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Albania’s commitment to defeating anti-Semitism can inspire the region

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Having served almost fifteen years in Parliament, including the last three years as the chairman of the Socialist Party Parliamentary Group, it goes without saying how proud I am of Albania. I am especially proud at this moment, with the Albanian Parliament having just unanimously approved the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, writes Taulant Balla.

However, it is worth explaining the source of this immense pride. Over the centuries, Albania has endured numerous conquests and occupations. We have weathered this turbulent past and built a thriving democracy and economic stability. Throughout it all, Albania has maintained a distinct, national culture. We have an ancient, unique language unrelated to any other. Most importantly, Albania has also maintained an enduring set of national values.

The story of Albania’s tiny Jewish community perfectly illustrates the principles upon which our country has been built. There has been a Jewish presence in Albania since the Second Century, but by the 1930s its size had dwindled to just 200 people. Soon after the Nazis occupied our country in 1943, they swiftly targeted Albania’s Jews. As one, Albanians stood by their Jewish compatriots. Authorities refused to hand over lists of Jews, while ordinary Albanians – Muslim and Christian alike – risked their own lives by hiding their Jewish neighbors. Not only did Albania’s Jews survive, but their numbers increased by the end of World War Two as Jews found refuge from neighboring countries.

This remarkable and largely untold chapter of Albanian history is no coincidental incident. The sense of honor, trust and respect between Albanians, regardless of religion or faith, is ingrained in Albania’s ethical and moral fabric. It is part of an age-old code known as ‘besa.’ A life infused with ‘besa’ is a life of enduring trust between neighbors, a commitment to do everything possible to help one another. Therefore, saving our country’s Jews from the horrors of Nazism was not simply an exceptional act of heroism during humanity’s darkest hour. It was a matter of national honor, of standing up for what it means to be Albanian.

These values have not disappeared. Far from it. During times of conflict, Albania has continued to be a place of refuge for many. Albanian society continues to be characterized by a sense of unity and commonality, regardless of differences in religion, belief and background. An attack on one Albanian is an attack on all Albanians. That is why I am proud, although not surprised, that Albania’s Parliament, with the widest possible consensus, has just adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is raising its ugly head across the world, even in Europe where the Holocaust remains within living memory for some. The IHRA definition is an internationally accepted standard, which if clarification were needed, makes clear where the scourge of anti-Semitism begins and ends. Adopting the IHRA definition means a genuine commitment towards understanding anti-Semitism, as a first step towards combating it. Adopting the IHRA definition means that although there are only a handful of Jews in our country, we will stand by them and protect them. But IHRA is not just about Jews. Adopting the IHRA definition is a powerful statement of tolerance and respect, that there is no place for bigotry and racism. It is a declaration that every decent society should make.

As such, I hope that the important step which Albania has just taken by adopting the IHRA definition, will prove to be a catalyst for others to follow suit. With that in mind, in partnership with the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the Jewish Agency for Israel, as well as with the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and the Center for Jewish Impact, the Parliament of Albania is this week hosting the first ever Balkans Forum Against Anti-Semitism. Participants include the Speakers of Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia, plus officials from the international community.

I believe that this historic gathering could not be more timely. Our world is living through chaotic, perhaps unprecedented times. Public, social and economic health seemingly hangs in the balance in countries across the world. This deep sense of uncertainty is the perfect breeding ground for extremism. As the corona virus pandemic has intensified, so too have rates of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. For the sake of our future not only in Albania, but in the Balkans, in Europe and beyond, we must not allow extremism to flourish. Adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is one of the most meaningful antidotes we possess.

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