'Ethnic cleansing' vs. Holocaust

Seeing a similarity between events in 1930s Germany and the 1990s Balkans, many have invoked the specter of the Holocaust in justifying NATO action against Belgrade. On the whole, Jews throughout the world have instinctively accepted this comparison in kind, if not in degree. Spurred by historic memory, the major American Jewish organizations have backed NATO's bombardment of Serbian targets and empathized with Kosovar Albanians. So have most Israelis.

When Israeli planes - loaded with tents, blankets, baby formula, and an emergency medical team - landed in Albania, Israel's first ambassador to that country was on hand to comfort the refugees. A Holocaust survivor himself, he said: "I feel like I'm going back in time.... I have the impression I visit my people here."

And yet, the analogy between the "Final Solution" and the Balkans is fundamentally flawed. Jews were passive, law-abiding, staunchly patriotic citizens of Germany with no territorial designs on the country. They never imagined a political dispute with their neighbors, let alone assaulted them. That notwithstanding, the Jews were systematically targeted by the Third Reich for total liquidation as a matter of national policy. They faced not only abuse, terror, displacement, and death as a consequence of war, but programmatic annihilation in Auschwitz's crematoria. Moreover, there was no place to go, for they didn't have a country of their own.

How different is the situation in the Balkans. To be sure, the Kosovar Albanians are victims of an unconscionable and indefensible ethnic purge, but no one contends that they've been compliant, loyal Yugoslavian citizens. On the contrary, most want Kosovo to themselves and would readily expel the Serbs from the province. Their militia - the Kosovo Liberation Army - has encouraged those ambitions by torching Serbian villages and carrying out periodic executions.

Yet, unlike the Jews of the 1930s, the Kosovar Albanians already have a homeland. Neighboring Albania, ruled by their brethren, is a country where their language, religion, and culture thrive. It can be argued, of course, that they deserve a second country in addition to badly needed humanitarian aid and ongoing diplomatic intervention. But we must resist drawing false parallels between Serbs and Nazis, Albanians and Jews. What we're witnessing in the Balkans is a tragic territorial dispute between two unevenly matched tribes - not another Holocaust.

It is crucial to differentiate between Hitler's unique crime against an innocent, unarmed, homeless people and the countless ethnic conflicts around the globe. Otherwise, there will be no end to the demands made on our diplomatic, economic, and military resources.

Having committed militarily to the Kosovo crisis, it may be best for the United States to do whatever is necessary to win the war quickly and decisively. But considering other regional hot spots where ethical considerations are factored into strategic ones, it would be advisable to scale US involvement proportionately to the justice of the larger cause at hand.

Relief efforts - such as providing food, medicine, and temporary sanctuary - are always in order. Indeed, it is to the credit of the US that it takes genuine interest in others and is prepared to alleviate suffering whatever the circumstance. But the most serious levels of involvement - such as committing ground troops to a conflict - ought generally be reserved for those situations where guilt and innocence between the contending parties can be most clearly established.

And it is critical to maintain the distinction between the Holocaust and national struggles, lest people come to believe that all human conflict is a study in shades of gray - that you can never clearly determine who is right and who is wrong, what is good and what is evil.

*Bruce Ginsburg, is president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis, an organization of Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Traditional rabbis. He is also the spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere, N.Y.

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