Why Did This Muslim Majority Country Put a Jewish Congressman on a Stamp?

JTA
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Rep. Eliot Engel is featured on a Kosovo postage stamp in what may be a first. (Office of Eliot Engel)
Rep. Eliot Engel has become the first U.S. congressman to be featured on a postage stamp in Kosovo.

Engel, a New York Democrat, may be the first Jewish member of Congress on a stamp, period. Bella Abzug helped inspire a 1999 stamp celebrating the women’s rights movement, but the late New York Democrat’s face isn’t on it.

There’s a Jewish story behind why a Muslim majority nation honored Engel this week with a two-euro stamp.

Engel was among a cadre of U.S. lawmakers and public figures who urged the Clinton administration to intervene during the Kosovo war in 1999, heading off what many feared would be a genocide of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians at the hands of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Many of the same figures were part of the push to recognize the Balkan state when it declared independence in 2008.

Among those out front in the push to protect Kosovo were Engel and Rep. Jerry Nadler, a fellow New York Democrat, along with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and two late congressmen, Reps. Tom Lantos and Ben Gilman, as well as the late Holocaust memoirist Elie Wiesel. Ask Kosovar Albanians why, and more often than not they’ll explain that it’s because the men are Jewish. Albanians saved Jews during the Holocaust, and Jews subsequently returned the favor is how it usually goes.

Engel is aware of the valor of Albanians during World War II. But he and others say they were haunted by America’s reticence to intervene on behalf of the Jews during the Holocaust and driven not to repeat history.

“What do you see in terms of on the ground, the people there, do you see despair?” Engel asked an American fact-finding team at a 1998 hearing. “Is there a feeling that the United States has abandoned them?”

Engel’s stamp was presented to him this week when he was in the country to help open an office of the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government assistance agency. Engel’s office helped secure a $49 million MCC grant for the country.

“I’m deeply honored and surprised that this was being done. I had no idea,” Engel told JTA in an email message. “My work to promote the U.S.-Kosovo relationship has been among the most meaningful endeavors of my years in Congress. I’m happy to have helped people’s lives and promote prosperity in the region.”

It’s not Engel’s first honor in the country: In 2008, the town of Pec named a street for him.

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