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Denial and Repression of Antisemitism

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Jovan Byford

Chapter Four. From Repression to Denial

Responses of the Serbian Orthodox Church to Accusations of Antisemitism

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1The discussion of the role of repression in Velimirović’s rehabilitation focused primarily on material which dates back to the late 1980s and the early 1990s, and therefore to the early stages of the bishop’s return to the mainstream. At the same time, more recent examples have shown that the image of Velimirović’s supposed affliction during the Nazi occupation remains embedded in the overall discourse of remembrance. The inclusion of the theme of suffering in the short prayer (kondak) dedicated to Velimirović—which was formally endorsed by the Church on the occasion of his canonization—as well the reference to it by a protagonist of the documentary “Why People Whisper in Church” or by Deacon Ljubomir Ranković on Radio Free Europe confirmed the fact that martyrological interpretations have become an indispensable aspect of the routine of Velimirović’s celebration.

2Although the martyrdom myth was shown to provide the rhetorical means for fighting off actual or anticipated challenges to the bishop’s integrity, in the early stages of the rehabilitation, “wilful forgetting” owed much of its success to the relative absence, in public discourse, of alternative, critical interpretations of Velimirović’s personal life. In the late 1980s, state-controlled media were silently complicit in the overall nationalist project and the efforts to bring Nikolaj Velimirović back into the mainstream. Old communist critique of the bishop’s life gradually began to wane, giving the sympathetic appraisals relatively free reign. Even after the relations between the Serbian government and the Church deteriorated in the second half of 1991 (see R. Radić, 2002b; Tomanić, 2001), the efforts of Velimirović’s supporters were never officially challenged or undermined by the authorities. Only a few individuals, belonging to the country’s liberal intelligentsia, made occasional attempts to “remind” the public of the contention surrounding Velimirović’s life. In 1991, at the time of the hype surrounding Velimirović’s “return” to Serbia, Serbian Jewish author Filip David wrote an article for the independent magazine Vreme in which he condemned the bishop’s antisemitism and warned against his uncritical rehabilitation (David, 1991). The essay on Serbian populism by sociologist Nebojša Popov published in the same magazine in 1993 examined the ideology of Nikolaj Velimirović in the context of 1930s populist culture (Popov, 1993). In 1996, the magazine Republika published a lengthy and unsympathetic account of Velimirović’s religious philosophy (M. Đorđević, 1996). In the same year, the monthly bulletin published by the Union of Jewish Communities of Serbia featured an article “‘Saint’ against the Jews,” which criticized Velimirović’s antisemitism, while in the contribution to the edited volume Serbia’s Road to War, historian Radmila Radić reflected on the way in which the popularization of Nikolaj Velimirović in the late 1980s and early 1990s accompanied the rise of nationalism within the Serbian Church (“‘Svetac’ protiv Jevreja,” 1996; R. Radić, 2002b). Apart from these occasional unfavorable evaluations, critical discourse surrounding Bishop Nikolaj’s life and work was undeveloped and remained confined to liberal elite circles and publications that wielded comparatively little influence in Serbian society. It failed to threaten, in any significant way, the far more organized and widespread propagation and reinforcement of the sanitized version of Velimirović’s life.

3In the aftermath of the fall of Slobodan Milošević in October 2000, the widespread adulation of Nikolaj Velimirović became the subject of more regular criticism from Serbia’s liberal intellectuals, independent media, and civil rights organizations. This is primarily because Velimirović’s rising popularity in Serbia was linked to the increase in the public presence and political influence of nationalist elements within the Serbian Church. The emerging “new” or “post-Milošević” Serbian nationalism had a notable religious component, offering a new value system based on Orthodox religious dogma. A report published in 2003 by the Serbian office of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights concluded the following:

The downfall of Milošević marked the end of the Communist ideology. The ensuing political vacuum was filled with anti-Communism, monarchism and Orthodox religion. The Serbian Orthodox Church gained a prominent role on the political scene, and that development was wholeheartedly backed by [Vojislav Koštunica]. The Church gained a dominant position in society, which enabled it to launch a campaign for the re-traditionalisation of both spiritual and public life. The Church managed to have religion re-introduced in schools and other institutions, and it is likely to have its property reinstated and see the Theological Faculty return to the fold of Belgrade University. (Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, 2003a, p. 142)

4Another report by the Helsinki Committee claimed that in post-Milošević’s Serbia, the Church “imposed itself as the supreme moral and ideological arbiter in matters raging from the education of children to the overall cultural and civilisational values of Serbian society” (HCHRS, 2003b, p. 7). In this new role, the church was said to be promoting “almost without exception, archaic values of extreme collectivism, anti-westernism and xenophobia” in a manner “marked by a high degree of intolerance, even aggressiveness” (p. 21). These and similar evaluations of the “new Serbian nationalism” unequivocally link the “clericalisation” and “re-traditionalisation” of Serbian society to the widespread influence and popularity of Nikolaj Velimirović among the ecclesiastical and political elites (see for instance M. Đorđević, 2002). In an open letter to the public issued in October 2002, a group of Serbian intellectuals warned that the continuing promotion of Orthodoxy, nationalism, monarchism, and anti-communism as principal social values was pushing Serbia towards the “totalitarian and undemocratic” ideology of pre-World War II Serbian fascism. The signatories concluded that post-Milošević Serbian nationalism, advanced with the blessing of the Serbian Church, signified the “triumph of the provincial philosophy of Nikolaj Velimirović.”

5Velimirović’s popularity has also been linked to the resurfacing of antisemitism in Serbian public discourse. Since 2000, Serbia has witnessed the emergence of a number of extremist Christian right-wing political organizations, which propagate a mixture of political conservatism, clerical nationalism, and to varying degrees—antisemitism (see Byford, 2002, 2003). The appearance on the political horizon of the likes of Otačastveni Pokret Obraz (Patriotic Movement Dignity), Udruženje Studenata “Sveti Justin Filozof” (St. Justin the Philosopher Association of Students), and Srpski Sabor Dveri (Dveri Serbian Assembly) coincided with a noticeable increase in antisemitic incidents. In February 2001, antisemitic graffiti and stickers bearing Nazi symbols appeared on the walls of a synagogue in Belgrade. A month later, vandals desecrated the monument erected in the town of Zrenjanin in honor of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Jewish cemeteries and municipality buildings in a number of provincial towns and cities suffered similar defilement, while graffiti displaying messages such as “Death to Jews,” “Jews out,” etc. became increasingly common throughout Serbia. Personal threats to members of the country’s Jewish community also became more frequent. According to civil rights groups and other NGOs which monitor instances of ethnic hatred in Serbia, the number of threatening letters to Jewish households, attacks on Jewish-owned property, as well as physical assaults on members of the Jewish community, all increased in the Spring of 2001 (Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, 2002; Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, 2001). Although the culpability of the Christian Right in these incidents remains unproven, the representatives of Jewish communal bodies in Serbia did not see the emergence of Christian right-wing groups and the rise in antisemitism as coincidental: they cited the former—and especially the most aggressive of the new organizations, Obraz—as a notable threat to the peaceful existence of Serbia’s Jews (President of the Union of Jewish Communities of Serbia, Aca Singer, in Bjelajac, 2001). Importantly for the present discussion, the Christian Right builds its legitimacy on the back of Velimirović’s popularity. The publicity material of the aforementioned organizations is inundated with quotations from the bishop’s writings, and Velimirović is repeatedly cited as the main political and spiritual authority. Moreover, the antisemitism of which these organizations have been accused by and large takes the form of the regurgitation of Velimirović’s own lamentable views.

6The public profile of the Christian Right in Serbia is further sustained through close organizational and ideological links with the Serbian Orthodox Church. Each of the aforementioned Christian rightwing organizations operates with the blessing of at least one Orthodox bishop. Their public activities are routinely attended and endorsed by senior clergy, and in return representatives of the Right are invited to events organized by the church. This connection between the mainstream and the extreme, which is dealt with in more detail elsewhere (Byford, 2002, 2006) has contributed to the assessment that “although it declaratively opposes any extremism, the Serbian Orthodox Church glosses over the activities of its officials who generate hatred, antisemitism, and hate speech and who negatively affect the status of religious and ethnic communities [in Serbia]” (Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, 2002, p. 142).

