movement in World War II. His mother was from the family of Mojsije Levi, a rabbi in the Croatian city of Split in the early-20th century.

Prelevic studied architecture in Split and Zagreb and worked at the Croatian oil and gas company, INA. He was at one time a water polo player for Jadran club from Split.

I can’t say much about growing up in Montenegrin society because I left Montenegro very early, at 10, and moved to Split, in Croatia. My dad was a [Yugoslav army] JNA officer. Growing up in Croatia, there were no problems,” Prelevic recalled.

After his cousin introduced him to the Jewish community in Zagreb, he became more interested in Judaism, intensified his religious life and started to learn Hebrew.

Prelevic spent ten years in the Ashkenazi Yeshiva in Israel and obtained a rabbinical diploma in 2007.

A year later he was made rabbi of the Jewish community in Zagreb –the first Croatian-born rabbi of Zagreb since rabbi Miroslav Salom Freiberger who was exterminated in Auschwitz concentration camp.

In 2013, Prelevic was named chief rabbi of Montenegro as well.

Although his father was Montenegrin and his mother Jewish, Prelevic said he never had a problem striking a balance between the two traditions.

“The problem only arose when I discovered the ‘secret’ in my middle years – that the core of Judaism is that Judaism is a religion with a narrative of a nation and not a nation with a narrative of faith. And then I was faced with a choice. And I chose Judaism, and turned to the Jewish faith,” Prelevic recalled.

The memory of Holocaust is kept alive Laying of a cornerstone for a synagogue in Podgorica, Montenegro.Photo:Jewish Community in Montenegro

According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, USHMM, the Jewish population of Montenegro before World War II numbered only about 30 people, but the number rose during the war when Jews took refuge in Montenegro from Nazi German-controlled Serbia and Croatia in former Yugoslavia.

For most of the war, Fascist Italy occupied Montenegro. But generally, the Italians did not deport Jews or confiscate Jewish property and were lax in enforcing Nazi-led racial laws.

But then Nazi Germany occupied Montenegro after Italy capitulated in September 1943. By February 1944, most of the remaining Jews in Montenegro were transferred to extermination camps in Europe.

According to USHMM, 28 of the country’s 30 or so Jews and many others who had taken refuge in Montenegro perished.

About 300 Jews who hid in the northern and coastal towns reportedly escaped deportation and survived.

The USHMM notes that in 1941, about 78,000 Jews lived in all of Yugoslavia, including at least 4,000 foreign or stateless Jews who had found refuge in the country during the 1930s.

Few Jews remained in Montenegro immediately after the war, although the number rose again with the return of some former residents who had hidden or survived the camps.

Prelevic said it is still hard for him to face the horrors of the Holocaust.

“I travel to various places of commemorations within the borders of the former Yugoslavia. That is why I am glad that there are no such things in Montenegro,” he said.

The Jewish community in Montenegro is active in educating people about Jewish life and important dates in history, but there are no Holocaust memorials or museums.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated in the Capital, Podgorica, on January 27, however, with the burning of six candles for the 6 million Jews exterminated.

The Holocaust is taught as part of the mandatory history program in the ninth grade and in the last year of high school.

Prelevic said he was worried about historical revisionism in Croatia. Recalling the “tragic fate that the Jewish community experienced in Croatia during World War II and the Holocaust committed by the

Independent State of Croatia, NDH” he said it was worrying that some forces in Croatia “want to revise history and deny the Holocaust”.

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