Traces of a Jewish presence in Serbia can be traced back thousands of years ago to Roman times. By the 12th century, Jews were quite influential in the region as traders and were generally treated well. Under Ottoman rule, Jewish merchants became influential in trade between the northern and southern portion of the Ottoman Empire and accordingly prospered. Later in the 16th century, Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition arrived in the region and Jews slowly began to settle in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, from which the Ottomans had withdrawn. Austria also ruled over part of the region for two decades in the first half of the 18th century, Jews from various parts of the Austrian Empire began to settle in Vojvodina and establish communities in villages and cities across the region.
During the Serbian struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire, beginning in 1804, violence spilled into areas where Jewish communities had been established. A large number of Jews moved to Zemun, a muncipality of Belgrade. The Jewish community in Serbia generally supported the revolt, and many supplied Serbian rebels with weapons. In return, Jews in Serbia faced brutal reprisals from the Ottomans. After Serbia obtained its independence in the 1830s, the newly formed Serbian government began persecuting Jews living in the region, barring Jews from certain professions. This was also the case with the country’s monarchy, which supported non-Jewish merchants and also pushed for the implementation of discriminatory measures against Jews.
Anti-Jewish measures continued to prevail throughout the century, and Jews were expelled from provincial towns in 1856. Though a law permitting Jews the freedom to practice professions within their own communities came into effect, strict restrictions on Jews remained. This saw the country’s Jewish population slowly decrease each year. In contrast, Jews living in Vojvodina, which was mostly under the influence of the Autro-Hungarian Empire during this period, experienced stability and the region became an important center of Jewish cultural life. The Treaty of Berlin in 1878 gave Serbian Jews full civil rights, but it was not until 1889 that the Serbian Parliament declared equal rights for all Serbian citizens and officially lifted restrictions on Jews. At the end of the century, Zionism became influential among Serbian Jews and many became devoted to its cause.
In the early portion of the 20th century, many Serbian Jews were decorated for their military service in the various wars fought in the region. Jews fought in the Balkan War from 1912 to 1913 and later fought in World War I. After the war, Serbia became a part of the state of Yugoslavia, and the Jewish community in Serbia was linked to Jews in other parts of the kingdom.
The interwar years saw Jewish life in Serbia maintain a relative sense of stability. Antisemitism generally was not an issue, and Serbian Jews were able to participate equally in Serbian society. However, the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust saw Serbian Jewry devastated. A majority of Holocaust survivors in Yugoslavia emigrated for Israel following its establishment in 1948, and many Serbian Jews assimilated.
Unlike most other Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, the Jews who remained in Yugoslavia remained in contact with Jews in Israel and Western countries throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In fact, various Jews held important positions in Josip Tito’s adminstration, including Moŝa Pijade, who was a close confidante of Tito and served as the President of the Federal Assembly from 1954 to 1957.
With the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the outbreak of the civil war, Yugoslavian Jews were thrown into the middle of the violence. Serbian Jews were cut off from the other Jewish communities in the region and became surrounded by many ethnic and nationalist factions that wanted the support of the Serbian Jews.
Throughout the war, the organized Jewish body in Serbia had various tasks imposed on it, like providing food aid, clothing, medicine, and organizing accommodation for refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the NATO campaign on Yugoslavia in 1999, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Serbia evacuated around 600 of its members to Hungary from bombed cities, and then to Israel and other countries.
Though many Jews left Serbia and Montenegro (which did not officially gain independence until 2006) during the violence that engulfed the region throughout the 1990s, the Jewish community in Serbia remains stable today and experiences support from the Serbian government, which recognizes Judaism as one of the seven “traditional” religious communities in the country.