7The mounting concerns about the impact that the uncritical heroworship of Nikolaj Velimirović has on Serbian political culture jeopardized the effectiveness of repression as the main defense mechanism for protecting the bishop’s integrity and influence. Since the year 2000, the increasingly vocal critics of Bishop Velimirović have been “reminding” the public of his controversial stance towards Jews, of his association with Dimitrije Ljotić, and the positive evaluation of Hitler which appears in his writing. What is more, dissenting voices—which now have much greater access to the media compared to the Milošević years—habitually illustrate their criticisms with direct quotes from Velimirović’s compromising writings, most frequently from Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window and the speech “Nationalism of St Sava.” As a result, in the past seven years, and especially around the time of Velimirović’s canonization—when challenges to his credibility reached their peak—damaging aspects of the bishop’s life and his literary endeavor have been rescued from oblivion and have become regular currency in discussions and debates about his reputation.

8In the new context, and in the face of the increasingly perceptible “counter-memories,” allegations and indictments against Velimirović’s credibility had to be tackled by his supporters head-on, and openly refuted, negated, and dismissed. The dynamic of repression was therefore supplemented with a complementary strategy, that of denial. The rhetoric of denial is the principal topic of this chapter and Chapter 5.

Discourse, moral accountability, and the denial of prejudice

9Discursive reformulation of repression outlined in the previous chapter emphasized that social remembering and forgetting are not impartial and disinterested activities, but performances through which particular claims are made about the nature of the past. Following Billig (1999a), it was argued that by remembering some aspects of the past and repressing others, speakers were “conducting the business of the present,” positioning themselves within a particular argumentative context. In the case of the memory of Nikolaj Velimirović, the remembrance through the martyrdom myth was said to be motivated—even if only implicitly—by the desire to vindicate the bishop amid the controversy surrounding his alleged antisemitism and pro-fascism.

10In considering the discursive aspects of repression, Billig (1999a) writes that that which is to be repressed is determined by historical and ideological conditions: “there is no guarantee that what is repressed in one historical epoch will be repressed in another… Each moment in history will produce its own restrictions” (p. 254). Thus, restrictions which Victorian morality placed on discussions concerning sexuality—and which were at the heart of so many of Freud’s patients’ troubles—have all but disappeared from our sexually liberated society. Sexual emancipation lifted the former restrictions on what can and cannot be openly discussed. At the same time, contemporary morality has imposed its own limitations. The openness with which Victorian Europeans expressed racial intolerance has been confined, if not to history, than at least to the margins of politics. Blatant racism and antisemitism have become objects of shame and criticism, banished from mainstream discourse and courteous conversation. The post-World War II political morality demands that expressions of intolerance be repressed. As Billig notes, “one might say that the topic of race today has slid into the seat vacated by sexuality. There are taboos, which restrict what can be uttered. Overt uninhibited antisemitism and racism are not to be spoken in polite company. Those who wish to criticise non-whites or Jews from the outside, must find complex, indirect and apologetic ways of doing so” (p. 259).

11Research on the language of racism conducted since the 1980s has demonstrated the existence of this powerful social norm against public display of prejudice (Augoustinos et al. 2002; Billig, 1990; van Dijk, 1984, 1987, 1992, 1993; Wodak, 1991; etc.). Van Dijk writes the following:

Negative talk about minority groups or immigrants may be heard as biased, prejudiced or racist, and as inconsistent with the general values of tolerance. This means that such discourse needs to be hedged, mitigated, excused, explained and otherwise managed in such a way that it will not “count” against the speaker or writer. Face-keeping, positive self-presentation and impression management are the usual strategies that language users have recourse to in such a situation of possible ‘loss of face’: they have to make sure that they are not misunderstood and that no unwanted inferences are made from what they say. (van Dijk, 1992, p. 115)

12In fact, so pervasive is the norm against bigotry that “the value of not being prejudiced is even shared by the Fascist writer who is at pains to deny his own prejudice but to pin the label upon liberal opponents” (Billig, 1990, p. 125).

13In his work on the rhetoric of denial of prejudice, van Dijk (1992) noted that in the context of denial, it is not just individuals whose egalitarian self-image is attended to in talk. Often the credibility of the collective—a nation, a political movement, a community, or a religion is also negotiated through discourse. This social dimension of denial, which takes the form of statements such as “we are not a racist society” or “we are not a racist nation” is particularly apparent in the discourse of elite institutions: in the media, in political discourse, and in the language of religious institutions. The rhetoric of positive national or confessional self-presentation not only enhances the positive collective self-image of a particular social group, but also facilitates individual denial through the argument that a person is not intolerant because of their membership of the non-prejudiced collective.

14In this chapter we will examine the rhetoric of social denial in the context of Serbian Orthodox culture. In responding to criticism directed at the influence of Nikolaj Velimirović in Serbian society and the allegation that his uncritical adulation has contributed to a rise in antisemitism, representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Christian Right in Serbia often invoke the self-glorifying argument that there is, and never has been, any antisemitism in Serbia, and what is more that Orthodox Christianity has always been the dominant force behind the Serbian benevolence towards Jews. As will become apparent, such generalized statements about Serbian and Orthodox tolerance help to play down the controversy surrounding the reputation of Nikolaj Velimirović and confine the problem of antisemitism in Serbia to a small number of individual extremists on the far right. Furthermore, it will be shown that by helping to generate a consensus about Serbian tolerance, social denial implicitly perpetuates the very same xenophobic and antisemitic elements of Serbian nationalist discourse that it is meant to refute. This discussion will set the scene for Chapter 5, which explores in more detail the ways in which accusations of antisemitism directed at Velimirović personally are dealt with.

15In the forthcoming sections the discussion will focus primarily on two texts. The first is the public statement issued by the synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church on February 5, 2002. The release of this page-long document was triggered by the television appearance of Father Žarko Gavrilović, the maverick right-wing Serbian priest with a history of antisemitic outbursts (see Sekelj, 1997). In a program devoted to the issue of child sexual abuse, Gavrilović alleged that incest is endemic in Jewish culture, and that “it is a well-known fact that they [Jews] marry their sisters” (full transcript of Gavrilović’s claims can be found in Đurđević, 2003, pp. 231–234). This assertion provoked a strong reaction from Jewish communal bodies and Serbia’s liberal media, all of whom called on the Serbian Orthodox Church to distance itself not just from Žarko Gavrilović and his specific claims, but also from the increasing public profile of the Christian Right. The second text is the article “Serbs and Jews,” published in the summer of 2001 in the magazine Dveri Srpske, the official organ of the Christian right-wing organization of the same name, which subsequently posted the text on its website (Dimitrijević, 2001). This lengthy piece (over 4000 words) constitutes thus far the most elaborate attempt by the organized Christian Right in Serbia to address accusations of antisemitism. It was subsequently published in the right-wing magazine Pogledi in January 2002, as well as in another “special issue” of Dveri Srpske in December 2004 (Dimitrijević, 2004). The author of this article, Vladimir Dimitrijević, is a right-wing journalist, commentator, and a regular contributor to magazines such as Dveri Srpske and Pogledi. He is also the editor of several books on the threat to Serbian Orthodoxy posed by religious sects and cults, which are inundated with allusions to an anti-Serbian and anti-Orthodox conspiracy, a ubiquitous topic in the discourse of the Serbian Christian Right (e.g., Dimitrijević, 1997, 2005, 2007).

16The detailed examination of these two texts follows the principle that the study of ideology can benefit greatly from the scrutiny of a small number of significant texts, even from a single case study. Although such analysis is often limited with regard to the generalizability of the findings, it can nonetheless help to identify aspects of ideological discourse that might have wider significance (Billig, 1990). In this instance, the issues of how representative a text is and how generalizable the findings are have been addressed by selecting two ideologically important texts that have acquired a special status in the debate about the persistence of antisemitism in Serbian Orthodox culture. Since their publication, both texts have been referred to, within the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Christian Right, as authoritative pieces that have definitively addressed the question of antisemitism. As we have seen, Dimitrijević’s text has been published three times in right-wing publications. In a contribution to the letters page of the mainstream liberal weekly magazine Vreme in 2004, one of the leaders of Dveri, Boško Obradović, responded to the “vicious libels” about the organization’s antisemitism simply by directing the readers to the article in Dveri Srpske, which he depicted as an “analytical text by the writer Vladimir Dimitrijević on the exemplary relations between Serbs and Jews throughout history” (Obradović, 2004). The Synod’s 2002 press release has also been cited as evidence that the Serbian Church has tackled the contentious issue of antisemitism. The book Bishop Nikolaj and the New Testament on the Jews by the US-based Serbian theologian Predrag Samardžić—published with the formal blessing of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2004—dismisses the criticism of the Serbian Church by alluding to the synod’s press release. Samardžić writes:

Take the view of [Aleksandar Lebl, president of the Commission for the Monitoring of Antisemitic Incidents Affiliated to the Union of Jewish Communities of Serbia]... He writes that the book Words to the Serbian People by Nikolaj [Velimirović] is antisemitic, but that the Serbian Church is not inclined towards antisemitism. On the contrary, Mr. Lebl concludes that the Serbian patriarch and the Holy Synod have always condemned hooligan incidents with antisemitic undertones. (Samardžić, 2004, p. 128)

17The way in which Samardžić brings the press release into play is noteworthy. It is invoked as evidence of the Church’s tough stance on antisemitism, but in a way that also suggests that it has been recognized as such by the leadership of Serbia’s Jews. Although rhetorically effective, this instance of “footing” (Goffman, 1979) is profoundly misleading. While welcoming the Church’s move, most reactions from the Jewish community judged the statement to be inadequate in combating rising antisemitism. In an article published in the daily Danas in July 2002 (to which Samardžić is most probably referring in the above quote), Aleksandar Lebl acknowledged the “clear and principled stance” against antisemitism in the synod’s press release, before lamenting the fact that, shortly after issuing the statement, the Church erected a monument to Nikolaj Velimirović (A. Lebl, 2002). Moreover, a year later, Lebl told a press conference that the “official stance of the Serbian Church” against antisemitism should not divert from the fact that “there are circles in the Church that are antisemitic” (“Antisemitizam ponovo u porastu,” 2003).

