Exhibit that Proves the Exception to the Rule
I attended the excellent presentation at the Holocaust Museum on Jan. 29 and was impressed by the photos and film portraying the courageous acts of heroism among Muslims in occupied Albania during World War II. No other Muslim community displayed such a commitment to humanitarian aid to their Jewish neighbors.
When the question is asked why was not similar behavior encountered anywhere else in the Muslim world in that period, it is imperative to understand what made the Albanian brand of Islam so different, and the Besa tradition of hospitality and honor so wholly atypical.
Indeed it was startling to see Albanian Muslims proudly displaying their Certificates of Honor from Israel, listening to Albanian politicians boasting of their close ties with friends and colleagues in the Albanian-Israeli Friendship Association and listening to veterans among the former partisans who fought against the German and Italian occupying forces recount their exploits and members of the Communist Party singing their International hymn.
What is also worth remembering is that Albania, Turkey and Iran were the first three Muslim countries to extend diplomatic recognition to the State of Israel in 1949-50 and all three incurred the wrath of the entire Muslim world for refusing to go along with the invasion of Palestine by the armies of six Arab countries in order to crush the nascent Jewish state in May 1948. These three states were long regarded throughout the Muslim world as “renegades.” Albania’s recognition of Israel was de jure (like that of the USSR and not simply de facto as was the case with American recognition).
The Muslims of Albania have traditionally been divided into two main communities: those associated with Sunni Islam and those associated with the “deviant” Bektashi Sufis, a mystical Dervish order that arrived in Albania during the Ottoman period in the 18th and 19th centuries. This sect is to this day considered heretical by most mainstream Muslims. The Bektashis are found primarily in the lands of the south where the Tosk dialect of Albania prevails (in contrast to the Gheg variety in the North).
It is in the South that we find most of the courageous acts of Muslim aid to the Jews in World War II. In the North and especially in neighboring Bosnia where there has always been a strong Albanian minority, the record of collaboration with the Axis and even participation in a German organized SS unit (The Skanderberg Dvision) is very different.
The 21st Mountain Waffen Skanderberg Division was established by Heinrich Himmler in March 1944 and named after George Kastrioti Skanderberg, the national hero of Albanians who resisted Ottoman invasion for 25 years. Its purpose was to crush the resistance movement in Yugoslavia and promote ethnic Albanian identity and possible creation of a “Greater Albania” but it had little success as most of its conscripts were not enthusiastic about their being dragged into the conflict.
The tradition of close Albanian cooperation with their Jewish neighbors and even pro-Israel sentiments is still alive today. On a recent three-day trip in November 2011 to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and in meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha criticized unilateral efforts by the Palestinian Authority to achieve the status of a sovereign state. He stated that “Such moves do not advance a political solution. The Palestinians must understand that this is not the way. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians must pass through direct negotiations and promises of security for the two states.”
Berisha has sought to boost business ties with Israel further, encouraging investors to participate in projects such as the construction of new hydropower stations and development of joint projects in the areas of agriculture, fishing, education, tourism, information technology and energy.
Albania’s readiness in April 1949 to recognize the State of Israel, although not followed by an exchange of ambassadors, was a courageous act. It demonstrated the unwillingness, shared with Turkey and Iran (all three are non-Arab Muslim countries) not to fall prey to Muslim extremism, so common in the Arab world to promote hostility to Israel as a religious issue.
Turkey, the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, had under its national leader Kemal Attaturk completely divorced Islam from the state institutions and legal codes of the Turkish Republic and the Iranian Shah, who also recognized Israel in 1950 was a pro-Western leader who realized that economic development and progress for his people would most likely be realized if he followed the Turkish model of secularism.
The Holocaust Museum is to be commended for the Besa exhibit and adding an important and moving positive portrayal of the record of Righteous Gentiles.
Originally printed in the The Heritage- Florida Jewish News, Feb. 3, 2012.