Serb-Jewish commemoration disrupted by controversy

A Union Square ceremony honoring victims of the third largest concentration camp in Europe Friday of last week nearly erupted into a melee over the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

The San Francisco event was billed as a memorial for the 700,000-plus Jews, Serbs and Gypsies who died in the Yugoslavian concentration camp Jasenovac.

However, both event participants and protesters voiced their positions on the current war in the former Yugoslavia.

Nationalist Serbian Orthodox Bishop Amfilohije Radovic, the main speaker, used more than 15 minutes of the half-hour service to justify the Serbian cause in the ongoing Bosnian conflict.

Speaking through a translator, he evoked images of Serbian suffering, saying he had "Serbian blood on my hands from smashed heads of children."

A group of six protesters, meanwhile, silently held signs reading,"How can you condemn past genocides when you're holding the present one?" and "How much blood is on your hands Amfilohije?"

The protesters were supported by 15 Bay Area and national religious, cultural and humanitarian organizations — including the American Jewish Congress, Hillel Foundation at Stanford University and United Muslims of America.

During the service, the protesters distributed a statement calling for confronting Serb-nationalist aggressors and urging U.S. financial support of the War Crimes Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia. It also objected to Amfilohije's presence at the memorial and the "attempt to justify current Serb crimes against humanity by invoking World War II actions against Serbs."

The service took place inside a barricaded area at Union Square, where nearly100 Bay Area residents, members of the Jasenovac Remembrance Committee, the Jewish-Serbian Friendship Society of America and the Bay Area Serbian-American Community lit memorial candles and read prayers.

When some participants attempted to push demonstrators, who were gathered outside the cordoned area, Ron Radakovich of the Serbian Unity Congress called for calm.

"It is important they [protesters] stay. And we must remember why we are here,"he said. "This is a memorial service. The purpose is to remember the victims."

Participants recalled a history of good will between Jews and Serbs, citing"good working and cultural ties between Jews and Serbs until 1941," and a"kinship among massacred peoples."

A statement by the Holy Assembly of Bishops, of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade, concurred.

"In the light of past and current events, is this fiftieth year [of victory over Nazism] a year of liberation and forgiveness also for the Serbian Orthodox people?" it read. "And so the Serbian question has once again for the umpteenth time been put on the international agenda, while the Serbian nation is deprived of its rights despite a sea of bloodshed for its freedom and dignity."

But Barbara Livingston, a Jewish protester from Menlo Park, said she was more concerned about the political implications of the event than anything else.

"I'm not protesting the commemoration. I'm protesting the choice of speaker,"she said. "This bishop is so extreme. This man will make your blood curdle."

Livingston also called the bishop's statement "political."

Before the ceremony, Radakovich maintained the Serbian Unity Congress aims to "educate people about the situation in Yugoslavia," and that he personally "addresses it at every opportunity."

That's because Americans "want to see everything in black and white," he said.

"The American media and government has sided with the Muslims and Croats. But America has no respect for history. Look at the Holocaust revisionists," he said, adding, "Europeans know history, who the Serbs were, who we are.

"Even Israel won't recognize Bosnia and Croatia. The Israelis know World War II and its history."

The service was organized by the Jasenovac Remembrance Committee, a group formed in April to commemorate the more than 700,000 murdered between 1941 and1945 by the ustashe [Nazi-supported Croatian military troops] atJasenovac.

The committee is an offshoot of the Jewish-Serbian Friendship Society of America, an international organization based in Chicago. The organization's goals include "establishing diplomatic ties [between Serbia and] Israel, fighting against prejudice and racism…and correcting policies of government which are not humanist," said Los Angeles chapter president Dusica Benhgiat, a Serbian American married to an Israeli.

The Bay Area counts about 200 members in its Serbian-Jewish friendship society. None of the group's members are Jewish.