“Serbs have never hated the Jews”: Literal denial of antisemitism

18Within Serbian Orthodox culture, a common reaction to insinuations regarding the presence of antisemitism within its ranks is the rhetoric of what Stanley Cohen calls “literal,” “factual,” or “blatant” denial (Cohen, 2001, p. 7). The customary response to criticism is simply to deny that what is alleged is true and claim outright that there is no antisemitism among Serbs, and especially not within Orthodox Christianity. Both the Serbian nation and the Orthodox Christian culture, to which authors belong and which they claim to represent, are portrayed as collectives with an untarnished liberal tradition.

19This type of collective self-representation is apparent in the press release issued by the synod of the Serbian Church, as well as in the article in Dveri Srpske. The synod’s press release begins with the following assertion:

For centuries, the Serbian Orthodox Church taught its flock—which until recently included the whole of the Serbian people, and even other people who found themselves under her canonical jurisdiction—to love its neighbors, especially those in trouble or in anguish, who are victims of injustice and persecution. The Serbian Church remains faithful to its creed and continues to teach these values to the present day. That is why, with a clear conscience, it can be said, and demonstrated, that—thanks precisely to the beneficial spiritual influence of Orthodoxy as a faith and a way of life—the Serbian people are one of unfortunately very few European and Christian peoples who never harbored, and still do not harbor, any negative feelings or attitudes towards Jews. Serbs never took part in unchristian persecutions and inhumane pogroms of Jews, which remain an ineradicable stain on the history and the conscience of some other nations. On the contrary, because of their own suffering and victimhood, our people have always been able to feel the pain of their compatriots and fellow citizens of Jewish faith and nationality, and of the Jewish people as a whole; and to share their sorrow and pain and even to help lessen it wherever possible. (Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 2002)

20The article “Serbs and Jews” contains an equally vigorous expression of denial. Vladimir Dimitrijević states: “It is clear, clear, clear: Serbs have never hated the Jews, Serbs have never persecuted the Jews, Serbs cannot be accused of racism and Judaeophobia.” He adds: “throughout the centuries Serbs always lived in peace with their Jewish neighbors, never persecuted them for their faith, and always granted them full human and civil rights in their state” (Dimitrijević, 2004, p. 77).

21Both the synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Dimitrijević cite adherence to the Christian faith as itself ruling out the possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment among Serbs. In spite of the long history of anti-Judaism in the Christian theological tradition, from which Orthodoxy has not been immune, the statement by the leadership of the Serbian Church attributes the non-existence of antisemitism to the beneficial influence of the Church and its creed, which can be “demonstrated.” The article “Serbs and Jews” reveals in its opening statement that “an Orthodox Christian cannot hate Jews, above all because he is Orthodox” and that “in Orthodoxy there is no basis for anti-Jewish hate” (Dimitrijević, 2004, p. 74).

22The most striking feature of the claims about the absence of antisemitism in Serbia is the emphatic and categorical terms in which they are articulated. In the statement from the synod the assertion regarding the inherently tolerant nature of Serbs is expressed through the repetition of words such as never or any: Serbs are said to have “never” harbored “any” negative feelings, that there was “never” any persecution of Jews by Serbs. Dimitrijević frames the denial in absolute terms by using phrases such as “never,” “no basis,” “cannot be accused,” “always.”

23Emphatic literal denial, apparent in above examples, employs a rhetorical device identified by conversation analysts as “extreme case formulations” (Edwards, 2000; Hutchby & Wooffitt, 1998; Pomerantz, 1986). This device, which refers to “descriptions or assessments that deploy extreme expressions” such as every, all, none, always, never, absolutely, etc. (Edwards, 2000, p. 347) is a common discursive resource used for legitimizing and warranting claims in an adversarial situation (Pomerantz, 1986). Terms such as “never,” “always,” etc. enhance the authority of a description by presenting it as factual and true, purely on the grounds of its apparent certainty, pervasiveness, and widespread acceptance. Because of their insistent tone, extreme case formulations help to forestall possible counterclaims and help mount a challenge to alternative positions (also Hutchby & Wooffitt, 1998; Pomerantz, 1986; Potter, 1996).

24In the present case, extreme case formulations do not just reinforce an argument in the debate about contemporary Christian-Jewish relations in Serbia. They also provide the means by which the political controversy surrounding the issue can be dismissed—or repressed. According to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, a critical aspect of denial is its forceful and categorical expression. An emphatic “no,” “never,” etc. “protests too much, for it is a way of dismissing a question, rather than answering it.” It is a means of “dismissing a matter out of hand and closing the issue” (Billig, 1999a, p. 200). The strength of emotion evident in the denial of antisemitism suggests that any allusion to anti- Jewish prejudice within the Serbian Orthodox Church or the Christian Right is regarded as so preposterous and outlandish that it can be instantaneously dismissed as not warranting further consideration.

25A related aspect of literal denial of antisemitism is that assertions about Serbian tolerance towards Jews are accompanied by frequent allusions to “facts,” “evidence,” and “proof.” The use of empiricist discourse reflects an important feature of denial, namely the “truth-value dilemma” (Billig, 1990; Wetherell & Potter, 1992). Because definitions of prejudice, both lay and scholarly, emphasize the lack of rational judgment as the essential characteristic of the phenomenon—for example: “thinking ill of others without sufficient warrant” (Allport 1954, p. 6; see also Jones, 1972)—, the denial of prejudice is often articulated so as to present a potentially criticizable view as rational, empirical, and factual rather than as interested, biased, and irrational. The description constitutive of denial is worked up to appear as a solid and unproblematic representation of the world as it is and therefore as separate from the speaker’s potentially biased motives and intentions. The use of empiricist discourse acts as an “externalising device” (Woolgar, 1988), which draws attention away from a person’s stake or interest in making a claim and their accountability for it (Edwards, 1992; Potter, 1996).

26The references to the factual and empirically demonstrable nature of claims about Serbian tolerance are seldom backed with concrete evidence that might sustain such sweeping claims. Although denials frequently allude to relevant “evidence” and “proof,” these are, in most instances, conspicuously absent from the argument. The statement from the Serbian Orthodox Church merely states that Serbian benevolence towards Jews can be “demonstrated.” Similarly, in the interview conducted specifically for the purposes of the present study, Branimir Nešić, editor-in-chief of Dveri Srpske and leader of the Christian right-wing organizations which publishes it, claimed emphatically that “Serbs don’t have a problem with Jews, we don’t have a problem with any other nation. […] That story about antisemitism in Serbia just won’t stick, although someone might want to put it on the table. But we have so many facts and arguments to show otherwise… all this amounts merely to sticking labels.” Just like the synod of the Serbian Church, Nešić never elaborated on the relevant “facts and arguments” that might justify the extreme reference to the absence of problem with “any nation.”

27In his work on denial of prejudice, Teun van Dijk (1992) refers to instances where the factuality and veracity of a claim are assumed rather than supported as “apparent denial.” He argues that the unsubstantiated nature of the invoked “facts” actually helps to enhance and validate the speaker’s argument. The absence of corroboration presents a claim as “self-evident,” “based on common sense,” and a view that does not require verification (van Dijk, 1992, p. 105). The argument is rhetorically designed to attract support via the appeal to the power of consensus (Reeves, 1983). In the present case, apparent denial presents Serbian compassion not just as an unproblematic feature of the world, but also as a shared view, an accepted truth. In the article in Dveri srpske, Dimitrijević enhances the assumed commonsensical nature of his claim by suggesting that it is “both senseless and impossible” for an Orthodox Serb to hate Jews and appeals to the wider consensus through repetition: “it is clear, clear, clear: Serbs never hated the Jews…” (Dimitrijević, 2004, p. 77). Discursive construction of consensus regarding Serbian–Jewish relations turns denial of antisemitism into what is known as a “rhetorically self-sufficient” or “clinching” argument. By providing what is seen as a “basic cultural verity,” such arguments are treated as beyond question (Augoustinos et al., 2002). Once they are alluded to, “no more needs to be said, no further warrant need be given” (Wetherell & Potter, 1992, p. 92). In the present case, apparent denial and the construction of common sense surrounding Serbian benevolence closes down the topic of antisemitism and shifts the focus of attention onto other topics, ones that are less compromising for the writer.

