In an interview with European Jewish Press, Rashela Mizrahi, an important member of the Jewish community of Macedonia and the country’s first-ever Jewish government member, reported the ‘’political’’ antisemitic abuses she faced when she was fired from the cabinet last year after she appeared at a press conference with signs of the country’s previous name, Macedonia.
By Ethan Bergman
Edited by Yossi Lempkowicz
The Republic of North Macedonia, a small country located in southeast Europe, which gained independence in 1991 as one of the successor states of former Yugoslavia, is home to about 200 Jews who are maintaining ties with all Jewish communities in this region, including the ones in Belgrade, Serbia, and Thessaloniki, Greece.
The Macedonian Jewry is a small, yet active community that is experiencing a revival of interest in Jewish religious life. Most of the Jews in Greece, Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia and all ex-Yugoslavia regions are originating from Spain and Portugal. Being members of such small communities, Jews are deeply connected and interested in their roots, especially since WWII when 90% of the Jewish population in Macedonia was exterminated. Before WWII there were more than 8,500 Jews in Macedonia.
While the 50,000 Jews in neighbouring Bulgaria itself were famously spared from extermination during WWII, more than 7,000 Jews from Macedonia were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp after being transported to a transit camp by the Bulgarian pro-Nazi authorities at that time.
The Jewish community in the Balkan state has been urging the Bulgarian government to recognize Bulgaria’s role in the deportation of Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Today, mainly due to emigration and assimilation, there are only about 200 Jews remaining in the country. They have the essential role of reviving the community and built it strongly.
During the Yugoslav years, all Jewish communities were small but connected, with the hub being in Belgrade. The youth went to Jewish summer camps together and created very unique connections. However, this fell apart with the fall of Yugoslavia and small communities are surviving in ‘‘Jewish islands.’’
In June 2018, Macedonia and Greece signed the Prespa Accord whereby the Republic of Macedonia agreed to change its name to the ‘’Republic of North Macedonia,’’ a change which drew political opposition in the country.
A member of NATO, North Macedonia is hoping to join the European Union.
In an interview with European Jewish Press, Rashela Mizrahi, an important member of the Jewish community of Macedonia and the country’s first-ever Jewish government member, reported the ‘’political’’ antisemitic abuses she faced when she was fired from the cabinet after she appeared at a press conference with signs of the country’s previous name, Macedonia.
But despite this antisemitic campaign, she said her place remains in Macedonia. ‘’Running away is not an option,’’ she said wen asked if she would choose Aliyah to Israel.
Rashela was born and raised in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital. Her family roots are from Toledo, Spain. ‘’We are Sephardic Jews that arrived in this region after 1492. The first documentation that I have from my family being in today’s Macedonia is from 1510 in the city of Bitola and then they moved to Skopje. So basically, it’s an old Jewish family in Macedonia. My father used to be a president of the Jewish community for around 20 years and he was involved as honorary consul of Israel in Macedonia for 10 years. My mother was very much involved in the tracking down of properties of Jews who were deported to Treblinka. And she was also behind the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Skopje.
The Memorial s located in the so-called Jewish Quarter of Skopje, which was the center of Jewish life in this city until the deportation of the Jews. It is considered as one of the largest Holocaust Memorial in the world.
Rashela graduated in veterinary medicine. ‘’Then, I went to University of health in Canada. After a year there, I was requested to come back and become an assistant professor at the public university in Skopje. But I found myself interested in the field of andrology or male fertility. So, I decided to do my PhD in Israel, at Bar Ilan University. I moved to Israel in 2008 where I did my PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology of pathology. After I came back, I was very active in Macedonia for three years by working with the ministry of health in the cabinet of the Minister.’’
After working in the pharmaceutical industry for a while, she entered politics when she became a member of the VMRO-DPMNE, the Conservative party, which is now in the opposition. ‘’It became very confusing here for the general population and for the media that a Jew is a member of the Conservative party. I don’t know why.
‘’In January 2020, I was appointed as a technical Minister of Labor and Social Care. If I look backwards for the last 30 years, I can tell you that not one single Jew in the region was involved in politics. Not a single Jew had a public function such as in a public administration or ministry departments and the government. So I was worried that as the first Jewish person in the government, much anti-Semitism could come up.’’
As the first Jewish minister in the government, you said you witnessed antisemitic attacks from the governing party and journalists. Could you elaborate why?
‘’It started very political. Although I was not member of the Conservative party at the time, it started from day one. I personally couldn’t believe that it came from people such as my neighbors. I was raised believing that there is no antisemitism whatsoever. What I realized is that people showed interest in Judaism and they were fascinated with how we live and what we eat, what we do on a private note. As long as you are not there in public, as long as we do not hold public positions. In those moments, I felt like a weird animal in the zoo. The moment that the weird animal is loose, antisemitism bursts out there. I was allegedly connected to Israel, and the Palestinian conflict. I was called the ‘loyal Jew from the Nazi party.’ I received a lot of threats. I was asked to eat hummus from dead Jews. I was asked to put the yellow star on me. There were comments published in the media like “Treblinka was wrong”, and “we should have finished with them completely” or “it is a mistake that just some of them are still alive”.
Rashela Mizrahi deplores that there was never an official stance from the Prime Minister concerning these threats. ‘’This campaign lasted for around six weeks until my dismissal by the parliament on the ground that I stood in front of a board with the country’s old name. I was dismissed from my ministerial post. The prime reason for that was really antisemitism although my public statement was that there is no antisemitism in this country and people are not antisemitic.’’
‘’I must say that I am really scared that there are small groups of people that are clearly antisemitic and they were not challenged. The moment we had somebody standing up in a public function with a name and last name that is recognizable as a Jewish name, the whole hell got loose. I talked to them openly and I asked them why. There was no explanation, I didn’t get the answer and I never got an apology.’’
She also mentioned the fact that the current governing party, the Social Democrat Union of Macedonia (SDSM), is distorting the history of the Jews of Macedonia by refusing to acknowledge the role of Bulgaria in the deportation of the Jews in the country. ‘’If we let rewriting the history, it will come to a point where they say that Jews never lived here and never contributed to this country.’’
‘’I don’t intend to live in a country where my daughter will think that we don’t have roots here, that she will not be proud of what she is’’, she said.
But asked if she has ever thought about making Aliyah because of antisemitism, she replied: ‘’I would hate to believe that the Jews from Europe facing anti-Semitism will be forced to make Aliyah. It is a very fortunate aspect of the Jewish history that we have Israel today, but I think that the Diaspora and Israel go together and we are like two hands up one single body and we embrace each other. I don’t believe that running away should be an option. We should find a way to live together as separate as we always did. Making Aliyah because of anti-Semitism in Europe is just running away. I believe that we can do much better. We can remind people that we are just human beings and that we have a beautiful culture, music and food. Education is the key to do that discovery.’’
‘’Between 2015 and 2019, I gave a lecture once a month on national television about the Jewish holidays, Jewish traditions.This allowed me to provide information about all aspects of Judaism, its culture, So I don’t think that people don’t know anything about Judaism. They do, but what I saw is that the people born between 1980 and 1990 were generally ignorant about history because a lack of education. So general anti-Semitism that appeared and started politically came from not having a proper education in the field.’’
‘’I hate the word tolerance. The word tolerance means that I have to keep up with you until I can push you away or put you in your place. I believe in the word respect, we should not tolerate each other. We should respect each other.In every country and every region, children should be educated about the facts of what happened during WWII.’’