The karaoke bar on a corner might not have been our first choice during the early evening, but it was one of the few places still open after midnight on a holiday weekend. We stepped inside. Beautiful and fashionably dressed young Serbian women and men sang songs in their native language with their arms around each other, empty shot glasses and crumpled packages of cigarettes before them on the tables. Except for the bartender whom we spoke to in English, no one in the establishment could tell we weren’t Serbs. The atmosphere in the bar was one of energetic and joyous camaraderie. I was happy to be there. Serbia didn’t feel remotely sinister, and I chuckled to myself as I remembered our taxi driver’s warning.
“I could live here,” Sean said. I was tempted to agree as I took a swallow of my locally brewed Serbian beer. Belgrade was my kind of place – intriguing and troubled, yet attractive, cultured, and fun…
Michael interviewed one of Belgrade’s most famous writers, Filip David. David’s opinion on local propaganda:
“There is very messy propaganda, you know. Here there is no private opinion, only public opinion. During Milosevic they said for four years that there was no alternative to war. And after Dayton, the next day, they said that peace has no alternative. Everyone changed their mind overnight. The influence of the media is very very strong. And now they say Americans are our enemies.”
“They actually use the word enemies?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “You also have some kind of stereotypes. The first is that there is an international conspiracy against Serbia, and that behind that are Americans and Jews with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
“Oh, you’re kidding,” Sean said. He spent six months in Denmark while I was in Lebanon, and he never heard that kind of thing there.
“Really,” David said. “They say Jews control America.”
Sean couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity.
“And the second,” David said, “is that all independent journalists and non-government members are traitors who are paid by the West. These two stereotypes exist now, in this moment. I am against this, you know, because I am Jewish.”
“Is that a problem for you here?” I said.
“It’s an attack on international Jews,” he said, “not Jews here, because, you know, in Serbia there are only 2,000 Jews. A lot of people who attack Jews and are anti-Semites, they have never seen in their lives any Jews. In this moment, we have over 100 anti-Semitic books. A lot of them are reprinted books that were written during the Nazi occupation of Serbia during the Second World War. They are trying to explain how it’s possible that Serbia lost all its wars. They are saying that it’s an international conspiracy. And people believe it. You know, the bombing of Belgrade. It’s true that in the American administration you have lots of Jews. But they are Americans, they act like Americans, not like Jews. I think so.”
“And the honest truth,” Sean said, “is there aren’t that many.”
“Most are Christians,” I said.
“Henry Kissinger,” David said. “Hal Holbrook, Wesley Clark.”
“Wesley Clark isn’t Jewish,” I said. “He’s Christian.”
“He’s not a Jew,” Sean said.
General Wesley Clark was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander of Europe when the U.S. went to war against Yugoslavia – which was really just a war against Serbia since what was left of Yugoslavia at the time might be better described as the Serbian Empire. (Yugoslavia was derisively described by many of its citizens as Serboslavia even long before the rise of Milosevic.) It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect many Serbs to admire Wesley Clark, but accusing him of being a Jew seemed a bit much.
“Yes,” David said, “but he was born a Jew and adopted by some family. It’s not important whether it’s true or not. People here say someone is a Jew when they don’t like him.”
David on the power of emotions, rather than facts:
Many Serbian Nationalists are fixated on the battle near Kosovo Polje when Tsar Lasar’s forces were defeated by the Turks on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389. But Kosovo was mostly Albanian then, as it is now…
..“And when you have myths,” David continued, “they are based on emotions, not on facts. Hitler has in Mein Kampf one very important sentence. He said his National Socialist movement was not based on facts, but on emotions, and that no facts can destroy it. And if you base your power on emotion, people will stay there and it will be forever.
David’s evaluation of the power of emotional thinking sums up the mess that results from judging people according to extreme nationalistic or religious tradition. You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. There is no logic in those judgments.