28On occasions however, “facts” and “proof” that are in most instances merely alluded to are elaborated and publicized, presumably for the benefit of those not entirely versed in the nationalist common sense. Exposition of “evidence” typically reveals the propensity amongst writers to interpret history selectively and consistently with their ideological commitments. Dimitrijević (2004) for instance backs the claim about the Serbian tradition of tolerance towards Jews with the argument that “when [the leader of the first Serbian uprising against Ottoman rule which started in 1804] Karađorđe liberated Belgrade in 1806, he issued an explicit order that Jewish houses, temples, and shops must not be touched” (p. 75). Similarly, he reveals to his readers, with great pride, that Jews acquired full citizenship in Serbia following the Berlin Congress in 1878. Although presented with an air of confidence, Dimitrijević’s “evidence” of Serbian munificence consists of a sanitized version of the country’s history that conceals some important details. The author of the article in Dveri srpske does not mention for instance that during the two-year-long struggle for national independence, which preceded the “liberation of Belgrade,” Serbian rebels drove Jewish communities out of provincial towns and cities. Presumably it was this conduct that necessitated Karađorđe’s order in the first place. Also, Dimitrijević fails to note in the text that once they had taken control over Belgrade, Karađorđe’s fighters largely ignored their leader’s prohibition. As a result, numerous Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were destroyed, a proportion of the local Jews were forcefully converted to Christianity, some were killed, while most fled across the Danube to the Austrian-controlled town of Zemun (Freidenreich, 1979; Ž. Lebl, 2001). Dimitrijević’s reference to the granting of citizen’s rights to Jews in 1878 as a great achievement of the Serbian state is similarly misleading. From 1846 onwards Serbia’s Jewish community was prohibited from living outside Belgrade, and after 1861 Jews were confined, by law, to a small number of ghettos scattered around the city. Although Jews were formally granted full civil rights in 1878, this was done under considerable diplomatic pressure from Western powers, especially Britain. The Berlin Treaty, which granted Serbia its independence and statehood, required of the newly established kingdom to facilitate the emancipation of religious minorities (Freidenreich, 1979; Ž. Lebl, 2001). Moreover, resistance to this section of the treaty within Serbia was considerable, so aspects of anti-Jewish legislation remained in force until 1889, when the new constitution brought Serbia in line with its treaty obligations.

“Parrots,” “idiots,” and “the mummies of reason”: Denial and offensive rhetoric

29Denial of prejudice is more than a form of defense against actual or potential accusations. It is also an attack against opposing constructions of reality (van Dijk, 1992). Every description of a state of affairs implicitly or explicitly acts to undermine a range of alternative positions (Billig, 1987, 1990; Dillon, 1991), which are seen as “symbolic competitors in the realm of moral influence” (see van Dijk, 1992, p. 108). Thus, denial does not just involve “defensive” rhetoric—the construction of one’s own position as “factual,” “true,” or unprejudiced, but also “offensive” rhetoric, namely the undermining of alternative views as products of strategy or interest. Potter (1996) uses the term “ironisation” to refer to the means by which alternative descriptions are portrayed as “talk which is motivated, distorted or erroneous in some way” and dismissible as the product of lies, delusions, misrepresentations, malevolence, or financial gain (p. 107).

30In the case of denial of antisemitism, literal denial is routinely accompanied by the questioning of the morality of the critics and the veracity of their claims. The topic of debate is regularly re-directed towards the accusers, whose position is constructed, in very elaborate ways, as mistaken, intolerant, biased, and malicious. For instance, in the statement from the synod, claims about the benevolence of Orthodox Serbs—which are constructed as demonstrable—are contrasted with the critical opinion, attributed to ulterior motives and the deviant character of “superficial, or even spiteful circles, who readily attribute antisemitism of certain groups and individuals to the influence of Orthodoxy and the teaching of St Sava, and who cite, as the ultimate culprit for antisemitism, the Orthodox Church which leads and enlightens the Serbian people” (Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 2002). Criticism that provoked the press release—which is described as “misrepresentation”—is therefore described as the outcome of “spite” and misjudgment (superficiality). It is attributed to certain “circles,” indicating that criticism does not come from isolated individuals but from interested groups. Similarly, Nešić’s (2004) reference to accusations of antisemitism as nothing but “sticking of labels” intimates the unjustified and unwarranted nature of such insinuations.

31The disqualification of criticisms through the use of idioms like “certain circles” or “sticking of labels” can be contrasted with far more vivid and colorful language occasionally used by representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, when describing their political opponents. In a speech reported on Belgrade’s Radio B92 on May 25, 2003, Bishop Amfilohije Radović dismissed the critics of the clericalist tendencies within the church as “parrots, idiots, the mummies and flies of reason, ignoramuses.” References to the inferior intellectual ability of political opponents are outnumbered only by claims regarding their political motivations. In a recent article, Bishop Atanasije Jevtić referred to the critics of new Serbian nationalism as the following:

This high-calibre anti-Serbian tirade, which surpasses both Ottoman and Communist achievements in the domain of fabrication, moaning, and slandering […] [creating] a confusion, based on malicious but carefully worded disinformation […] [by the] new, self-appointed unilateral, and one-party agit-prop, or Central Committee from Brussels. (Jevtić, 2003b, p. 567)
All kinds of groups, consisting of well paid prompters and spitters from Belgrade, the “petty Belgraders” (people already refer to them as Euro-slobberers [evroslinavci]), who are small in number but very noisy—united by their malice and the shared totalitarian and intolerant love for Europe—which is sentimental to the point of sniveling. They persistently hate Serbs and the Church. They are Mirko Đorđević, N. Popov, V. Arsenijević and co., M. Tomanić, I. Čolović, Kandić, Biserko, Vučo, Srljanović, Pavićević, and others from the “council of the Wicked” (Ps. 1:1) or the “company of evildoers” (Ps. 26:5). (ibid., p. 568)
“Let them be!” we who are the people say, let them do their wellpaid job. “Children, you just do your job.” Every person’s deeds or misdeeds will eventually come to light. (ibid., p. 568)

32Critics are dismissed as communist (“Central Committee,” “one-party agit-prop”), puppets of the West (reference to “Brussels,” “Euro-slobberers”) but most of all as mercenaries (“well-paid job,” “well-paid prompters,” etc.). Apparent in the disqualification is also the populist distinction between the urban and the rural, in that the Serbian capital Belgrade is used as a term of abuse (“spitters from Belgrade,” ‘petty Belgraders,” etc.) and is contrasted with the “people” (“people already refer to them as…,” “we who are the people”).

33Most importantly, the Manichean distinction between the Church and liberal public is articulated in religious terms. The critics are described as the “council of the Wicked” or the “company of evildoers,” with specific references to the Bible. Religious dimension is also apparent in the sentence “Children, you just do your job,” used by Jevtić. This is a paraphrase of a well-known statement attributed to the elder Vukašin from the village of Klepci, one of the New Serbian Martyrs, canonized by the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2000. Vukašin was murdered at the Jasenovac concentration camp in 1943 by his Ustasha captors. According to the official hagiographic account of his life and death, Vukašin refused to praise the Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić in return for his life, and instead said to his executor “Child, you just do your job.” The Ustasha soldier mutilated Vukašin’s body, but the Serbian Martyr responded with the same words of defiance (Anon., 2000; Mileusnić, 2003). In alluding to Vukašin’s words, Jevtić effectively draws a parallel between the Church and the martyr, while at the same time comparing his own political opponents to the murdered man’s ruthless tormentors. The analogy presents the Church as engaged in a heroic struggle in which it has God’s justice on its side. The same message underpinned Patriarch Pavle’s assessment of civil rights groups as “sinful minds” (Patriarch’s Christmas encyclical issued in January 2002, reported in “Protiv greha u nama samima,” 2002).

