June 16, 2020 — New York
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama addressed the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum. AJC delegations have regularly met with the prime minister, twice in Tirana and several times at the global Jewish organization’s New York headquarters and office in Jerusalem.
In his conversation with Brussels-based AJC Transatlantic Institute Director Daniel Schwammenthal, Prime Minister Rama discussed Albania’s courageous rescue of Jews from the Nazis, the current resurgence of antisemitism in Europe, relations with the United States and Israel, aspirations to gain membership in the EU, and security challenges from Iran.
Albania was the only Nazi-occupied country in Europe that saw its Jewish population grow during the war. “It was a shining moment in our history when Albania became a shelter for Jews during the brutal persecution by Nazis. The story of Albanian protection and rescue of Jews is, I believe, an essential story of humanity,” said Rama.
The Albanian tradition of besa, “honor you give to someone else,” underlined why Albania’s Muslim majority population adopted and hid Jews. “The Nazis were tricked,” said Rama. “We are proud to acknowledge there are 75 Albanian families recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.”
The prime minister spoke forcefully against continuing hatred of Jews. “The new surge of antisemitism in Europe, in countries where you would not expect it, is one of the strongest signs of alarm for everyone,” said Rama.
Rama, who currently serves as Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said combatting antisemitism is a priority for the 57-member state organization. He reappointed Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC’s Director of International Jewish Affairs, to be the Personal Representative on Combating Antisemitism for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a position he held since 2009.
And, in February 2020, Rama hosted in Tirana an OSCE conference that he called “a modest effort to renew the effort of ‘never again’.”
Explaining why Albanians are staunchly pro-American, Rama said, “The United States has represented the most shining star in the sky in our dreams of liberty, when we were totally isolated under a very brutal communist regime which made Albania the North Korea of Europe.”
On Albanian-Israeli relations, the prime minister expressed admiration. “Israel is a shining example of a country that has made a miracle.It’s not about what you have, it’s about what you know,” said Rama. As an example, he noted that Israel, a country without water, has developed “the most excellent water supply on earth,” while Albania, with plentiful water, faces challenges.
While Israeli tourists have been coming to Albania in growing numbers, the prime minister said, “It’s important to bring more and more Israelis to Tirana, and to build cooperation in different fields.”
Turning to his country’s efforts to fulfill EU requirements for membership, Rama said he is “optimistic,” considering Albania’s transformation since a rigidly communist regime fell three decades ago. “It was just 30 years ago when we were totally isolated, when we thought we would never see light in the tunnel for nearly half a century, and today we are a country that is preparing to open negotiations with Europe. We need time. We need patience.”
On Iran, the foreign minister expressed dismay over the Islamic regime’s “hostile and malicious” activities targeting Iranian dissidents residing in Albania. Two years ago, the Iranian ambassador to Albania was expelled, and, earlier this year, more diplomats were sent back to Tehran.
“Iranian refugees in Albania are here to be safe. It’s not a statement against a regime in Tehran, but opening our doors to people whose lives were at risk. It was a humanitarian stance,” said Rama. ‘We are very proud to have helped these people like we helped the Jews during WWII, with no interest or hidden agenda but offering shelter when those who were richer or had more to offer turned their backs on them. This is who we are and how we see it. I’m proud.”
The prime minister also discussed another threat, citizens returning to Albania after fighting with ISIS and other extremist groups. “We passed tough legislation to harshly punish” them, but now Albania has “a big problem” with dozens of women and children, who remain in camps in Syria and Iraq and need to be repatriated.” We’re trying to bring them back,” he said.
The AJC Global Forum is the global Jewish advocacy organization’s signature annual event. Originally scheduled to take place this week in Berlin, Germany, the venue was changed to an online meeting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 7,500 people have now registered for the AJC Virtual Global Forum, June 14-18.