I had never felt like a rock star until I walked around downtown Peja with a yarmulke on last week. People on the street, and sometimes even from across the street, would come up to me and inquire if I was “Israelien”? (presumably “Israeli”?). They would then shake my hand and welcome me to Peja. When I would respond “No, I’m American,” often with a happy sense of confusion apparent on my face, I would be greeted with even wider smiles and kinder words.
To put it mildly, this contrasted with the kind of reception I’ve received as an American Jew while visiting other countries.
In this predominately Muslim city, in the predominately Muslim and “newborn” country of Kosovo, Jews are not only considered exotic and interesting but of key importance to the nation’s history. Many Kosovars cite Jewish members of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet as key to the American decision to intervene in 1999 and protect Kosovars from the possibility of ethnic cleansing. Others relate to the Jewish narrative of profound pain, followed by the birth of a state intended to protect the unique religious-national community. Still more evoke the important (if complicated) history in which a number of brave Muslims in the Balkans saved Jews during World War II. All three are a source of pride and connection for Kosovars to Jewish visitors such as myself.
More challenging than Muslim-Jewish relations in the region has been Muslim-Christian relations. Yet a concerted effort on the part of Kosovo’s government, and its partners throughout Europe, is set on creating new dynamics.