34References to political motives and interests of the critics in the context of denial are not limited to the representatives of the Serbian Church. In 2002, Bogoljub Šijaković, then Minister of religious affairs in the federal government of Serbia and Montenegro, referred to human rights groups as “political chameleons” and remnants of the communist era who now “persecute people” in the name of “human rights and European integration” (“Evropski standardi na balkanski način,” 2002). A year earlier, in a statement to the daily Glas Javnosti, nationalist historian Radoš Ljušić, who later served a term as member of Serbian Parliament for the ruling Democratic Party of Serbia (2003–2007) responded to concerns about the rise of antisemitism in Serbia by invoking the theme of an international anti-Serbian conspiracy:

The Helsinki Committee and other mondialists, who took over the witch-hunt from the communists, are clearly bothered by anything that is Serbian, especially if it is national and Orthodox. I think that behind these accusations directed against the Serbian people hides a political motive. To those who have been defeated in war, you can attribute what you like. The final battle with the Serbian people is not over; the powerful believe that we have not been punished enough. They start with antisemitism, then they incite the ethnic minorities to revolt; territories are then torn… Maybe these accusations are meant to justify the new consignment of Serbian arrestees for The Hague. (Kordić, 2001)

35This strategy of “reversal” (Billig, 1990; van Dijk, 1992) or the “condemnation of the condemners” (Cohen, 2001) inherent in offensive rhetoric conveniently deflects attention away from any consideration of the wrongfulness of own behavior or ideological position. Also, it illustrates the inherently argumentative nature of literal denial. The construction of Serbian benevolence as obvious and commonsensical implicitly locates alternative positions and their exponents as being outside the consensus and the community of normal, fair, and ordinary people (see van Dijk, 1992, p. 104). As the denial of prejudice is reified and objectified as “self-evident truth,” alternatives are dismissed as “unnatural,” biased, and interested (p. 106). The denial thus becomes a weapon of counterattack, which is waved at liberal public opinion in an attempt to undermine its social relevance and impact on public opinion.

36Offensive rhetoric employed in the denial of antisemitism reveals a further use of extreme case formulations. “Extrematisation” (Potter, 1996) is apparent in a way in which those who deny antisemitism represent critical opinion in the context of their counter-argumentation. Specific criticisms of Serbian clerics or the condemnation of particular ideological trends within the church, most of which are linked to the influence of Nikolaj Velimirović, are routinely interpreted as attacks on the entirety of the Serbian Church, or even more broadly on Orthodox Christianity. The statement from the synod claims, for instance, that allegations of antisemitism are directed at “Orthodoxy,” “the teachings of St Sava” and “the Orthodox Church.” In the above quotation, Radoš Ljušić argues that concerns about rising antisemitism in Serbia were “accusations directed against the whole of the Serbian people.” Bishop Atanasije Jevtić refers to liberal critics as “the accusers of Serbs” (Jevtić, 2003b, p. 570). More recently, at a public meeting in Ćelije Monastery in April 2004, Jevtić noted that “they are attacking us, brothers and sisters—the Communists and after them the neocommunists and the anti-communists, they are all the same—accusing us of being nationalists, because they are all against the Serbian nation” (cited in “Justin je fino mirisao,” 2004).

37This aspect of denial reflects a more general interpretative framework apparent in Serbian religious and nationalist discourses where events in the world tend to be viewed through the prism of the national collective, and where the critique of the particular is routinely interpreted as a condemnation of a whole category or a group. For instance, the prosecution of individual Serbian war crimes suspects in The Hague is routinely constructed and opposed as an indictment of the whole of the Serbian nation. In 2004, in an attempt to arrest the former leader of Bosnian Serbs and fugitive from international justice, Radovan Karadžić, NATO troops in Bosnia raided a house in Pale near Sarajevo during which an Orthodox priest and his son were seriously hurt. (The two were, it later turned out, wrongly suspected of harboring the fugitive Bosnian Serb leader.) The fate of the two individuals was instantly condemned by the Church as an attack on “the soul of the [Serbian] people” and an attempt to “humiliate a whole Christian nation” (Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 2004a). In a similar vein, in an interview to the sensationalist weekly Nedeljni Telegraf, the Serbian bishop of Vranje, Pahomije Gačić, dismissed the charges of child sexual abuse brought against him by a number of youths in his diocese as an attack on the “Church as a whole” (“Linčuju i mene i crkvu,” 2003).

38Such radical re-formulations of critical opinion assist the overall dynamic of reversal. As Edwards (2000) notes, by “upgrading and taking to extremes” an opponent’s view, extreme case formulations set up that view “for irony and disagreement” (p. 359). In the case of allegations of antisemitism, the reinterpretation of critical opinion as invoking the notion of collective responsibility presents the liberal view as violating the pervasive social norm against a moral indictment of a whole nation or a religion. The amplified or “extremicized” representation of criticism constructs the liberal opinion as malevolent, spiteful, and prejudiced against Serbs and Orthodox Christians, thereby facilitating its dismissal and rejection. The Right thus effectively appropriates the language of liberalism and equality, mobilizing it for the purposes of reversal and for the perpetuation and reification of its own ideological position. Moreover, it is precisely the “extrematization” of criticism that legitimizes the use of social denial. The generalized claims about Serbs or the Church not being racist are necessitated by the way in which criticism is interpreted in the first place.

39More importantly however, the general way in which social denial is articulated fails to acknowledge that most of the charges of antisemitism are specifically directed at the influence of Nikolaj Velimirović. By treating criticisms in a general manner, debate about what Velimirović said or did during his lifetime or about how he should be remembered—which is at the heart of the controversy and the main object of criticism—is conveniently omitted, and concealed under the barrage of emphatic denial.

Comparing Serbs and Croats and the rhetoric of “competitive martyrdom”: Comparative denial of antisemitism

40Literal denial of antisemitism is typically accompanied by denial that is expressed in relational rather than in absolute terms. It is often argued that Serbs are not only an inherently tolerant nation with a long and unblemished history of hospitable attitudes towards Jews, but also that this is a national trait that sets Serbs apart from other nations. The statement from the synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church states that Serbs are one of “unfortunately very few European and Christian people who never harbored, and still do not harbor, any negative feelings or attitudes towards Jews.” Also it reveals that antisemitism “remains an inerasable stain on the history and the conscience of some other nations,” but not of Serbs (Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 2002).

41A further example of comparative denial is to be found in the aforementioned article “Jews defend Serbs from accusations of anti-Semitism,” published in Glas Javnosti in 2001. This article, which contained the statement from Radoš Ljušić about the “anti-Serbian” motivations of those concerned with the rise in antisemitism, reported also the view of Aleksandar Mošić, vice-president of the Serbian–Jewish Friendship Society. Mošić told the author of the article, Marija Kordić, that “[a]ntisemitism among Slavic people in the Balkans, namely among Serbs, Macedonians, Bulgarians, is infinitely milder than in other countries like in Romania, Austria, or Hungary. As far as Serbs are concerned, one of the reasons why antisemitism never took root in Serbia is because Serbs are ethnically particularly tolerant and liberal people. Antisemitism in Serbia has always been ‘imported goods’” (Kordić, 2001).

42Not only does Mošić include Serbs among a selected group of Balkan nations who are “infinitely milder” in their antisemitism compared to others, but he attributes the tolerance to an “ethnic characteristic” of the Serbs. By attributing tolerance to national character, the alleged open-mindedness is given a stable and constant dimension. This reinforces the denial of prejudice, in that references to Serbian antisemitism can be dismissed on the grounds that antisemitism is incongruous with Serbian “nature.” Moreover, through the objectification of Serbian tolerance, the discussion of antisemitism is redirected towards the consideration of the “other” (whose “nature” is less tolerant).

43In the same article Mošić pursues the comparative argument further. He attributes the tolerance of Serbs to the authority of the Orthodox Church, by means of a contrast with Roman Catholicism:

In Catholic countries, antisemitic prejudice is far more common than in Orthodox countries. Politically, Catholicism is far more aggressive. The Orthodox Church never endorsed the missionary propaganda comparable to that of the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church never emphasized those Christian dogmas that awaken antisemitism. The Serbian Orthodox Church has always been more concerned with the maintenance of national identity and with Christian ethics. (ibid.)

44A similar point was raised by the leader of Dveri, Branimir Nešić, during the interview:

The Roman Catholic Church, one must mention this, did some bad things during the World War II, they supported Hitler. So, the Catholic Church asked Jews for forgiveness… Now the problem is that Jews who have every right to feel grievance towards the Catholic Church, have extended the same argument to us. They do not understand that Orthodox peoples and the Serbian people do not have this problem with Jews… we don’t have this problem in Serbia.

45Besides repeating the familiar argument about tolerance being the legacy of Orthodox influence, Mošić and Nešić both present Catholicism as the main hub of [Christian] antisemitism. The comparison perpetuates a broader theme of Serbian nationalism, namely the contrast between Orthodoxy and Catholicism and, on a more basic level, between Orthodox Serbs—who are seen as “ethnically tolerant”—and the Catholic Croats whose open-mindedness is constantly challenged. In the article “Serbs and Jews,” published in Dveri Srpske, Croats are clearly identified as the target for comparison. Throughout the text, Dimitrijević’s quasi-historical elucidation of Serbian–Jewish relations, which attempts to demonstrate total absence of antisemitism in Serbia, is interpolated with contrasts with Croatia. Dimitrijević notes that unlike in Serbia, “Jews were banned from residing on Croatian territories until the 18th century, and antisemitic incidents were very frequent after that” or that “in 1941 Ante Pavelić [leader of the NDH] sent all Croatian Jews to the concentration camps,” while “Serbia, even under occupation, refused to pass laws against Jews.” The repeated comparison with Croatia reflects the prevailing cultural stereotype within the discourse of the Serbian Right, where Croats are traditionally seen as proselytizing, intolerant, even “genocidal” (see Milosavljević, 2002).

46Comparative denial of antisemitism also manifests itself as a more favorable comparison between Serbs and Jews, especially with regards to the common martyrdom of the two peoples throughout history. The comparison between Serbian and Jewish history is closely linked to the martyrdom myth characteristic of Serbian nationalist discourse, and as such was a notable component of Serbian nationalism in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In 1985, in his “Letter to the writers of Israel,” Vuk Drašković lamented over Serbia’s troubled history though an analogy with the suffering of the Jews. He wrote that “every square foot of Kosovo is Serbia’s Jerusalem: there is no difference between the suffering of Serbs and Jews. Serbs are the thirteenth, lost tribe of Israel” (Drašković, 1987, p. 74). The best-known exponents of the comparison between Serbs and Jews was the controversial, government-sponsored Serbian–Jewish Friendship Society founded in 1990 by a group of Serbian nationalist intellectuals and some of the country’s Jewish public figures. The society promoted the bond between Serbian and Jewish people on the grounds that both suffered persecution in the hands of Croatian fascists and German Nazis (see Gordiejew, 1999). Importantly, behind the seemingly philosemitic sentiments propounded by the Serbian–Jewish Friendship Society lay a more sinister “functionalization” of Jews, and the usurpation of Jewish symbols and history in the pursuit of Serbian nationalist agenda (see Gordiejew, 1999; Sekelj, 1997; Živković, 2000).

47While the public attention which the Serbian–Jewish Friendship Society attracted in the early 1990s diminished over the past decade, the overall interpretative framework within which it functioned and the ideas which it promoted persist above and beyond the limited membership of this organization. The parallel between Serbian and Jewish suffering continues to be invoked in public discourse whenever the theme of antisemitism or of Serbian–Jewish relations is raised. In the statement from the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the ability of Serbs to “feel the pain” of Jews and to share “their sorrow and pain and even to help lessen it wherever possible” was attributed to the common victimization and suffering of the two people. Similarly, in the message which Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church Pavle sent to the Government of Israel in September 2003, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church noted that “Serbs sympathize with the profound suffering of the [Jewish] people with whom they became united like brothers through coexistence and common martyrdom” (Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 2003a). The message also reflected on the fact that that “Nazis murdered Serbs as often as they murdered Jews,” and that today “we both live together, in the words of a Serbian poet [Matija Bećković] ‘as the remnants of a slaughtered people’.” The patriarch concluded the telegram with the hope that the “common suffering of [Serbs and Jews] will find a place in the new historical exhibition at Yad Vashem, in spite of the fact that many tried to use the recent Balkan tragedy to conceal and minimize the crime against the Serbian people during the Second World War which lies at the core of the recent conflict” (ibid.; for a more detailed account of comparative martyrdom in relation to the Holocaust, see Byford, 2007).

48The theme of common suffering is sometimes invoked in more controversial ways. Following the upsurge in the ethnic conflict in Kosovo in March 2004, which resulted in the death of thirteen and the displacement of four thousand Serbian inhabitants of the province, the Serbian Orthodox Church posted in a prominent place on its website a press release from the Serbian–Jewish Friendship Society which stated that “the orchestrated crime throughout the Kosovo territory closely resembles the Nazi ‘Kristallnacht’ which took place in the night between the 9th and 10th of November 1938 ” (Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 2004b). The press release went as far as to argue that “in terms of the number of victims” and in terms of the “evil” which motivated it, the event in Kosovo surpassed Kristallnacht. The unsustainable example of “competitive martyrdom” (Shafir, 2002) and the comparison with the 1938 event, when hundreds of Jews were murdered and 30,000 were sent to Nazi concentration camps, captured the imagination of the Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, whose webpage continued to display a banner stating “Kristallnacht in Kosovo continues” even after the hostilities ended.

49The two aspects of comparative denial, namely the contrast with Croats and other nations and the comparison with Jews, are often blended into the same argument. In the interview with Branimir Nešić, the Catholic Church’s “support for the Nazis” was contrasted with the record of the Serbian Church, which “never did anything of the kind. Serbian Orthodox people and the Russian Orthodox people perished in the war together with Jews.” Also, the message which the Patriarch of the Serbian Church sent to the Israeli government in 2003 contains a subtle critique of Croatia. Although those who were the cause of the common suffering of Serbs and Jews are referred to in the text simply as “the Nazis” (who “murdered Serbs as often as they murdered Jews”), a closer reading of the text reveals that the target of the patriarch’s condemnation were not so much Nazi Germans, but the pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia (NDH). In the concluding passage of the telegram the patriarch refers to “crimes against the Serbian people during World War II” which “lie at the core of the recent conflict,” clearly referring to the historical background to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Also, the “Serbian poet’s” dictum about Serbs being the “remnant of a slaughtered people,” mentioned by the patriarch, was originally uttered in reference to Serbian victimization in the NDH between 1941 and 1945.

National self-glorification in a historical context

50The themes of positive national self-presentation, which are constitutive of a literal and comparative denial of antisemitism, are not the invention of the contemporary Serbian ecclesiastical establishment or the emerging Christian Right. The power of these denials lies precisely in the fact that they contain themes that have a long history in Serbian public discourse. As Stanley Cohen (2001) writes, accounts that are employed in the context of denial are “learned by ordinary cultural transmission, and are drawn from a well-established, collectively available pool. An account is adopted because of its public acceptability […] Denials we see are those offered in the expectation that they will be accepted” (Cohen, 2001, p. 59).

51Many of the arguments inherent in contemporary social denial of antisemitism date at least to the early decades of the 20th century. Writing on the history of the Jewish community in Serbia, Freidenreich (1979) notes that even in the late 1920s and 30s, at a time of a notable rise in antisemitism in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the dominant stance of government officials was that Yugoslavia “does not suffer from the poison of antisemitism” (Minister of External Affairs in 1929, Vojislav Marinković, cited in Freidenreich, 1979, p. 181). In 1938, only two years before he introduced two antisemitic measures throughout Yugoslavia (a numerus clausus in schools and universities and a ban on Jewish participation in the distribution of food produce), Minister of the Interior Anton Korošec noted that “among us in Yugoslavia, as everyone can testify, the Jewish question does not exist. Yugoslavia is one of the few countries that is not bothered by this question. That is the best proof that Jews among us are treated as citizens with equal rights” (cited in Freidenreich, 1979, p. 182). In the same year, in the book Yugoslavia and the “Jewish Problem”, Edo Gajić notes the absence of antisemitism in Yugoslavia, arguing that anti-Jewish prejudice “is alien to the Yugoslav and above all Serbian mentality” (Gajić, 1938). Nine years earlier, Yugoslav Minister of External Affairs Marinković substantiated his claim about the absence of antisemitism in Yugoslavia by invoking another theme found in more contemporary forms of denial:

[T]he historical development of our nation was in many respects similar to the development of the Jewish nation. We had to undergo so much suffering and misfortune and so many bloody battles in which we bore so many sacrifices for freedom that we have and have always had full understanding for the Jews, whose history knows so much hardship and suffering, just because Jews too faithfully preserved their faith and community. In this regard, the same endurance, stamina and perseverance tie us together, so that it is natural that Serbs and Jews should understand each other. (cited in Freidenreich, 1979, p. 181)

52Therefore, the themes and tropes constitutive of the contemporary forms of denial have been plucked from an ideological armory that has a long history in Serbian self-representation. A further reason behind the familiarity of these themes is that they contain a kernel of truth. Most historical accounts of Serbian–Jewish relations emphasize that compared to many other European societies, and notwithstanding some less laudable periods in history, the relationship between Serbs and Jews over the centuries had been amiable (see Freidenreich, 1979; Ž. Lebl, 2001; Sekelj, 1995; etc.). This fact is also emphasized by representatives of the Jewish community and by the liberal public opinion. In fact, one of the reasons why the recent manifestations of antisemitism attracted so much interest and criticism is precisely because there is no established or long-standing legacy of antisemitism in Serbian culture. It is important to emphasize therefore that the aim of the present discussion is not to challenge national self-representation on the grounds of historical accuracy, or to challenge the prevailing affirmative view of the relations between Serbs and Jews. Rather, the objective is to explore the ideological implications of the propagation of the non-prejudiced self-image in the context of the denial of antisemitism. After all, it is not by accident that positive self-presentation is mainly invoked in the context of moral accountability management by those who find themselves under criticism. As will become apparent, national self-presentation can be and is mobilized in a way that helps to justify, legitimize, and normalize anti-Jewish prejudice in a social context in which antisemitism invites moral censorship.

Denial of antisemitism and the distancing from “extremism”

53As the earlier sections have shown, literal and comparative denial helps to turn the focus of public attention away from manifestations of antisemitism in Serbian culture. Reversal constructs the denial as common sense and the only moral and credible option, shifting the debate towards a passionate “condemnation of the condemners.” Comparative denial projects antisemitism onto relevant others (Croats, Catholics, etc.), thus enhancing the sentiment of national self-glorification. The emphasis on the martyrdom of Serbs and Jews brings into play the familiar martyrdom myth. The presence of antisemitism in Serbia is set aside on the grounds that Serbs, like Jews, are perennial victims of injustice, rendering any consideration of prejudice and discrimination on their part redundant.

54And yet the appeal to the consensus about the inherently tolerant nature of Serbian society and its people, which runs through the three components of denial, is coupled with incidental admissions of more blatant “exceptions” to the rule. In the statement by the Holy Synod, for instance, the overall denial of antisemitism in Serbia precedes the denouncement of “certain [antisemitic] groups and individuals” who publish “anti-Jewish texts” under the banner of “defenders of Orthodox Christianity,” “saviors of Orthodoxy” or “enemies of the Jewish world conspiracy” (Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 2002). As was already noted, the Church specifically condemned the television appearance of Žarko Gavrilović. Similarly, in the article “Serbs and Jews,” after denying the presence of antisemitism in Serbia, Dimitrijević dismisses the publishing activity of Ratibor Đurđević, Serbia’s most prolific writer of antisemitic material, whose catalog of publications includes the book Famous People on the Jews (a kind of antisemitic dictionary of quotations) by the well-known exponent of Holocaust denial, William Grimstad (Grimstad, 2000). Dimitrijević notes that “[a]ny lack of objectivity [among the liberal public that criticizes the manifestations of antisemitism] can be damaging, as damaging as the short-sightedness of those Serbs who publish books with quotes by ‘great people about Jews’ (where great people include among others Hitler)” (Dimitrijević, 2004, pp. 74–75).

55Distancing from extremism apparent in these examples has important rhetorical implications in the context of denial. Denials generally appear more persuasive when at least some form of deviation from the ideal is admitted to (van Dijk, 1992). The condemnation of the lunatic fringe tones down the extreme case formulations used in the construction of Serbian benevolence, making the denial seem more plausible. At the same time, prejudice that is admitted to is treated as incidental, and an exception that proves the general rule. The statement from the synod states explicitly that only the “spiteful circles” see any connection between the exponents of antisemitism and the traditionally tolerant Serbian Orthodox culture.

56The synod’s condemnation of extremism contains, however, an ideologically significant omission. The only person explicitly named in the statement by the synod is father Žarko Gavrilović—a nonconformist rebel cleric who had been dismissed by the Church for his antisemitism on numerous previous occasions. Although the identity of “groups and individuals” who promote antisemitism in Serbia is wellknown, and they involve the likes of Dveri and Obraz, these organizations are not named and shamed by inclusion in the category that warrants dismissal. Also, although “publishers” of antisemitic texts were mentioned, the synod missed the opportunity to condemn explicitly the activities of Ratibor Đurđević and his notorious publishing company, Ihtus Press. The purposely vague reference to “groups” and “publishers,” which displays ignorance of or lack of interest in their true identity—thereby creating the impression that they are so marginal that they do not warrant specific mention—subtly excludes the organized Christian Right from the problem and leaves its credibility untouched by the statement. By setting the very narrow boundaries of the category “extremist,” the synod effectively vindicates a significant source of antisemitism in Serbia from criticism and condemnation.

57What is more, the formal distancing by the ecclesiastical establishment even from the narrowly defined extremists is only partial. In spite of the public condemnation of Žarko Gavrilović in 2002, this discredited priest continues to work as editor-in-chief of the magazine Hrišćanska Misao, one of the leading religious magazines in Serbia, and as one of editors of the publishing house of the same name on whose editorial board sit the Bishop of Montenegro, Amfilohije Radović (who was one of the signatories of the press release), and the current Serbian prime minister, Vojislav Koštunica. Also, Gavrilović is the author of numerous books on Orthodox education, which are sold and promoted in Church-owned shops. The same applies to Ratibor Đurđević, whose publications are also featured in Church stores, including that located in the building of the patriarchy, regardless of the fact that the Church formally distanced itself from him in 1995 (see Sekelj, 1997).

58The dismissal of Ratibor Đurđević in Dimitrijević’s article in Dveri Srpske is similarly equivocal. It occurs in the context of a more general condemnation of liberal public opinion. The critique of extremism is expressed in a manner that equates the antisemitic author with the liberal public: both are dismissed as equally “lacking in objectivity” and “damaging,” thereby reinforcing the status of Dimitrijević’s own position as that of the moral majority of level-headed individuals. In the rest of the article, however, Dimitrijević treats Đurđević and the liberal critics very differently. When referring to the latter, Dimitrijević uses strong language. Civil rights groups are branded “hysterical” (Dimitrijević, 2004, p. 74). In contrast, Ratibor Đurđević is said to be simply “short-sighted” and “misguided.” Likewise, nothing like the strong and emotive terms habitually used to denounce the liberal left have ever been used by Church leaders to denounce Đurđević, Gavrilović, or other propagators of antisemitism.

“We are not antisemites, but…”: Denial and the rhetoric of disclaimers

59In the language of the Serbian Christian Right, nationalist self-glorification and self-presentation as tolerant, liberal, and welcoming is seldom an end in itself. Literal denial of antisemitism often occurs as part of a more complex argument. It tends to precede a potentially criticisable claim, usually containing a critique of Jews. As van Dijk notes, the “humanitarian values of tolerance and hospitality” reinforced through denial of prejudice are often followed by a controversial claim which is typically constructed though the prism of “realism,” “truth,” or “common sense” (van Dijk 1992, p. 111). The speakers employ the “disclaimers” (Hewitt and Stokes, 1975) to build a category entitlement of someone who belongs to a tolerant nation or subscribes to an open-minded religious belief, thereby inoculating themselves against accusations of prejudice and bigotry. Van Dijk (1993) maintains that “grand claims of virtue and superiority are the classical introductions of disclaimers such as ‘we are very tolerant towards minorities, but…’ stereotypically followed by a negative statement about such minorities, or a defense of actions and policies that have negative consequences for minorities […] Such disclaimers are often a symptom of underlying prejudices or antagonistic attitudes, if not a sure sign of subtle or not so subtle racism” (p.77)

60This is the case in many of the examples looked at in this chapter. A disclaimer lies at the core of the previously mentioned article “Jews defend Serbs from accusations of antisemitism,” published in Glas Javnosti in 2001. The emphasis on Serbian tolerance (articulated through the statements from Aleksandar Mošić cited earlier) precedes the defense of the antisemitic organization Obraz. Having established that there is no antisemitism in Serbia, the author of the article, Marija Kordić, notes that Obraz had been unfairly accused of antisemitism merely because the organization’s literature “identified as enemies of the Serbian people Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, Kouchner, Soros, Westendorp, Jacques Klein, Clark, Gelbard, and many other” public figures “whose role in the Yugoslav war is well known” (Kordić, 2001). Kordić accentuates the culpability of listed individuals by framing it as “well-known,” thereby invoking consensus on this matter. However, while Kordić does not specify that the named persons are of Jewish extraction, other sections of the article openly blame Jews for the Yugoslav crisis. Aleksandar Mošić, who attributed tolerance to the essence of Serbian “ethnic” being, reveals that the prevalence of Jewish names among Serbian enemies is not accidental. Continuing the theme of ethnic characterology, Mošić asserts that “American Jews, whose ancestors came from Russia, carry within them a deep-seated hatred towards the Russians. For them Serbs are just little Russians, so it is no wonder that they immediately adopted anti-Yugoslav propaganda. This includes James Rubin, the former spokesman for the State Department, Sandy Berger, advisor to Bill Clinton, Abramovich, and others from the top of American power” (Kordić, 2001).

