The old Victorian saying goes, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” In the harrowing weeks that have followed the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in southern Israel, we’ve seen radical feminists aligning with rapists who tortured and violated young women at a music festival, Jewish “peace activists” aligning with terrorists who would quite happily slaughter them along with all their relatives, and Western liberals marching arm-in-arm with Islamists bellowing antisemitic chants in Arabic.
However, at least to my mind, the alignment of a Serbian war criminal from the 1990s with the Hamas murderers of the 2020s is the strangest and most unsettling of all.
Vojislav Šešelj (pronounced “Sheshel”) was the founder of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which he still chairs, and the main inspiration behind the White Eagles, a vicious Serb paramilitary organization responsible for numerous atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia. Šešelj first emerged in the 1980s, when rising, belligerent Serb nationalism heralded the breakup of what used to be Yugoslavia.
During the 1990s, when he served for a time as Serbia’s deputy prime minister, Seselj played an instrumental role in orchestrating and cheering Serb atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia. For the first decade of this century, he was locked in a jail cell at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, where he was on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Diagnosed with cancer in 2014, Šešelj was released. He returned to Serbia and was sensationally acquitted in The Hague before an appeal in 2018 secured his conviction for crimes against humanity.
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Reached by telephone in Belgrade by a Reuters reporter after the appeal verdict was announced, he declared: “I am proud of all my war crimes and crimes against humanity and am ready to repeat them.” The majority of the victims of those crimes were the largely secular Balkan Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, whom Seselj would contemptuously dismiss as “pan-Islamists” and “Turks.”
Since that conviction, I haven’t had occasion to think about Šešelj — in my estimation, a truly evil individual who derived a visceral pleasure from his acts — until this week, when I saw a photo of him hosting the Palestinian Ambassador at the headquarters of the SRS in Belgrade.
I will admit that I did a double take, not quite believing that someone who instigated a genocide against members of the Muslim faith was now embracing, and being embraced by, Palestinian Muslims in the Middle East.
In the process, Šešelj outed himself as an anti-Semite. Again, that was somewhat surprising given that some of the more opportunistic Serb nationalists sought to win sympathy in Israel and among Jews by invoking the brutal Nazi occupation of Serbia, and then misrepresenting the Serbs as victims of the Nazis in the same manner that the Jews were. (No reasonable person could question the suffering of the Serbian nation under Nazi occupation; but equally, no reasonable person could examine the historical record and conclude that the Nazis slaughtered Serbs with the same devotion and the same justification that they applied to the 6 million Jews at their mercy.)
Interviewed by a nationalist outlet after his meeting with the Palestinian envoy, Šešelj (recall again, a man convicted for crimes against humanity) “expressed his understanding for the just struggle of the Palestinian people and great concern over the genocide that Israel is carrying out against the Palestinians, seeking a basis for its genocidal intent in the Bible of the Old Testament.”
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This recasting of the Hebrew Bible as the point of origin for Israel’s supposed iniquities is a well-worn antisemitic trope; Christians in medieval Europe invoked the jealous G-d of Israel as a counter to the universalist message of Jesus, and later on, Soviet Communists touted sacred Jewish texts as embodying the reactionary ideology of Judaism. Its sole purpose, like all antisemitic tropes, is to sow hatred of all Jews everywhere.
Šešelj also inserted a hefty dose of anti-Americanism into his remarks, depicting Serbia as a target of U.S. imperialism by way of NATO’s war to liberate Kosovo in 1999 — the same US imperialism backing Israel now, he underlined. And in other media appearances, such as a television interview in mid-October, Šešelj has hammered the same themes.
“Hamas is above all an ideology,” he said. “Hamas is not a terrorist organization, but a typical liberation organization that wants to liberate the Palestinian territories. They want freedom for the Palestinian people, and they want a Palestinian state.”
No slights against Muslims, no mention (of course!) of his role in stirring up the ethnic hatred that sparked a genocide against them in Bosnia and then Kosovo. The Šešelj of 2023 could be taken for a representative of the Iranian regime or, given the Palestinian keffiyeh scarf he has now taken to draping around his portly frame, a pro-Hamas demonstrator in Paris or New York City.
Are Šešelj and Hamas strange bedfellows?
On one level, the answer is yes, insofar as Šešelj has a history of stoking hatred against Muslims that would make the most hardened Islamophobes blush. But that’s not the whole story.
Fundamentally, Hamas and Šešelj share the same worldview: hatred of Jews, hatred of America and a burning desire to fight both using any means, no matter how bestial. In the atrocities of Oct. 7, Šešelj would have recognized something of himself in the perpetrators, particularly in the manner in which they dehumanized their victims.
When I saw the Israel Defense Forces’ heart-wrenching video of the atrocities at the Israeli Consulate in New York earlier this month, I was reminded of many parallels — the Nazis, most of all — but also the Serb paramilitaries who murdered their way through Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo 30 years ago. The bond between Šešelj and Hamas is one of hatred forged with the blood of those they loathe.
As Israel’s defensive war in Gaza rolls on, I expect many more such alliances — on the one hand, unlikely, but on the other, perfectly natural — to emerge in the coming months.