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From the period of the 12th century C.E. until the mid-18th century, Jews in Serbia were generally treated well. They were traders mainly involved in selling salt. By the end of the Turkish rule over Serbia, Jewish tradesmen were largely responsible for the trade route between the northern and southern ends of the lands ruled by the Turks.
In 1804, the Serbs waged a war against the Turks for their independence. In response to the violent revolt, many Jews moved to Zemun and created their own community there. In support of the wars of independence, Jews supplied the Serbs with weapons, and in return, Jews faced brutal attacks by the Turks.
The wars of independence lasted until 1830 when the Serbs gained the right to self-rule.
The new Serbian government was not as friendly in their relations with Jewish citizens. In fact, by 1831, the Serbs had already begun to prohibit Jews from certain professions. Prince Milosh Obrenovich tried to improve the Jewish situation, but he was overtaken by the Karageorgevich family in 1842. The new dynasty sympathized with non-Jewish merchants and, by 1845, the Serbian Jews had been prevented from participating in even the most basic of professions such as tailoring.
In 1856, Jews were expelled from provincial towns. Prince Milosh Obrenovich reclaimed his role as ruler and again Jews were hopeful of their situation. By 1860, however, Milosh's son was ruling and he followed the ways of the Karageorgevich rulers. Non-Jewish merchants were again favored and Jewish Serbs were prohibited from the mercantile industry.
The inconsistency of the laws regarding Jews continued through the end of the 19th century. In 1861, for example, a decree that called for the expulsion of sixty Jewish families was retracted after one month. In its place, a law was written to allow Jews freedom to practice professions within their own communities. At the same time that the government declared an emancipation of all Serbian citizens, it also reverted back to past discriminatory laws against Jews. The Serbian parliament did not lift its restrictions on Jewish citizens until 1889. Because of blatant Serbian anti-Semitism, the Jewish population in the area decreased each year. In 1912, 5,000 Jews remained in Serbia. Jews in the region began to give their support to the Zionist cause. Sephardic communities, in particular, were influenced by Zionist ideals.
By 1941, the Jewish population in Serbia was approximately 12,000. While there was a long tradition of anti-Semitism throughout the republic, the Nazi regime brought with them an official decree against Jews. German troops occupied the city of Belgrade and began to destroy Jewish homes, stores, and synagogues. Jews were quickly forced to register themselves with the government and registered Jews were required to wear yellow identifying stars. An organization of non-Jewish Serbs was created to help control the "Jewish Problem".
While it was at first sufficient to subject Serbian Jews to forced labor, by the end of the summer in 1941, the Nazis had sent 2,500 to a concentration camp outside Belgrade. 8,000 Jewish men who lived in and around Serbia were brought to this same concentration camp. It became clear that none of the Jews would be leaving the camp. Forty-five hundred of the prisoners were killed by gunfire between August and October of 1941.
The former Yugoslavia was liberated in 1944. Throughout the entire region, only 14,000 Jews returned. The community, however wasted no time in trying to rebuild and the Federation of Jewish Communities was quickly opened. Many of the Jewish communities throughout Yugoslavia were reclaimed.
In 1989, following the rise of Slobodon Milosevic to power, Yugoslavia's republics began to violently break apart from each other. While the entire region became embroiled in war, the Jewish communities in particular were thrown into the middle of the situation. Anti-Semitism was not blatant during the 1990s, but rather it was used as a way to win Jewish favor. All sides, particularly the Croatians and the Serbs, would accuse each other of anti-Semitism, hoping to bring Jews to their own side.
By 1992, the breakup of Yugoslavia resulted in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Macedonia all declaring independence. Serbia and Montenegro remained together and formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 2003, the Republic was renamed Serbia and Montenegro and in May 2006, a public referendum in Montenegro determined that the small area would cease its union with Serbia and declare its own independence.
The 2007 Montenegrin Statistical Yearbook listed only 12 Jews in the country, spread across nine towns, however, Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg, the deputy director of the Rabbinical Center of Europe (RCE), said that today there are as many as 1,000 Jews. Yaakov Alfandari, the leader of the Montenegro Jewish community who was born in Serbia but moved to the country 16 years ago, said its more likely that 300 Jews live in the predominantly Christian Orthodox Balkan nation, though he admitted the nucleus consists of just about a dozen. .
In 2011, Rabbi Yoel Kaplan of the RCE sent a group of yeshiva students to the country and they hosted the first official Passover seder.
“Creating a Jewish communal structure in Montenegro is a great challenge but a vital one,” said Rabbi Goldberg.
In February 2012, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Igor Lukšić, signed an agreement with Jewish community leaders to recognize the Jewish community as an official minority in the country and Judaism as the country's fourth official religion.
In August 2012, the chairmen of the European Jewish Parliament traveled to Montenegro to lobby Presidebnt Flip Vujanovic, Foreign Minister Nebojsa Kaluderovic, and other politicians to support the building of a new synagogue and Jewish community center in the capital of Podgorica.
Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
ISJM Jewish Heritage Report, Vol. II, nos 3-4
Jerusalem Post (September 7, 2012)
Jewish Telegraphic Agency report: June 23, 2005
The Jewish Encyclopedia