61The reference to “anti-Yugoslavism” being “no wonder” constructs the view as self-evident. More importantly, within the context of Mošić’s contribution to the article, the contrast between the tolerant Serbs and the hateful American Jews is clearly established. What makes this statement especially perplexing is that Mošić is Jewish and the vice president of an institution that calls itself the Serbian–Jewish Friendship Society.

62In the article “Serbs and Jews,” the presence of a disclaimer is even more apparent. The exposition of denial, which ends with the statement that it is “ludicrous and impossible” for Serbs to hate Jews, is followed by the following counterargument:

On the other hand, not every exploration of the role of the Jews (or the representatives of any other people of a different national or state ideology [sic]) in the destruction of traditional Orthodox states is a priori—“racism.” In such explorations a whole people is not accused of being responsible for the suffering of another people, but facts are being laid out which might help elucidate what really happened. Hysterical accusations of antisemitism against anyone who, for instance, notes the curious fact that today among American Jews there have been numerous Serbophobes, although Serbs, at least when Jews are concerned, never deserved this, does not do anyone any good, least of all those who initiate such campaigns. (Dimitrijević, 2004, p. 74)

63This time it is the criticism of Jews that is presented as “facts” or a “curious fact” that reveals what “really happened,” while any counterarguments are dismissed and presented as “hysterical.” The role of the Jews in the “destruction of traditional Orthodox states” is introduced, in a rather matter of fact way, as a “national or state ideology,” and therefore as a legitimate, non-controversial, topic of “exploration.” Consistently with the overall aims of denial, Dimitrijević displays eagerness to modify his criticism of Jews by arguing that his “elucidation of what really happened” is not and indictment of “a whole people,” but criticism of selected individuals, the “numerous Serbophobes” among “American Jews.” This, however, is just another disclaimer. The contention that Serbs “never deserved” the “hysterical accusations […] at least when Jews are concerned” (emphasis added)—indicates that the particular “American Jews”—who are cited as “representatives” of a “national or state ideology” and who are thought to be “numerous”—are invoked as Jews.

64Another ongoing theme of the article is the portrayal of Jews as a people whose prejudice and “Serbophobia” stand in stark contrast with traditional Serbian and Orthodox Christian tolerance. After stating that “Serbs never hated Jews, never persecuted Jews,” he argues that “it is a fact that, since the early 1990s, the Serbian people have been satanized in the world media and that an active role in this was played by some influential Jews—above all in Europe and America (Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, Bernard-Henri Levy, Steven Spielberg, Wesley Kanne Clark…)” (p. 77). The suggestion that “after the resurrection of Christ Judaism developed in a resoundingly anti-Christian way” precedes the following contrast between Serbs and Jews:

It is a fact that there had been (and still are), among followers of Talmudic Judaism, those who hate Christians [...] But, Apostle Paul says: “Call down blessings on your persecutors—blessings, not curses” (Romans 12:14). Isn’t the Serbian Church a prime example of religious tolerance—from ancient times to the present? The patriarch condemns every instance of hate towards other nations including Jews. Even if some hate us, it is never an excuse to retaliate with hatred. (p. 74)

65In this instance, “Serbophobia” is no longer interpreted as a “national ideology,” but as a manifestation of the ancient hatred of Christians by Jews. The political stance of certain “American Jews,” such as Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, or Wesley K. Clark, whom Dimitrijević singles out as especially “Serbophobic,” is characterized as a feature of longstanding inter-religious conflict. What is more, of the five individuals, only Holbrooke, Spielberg, and Levy are Jews. Albright is a Catholic of Jewish descent and Clark, whose father was Jewish, was raised as a Christian. The fact that Dimitrijević cites them as Jews indicates the he is well-versed in Serbian conspiracy theory. During the NATO bombing of Serbia in the spring of 1999, Albright’s and Clark’s Jewish ancestry was widely publicized in the Serbian media and, in some cases, even woven into causal explanations of the war (see Byford, 2006; Byford & Billig, 2001). By implying a decisive role of Jews in the Balkan conflict and by interpreting it as a manifestation of a long standing inter-religious conflict, Dimitrijević comes close to embracing the kind of outlook disseminated by Ratibor Durđević, the antisemitic conspiracy theorist from whom he attempts to distance himself earlier in the article.

66Significantly however, not all instances of literal denial and national self-glorification examined in this chapter have been articulated in the context of a disclaimer. The statement from the synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, issued in February 2002, does not include a critique of Jews. The signatories used the theme of positive national and religious self-presentation to dismiss the accusations as unfounded, without mentioning the Jewish community, whether in Serbia or the West. The “other” in the press release was not the Jews, but the “spiteful circles” among the liberal public opinion, the independent media, or the various pro-western NGOs. This important difference is indicative of the boundary that still exists between the mainstream and the extreme in Serbian Orthodox culture, at least when it comes to public criticism of Jews.

67On the other hand, the noticeable similarities in the rhetoric of denial employed both in mainstream ecclesiastical discourse and in the language of the Christian Right reveal that divisions between the mainstream and the fringe are not airtight. The equivocal condemnation of extremism in the synod’s press release and the offensive rhetoric apparent in the Church’s polemic with the critics suggest that in the Manichean world of Serbian religious politics, the Christian Right is still seen as less of a danger to the interests of the Serbian Orthodox Church than the country’s liberal public opinion. This is evident in the fact that in the autumn of 2004 the synod of the Serbian Church instated Branimir Nešić, editor of Dveri Srpske, at the helm of Serbia main religious publication, Pravoslavlje. Since then, numerous articles written by associates of Dveri, including those which are critical of the liberal public opinion and human rights organizations, have been published in this mainstream publication.

68More importantly, the Church’s role in the perpetuation of the themes and tropes of literal denial indirectly contributes to the persistence of antisemitism in Serbian society. The Serbian Orthodox Church is one of the most influential institutions in Serbian society, which commands unparalleled respect among the country’s Orthodox population. In recent years, by enforcing its links with the state, the Church has also acquired considerable power over the media (in that its activities are treated as newsworthy), as well as through the introduction of religious education in schools. Because of its access to the public, the Serbian Orthodox Church, as an elite institution, is able to produce and enforce “self-definitions, evaluations of the situation, selection of problems, and agendas that may have significant public impact” (van Dijk, 1993, p. 45).

69In speaking out about relations between Serbs and Jews, as it has done in the aforementioned press release, the Church helps to shape the interpretative and argumentative framework underlying everyday experiences and interactions relevant to ethnic affairs. It provides views on what it means to be antisemitic or what constitutes extremism. Moreover, the Church does not just enforce particular agendas or representations, but also provides the public with argumentative resources by means of which a particular ideological status quo can be maintained and reproduced. For instance, by perpetuating the consensus about Serbian tolerance, without at the same time unequivocally denouncing anti-Jewish prejudice in all its forms, the Church reinforces the self-glorifying appraisal of inter-ethnic relations in a way that makes the controversial disclaimers found in the literature of the Christian Right appear more plausible and publicly acceptable. As we have seen, the perceived legitimacy of the argument explicated in the article in Dveri Srpske relies on the existence of consensus regarding Serbia as the “tolerant community,” which the Orthodox mainstream helps to perpetuate. Also, the statement by the synod helps to disseminate the Church’s own image as the paragon of virtue, tolerance, and charity, while at the same time enabling it to maintain its traditionalist and conservative religious dogma.

70Finally, by propagating the belief that antisemitism does not exist in Serbia—other than on the distant margins of society, far removed from the church or the mainstream—the ecclesiastical establishment helps to keep the topic of antisemitism off the public agenda. As van Dijk (1992) notes, if tolerance is promoted as a national myth, then “it is much more difficult for minority groups to challenge remaining inequalities […] They may be seen as oversensitive, exaggerating or over-demanding” (p. 96). Furthermore, “successful resistance [to prejudice] requires public attention, media coverage and at least partial recognition of grievances. If leading politicians and the media refuse to acknowledge that there is a serous problem, there will be no debate, no change of public opinion, and hence no change in the system of power relations” (ibid.).

71Once it becomes accepted that there is no antisemitism in Serbia or within the Church, then there is little else left to discuss with regards to this matter. All those who challenge the nationalist common sense are simply dismissed as “Serbophobes” or “Euro-slobberers,” members of the “spiteful circle” of “petty Belgraders,” unwilling to accept the “truth” about the unblemished history of Serbian benevolence towards Jews.

© Central European University Press, 2008

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