The Balkan Friends of the Jews
Shay Avshalom Zavdi is AJC ACCESS Israel Director and AJC Israel Director of Media Relations
By Shay Avshalom Zavdi
Last week, I visited Albania for the first time. I was honoured to join a unique ceremony, in which my boss, Lt. Col. (res.) Avital Leibovich, the director of the American Jewish Committee in Israel, received the Scanderbeg Order knighthood, the second-highest state decree in Albania, from Albania President, H.E. Ilir Meta.
Over the years, we’ve been working closely with Albania and its embassy in Israel. The relations have been very warm. I knew that this is a result of years of cooperation between the Jews and Albanians. Although Albania was the only country in Europe to have more Jews after WWII, as the Albanians saved their Besa to guard and hide the Jews, our joint history started long before.
In the Illyrian era, around 70 CE, Jews appeared in Albania. One of the early symbols of Jewish life was found in Sarandë, south Albania. It is a mosaic of a Menorah – a tree of life. In terms of culture, a study revealed that at least 180 root words have Hebrew as their primary source. Jewish came to Albania from Italy, France and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. More than half of the population of Vlorë, the biggest town of Albania at the time, was Jewish.
In June 1990, the President of Albania at the time, President Alia, presented two US congressmen, Joseph DioGuardi and Tom Lantos, a file containing archive documents confirming the heroic deeds of the Albanian people in saving lives of Jews during World War II.
On the eve of WWII, Jews seeking shelter in Albania received permits without any obstacle. At the end of WWII, there were 1800 Jews in Albania, a very impressive number. Albanians hid Jewish families under their own names, providing them with their ethnic clothing. It didn’t matter whether they were rich or poor; whether they were shepherds or traders, whether they were intellectuals or farmers.One thread connected between all Albanians – the basic values of saving lives and acting in the most humane manner, sometimes at the risk of one’s own life.
This solid basis of a relationship set the scenery for the relations of our two countries, which formally began in 1991.In 1999, following the war in Kosovo, Israel absorbed Albanian refugees who fled from the warzone, supplying them with food, clothing, and accommodations. Additionally, Israel built a field hospital in Macedonia, and sent humanitarian aid which included food and medicine.
We are two small countries with many similarities. For one, we share the same values, of cherishing human lives, respecting peace and tolerating the other.Second, our nations are made of people who are warm, open and who strive for peace in our regions.
I was very happy to find we have allies and true friends in the Balkans. I know that the American Jewish Committee, Avital Leibovich and myself, will always be strong supporters and promoters of the relations between the countries. True friendship is worth investing in.