Avital Leibovich: An Israeli in love with beautiful Albania!
Last June, I was honoured to become the first Israeli to be decorated with Albania’s second highest decoration, in the name of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg
By Avital Leibovich, Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Israel
Three years ago, a group of excited and adventurous Israelis, boarded the first ever direct commercial flight to Albania. They were not sure what to expect in unknown territory. But after visiting beautiful Albania, they returned to Israel praising the food, the nature, the easygoing atmosphere, but mostly the people.
Relations between Albania and the Jewish people did not start in 2018.
There was evidence of Jewish life in the area already in the year 70 CE. One of the early symbols of Jewish life was found in Saranda. It was a mosaic of a ‘menorah’. Even more interesting, a study conducted by P. Zheji reveals that at least 180 Albanian root words have Hebrew as their primary source.
Moving to the 15th and 16th centuries, there were a few migration waves which included Jews arriving from Italy, France and Portugal. More than half of the population of Vlora, the biggest town in Albania at that time, were Jewish.
A few centuries later Albanian archives reveal an increasing number of Jews came to Albania on the eve of World War II, seeking shelter.
The many hundreds who escaped the vicious, deadly Nazi regime, found in Albania a lot more than shelter. The Albanian people hid Jewish families in their homes, often under their own family names. They refused to reveal their place of hiding to the Nazis and treated them as if they were a part of their community.
These heroic acts show humble, yet humane, values of the Albanian people, who many times risked their own lives by saving the lives of others.
It was no wonder, therefore, that at the end of the war, the number of Jews in Albania had multiplied. Speaking to the small Albanian community in Israel, I only hear descriptions of the heartfelt gratitude to the country they were born in.
Personally, as a daughter of a Holocaust survivor, the Albanian story is especially meaningful to me and my family.
These historic events served as a solid basis for establishing formal diplomatic relations between Albania and Israel 30 years ago. These relations included the absorption of Albanian refugees who fled the war in Kosovo in 1999, in Israel, as well as an Israeli field hospital built in Macedonia and additional humanitarian aid.
Last June, I was honored to become the first Israeli to be decorated with Albania’s second highest decoration, in the name of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg. This honor, was the peak of relationship building between Israel and Albania. I have been involved in these meaningful efforts in recent years, in my capacity as the Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Israel. AJC has been a longstanding supporter of the relations between the two countries and will continue to do so in the coming years.
Albania and Israel 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 comp of people who are warm hearted, open minded, and strive for peace and stability in our regions.
As for those Israelis on the first commercial flight to Albania in 2019?
Well, – they have been returning in thousands ever since. Just like me – they were enchanted with the beauty of the country, but moreover, the charm of the Albanian people.
I am certain that the next thirty years of diplomatic relations between Albania and Israel, can and will enhance cooperation in additional ways which will benefit both our countries.