The Zagreb Synagogue and the Story of Balkan Jewry

In the process of researching a novel, Michele Levy familiarized herself with the story of Balkan Jewry, and in particular with the history of the synagogue in the Croatian capital of Zagreb:

Jews lived in the Balkans from at least the 1st century CE; waves of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews came to the area—some as traders, many to flee persecution farther west. Synagogue ruins and graves along the Adriatic coast place Jews of the late Roman empire in Croatia nearly 2,000 years ago. Evidence shows, too, that Byzantine oppression caused some Jews to relocate even farther east, to the kingdom of Bulgaria. With the Crusades [and the pursuant anti-Semitic persecutions], many Jews from northern Europe spread southeast to avoid pogroms, and from 1492 the Spanish [expulsion] spawned Sephardi migration to the Ottoman empire. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with political anti-Semitism on the rise in the Hapsburg empire, many Ashkenazi Jews again looked eastward for safety.

A radical change for Jews came in 1299, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Byzantium and launched their vast empire. While classifying Jews, along with Catholics, Roma, and Orthodox Serbs, as raya, second-class citizens, the Ottomans safeguarded their minorities. This assured Jews better treatment than they had experienced under Byzantium or in the West. With Muslims, they were exempt from the devshirme, the “child tax,” which every four or five years conscripted young Christian boys, mostly Serbs, brought them back to Istanbul, educated them, and made from them a military and bureaucratic force.

The story of Zagreb’s synagogue embodies the fate of many Balkan Jews from post-World War II to the present. Completed in 1867, the synagogue became the first important building erected in Kaptol, Zagreb’s “lower town.” Hailed as a model of Moorish revival architecture, it drew many public officials and citizens to its opening and soon became a source of civic pride.

The synagogue was destroyed during World War II, when the Croatian government sided with the Nazis, and since then local Jews have struggled to mark its former location with a memorial.

Read more at Jewish Book Council

More about: Balkan Jewry, Holocaust, Ottoman Empire, Synagogues

Iran’s Calculations and America’s Mistake

There is little doubt that if Hizballah had participated more intensively in Saturday’s attack, Israeli air defenses would have been pushed past their limits, and far more damage would have been done. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, trying to look at things from Tehran’s perspective, see this as an important sign of caution—but caution that shouldn’t be exaggerated:

Iran is well aware of the extent and capability of Israel’s air defenses. The scale of the strike was almost certainly designed to enable at least some of the attacking munitions to penetrate those defenses and cause some degree of damage. Their inability to do so was doubtless a disappointment to Tehran, but the Iranians can probably still console themselves that the attack was frightening for the Israeli people and alarming to their government. Iran probably hopes that it was unpleasant enough to give Israeli leaders pause the next time they consider an operation like the embassy strike.

Hizballah is Iran’s ace in the hole. With more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, the Lebanese militant group could overwhelm Israeli air defenses. . . . All of this reinforces the strategic assessment that Iran is not looking to escalate with Israel and is, in fact, working very hard to avoid escalation. . . . Still, Iran has crossed a Rubicon, although it may not recognize it. Iran had never struck Israel directly from its own territory before Saturday.

Byman and Pollack see here an important lesson for America:

What Saturday’s fireworks hopefully also illustrated is the danger of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. . . . The latest round of violence shows why it is important for the United States to take the lead on pushing back on Iran and its proxies and bolstering U.S. allies.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy