Opinion |

Why Are Israel's Top Holocaust Scholars So Willing to Deny This Genocide?

I expected some solidarity with fellow victims of a twentieth century European genocide. I found, instead, senior Israeli Holocaust experts happily co-opted into Serbian revisionism and denial. The reasons aren’t pretty

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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Bosnian Muslim refugees from Srebrenica, fleeing the eastern Bosnian village of Potocari to Bosnian Muslim-held Kladanj near Olovo. July 13, 1995
Bosnian Muslim refugees from Srebrenica, fleeing the eastern Bosnian village of Potocari to Bosnian Muslim-held Kladanj near Olovo. July 13, 1995Credit: Reuters
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

The Potocari memorial center sits amidst lush countryside and thickly forested hills. On a hot summer’s day, the scent of cut grass and clover drifts over the graveyard where thousands of plain white tombstones stretch out into the distance.

Each year on July 11, the memorial day for the Srebrenica genocide, more fragments of human remains unearthed from the ongoing excavations of mass graves are laid to rest here. This year, there were 33 burials, two and half decades after the victims' deaths.

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A former factory complex, Potocari was where the UN’s Dutch battalion was stationed in 1995 and to where local Muslims fled in the vain hope of protection when Bosnian Serb forces moved on the Bosnian Muslim enclave.

Dutch U.N. peacekeepers sit on top of an armored personnel carrier while Muslim refugees from Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, seek their protection in the village of Potocari. July 13, 1995 Credit: ,AP

The ensuing days saw the systematic murder of more than 8,000 men and boys in several locations, an atrocity which the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia subsequently found to be an act of genocide.

The organization I work for, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, was formed amid the Balkan wars of the 1990s. I spent many years observing, reporting and editing stories from the Tribunal. War crimes trials tend to be hours of dull legalese, interspersed with moments of grim drama. Their dry detail did not prepare me for this, my first visit.

I am shown around by Srebrenica by H, a survivor of the genocide, who grew up there. It used to be a lively regional centre, with a popular spa hotel and thriving mining and forestry industries.

Only a thousand or so people live here now. The hotel is derelict, and many houses are similarly abandoned. There is a Srebrenica hostel and local tourism centre, but it’s unlikely that the visitors come for the hiking.

He and I walk down a street in the centre of town lined with earth banks. These were once Muslim-owned shops and houses, all leveled by the conquering army.

He points out the building where he spent the night as a 19-year-old, debating with his cousins whether their chances of survival were better staying in Potocari or attempting to flee to the Bosnian Muslim-held territory of Tuzla. His cousins chose the former, he the latter.

Fresh graves dug at in Potocari, Bosnia for the remains recovered this year of 33 victims of the Srebrenica massacre, when Serb troops executed 8,000 Muslim men and boys. July 10, 2019Credit: Darko Bandic,AP

Then he shows me the path into the forest he took the next morning, embarking on a journey that lasted six days and nights, without food or sleep.

It turned out to be a death march; only 3,000 of the more than 10,000 men and boys who left Srebrenica survived. The rest were ambushed en route or lured out of the forest by Bosnian Serb forces posing as UN peacekeepers. They were either killed on the spot or taken away to be shot dead elsewhere.

Among the victims were most of the men in H’s immediate family, including his father and twin brother. A decade later, he buried them; or at least, he buried the bones that had been found in mass graves.

"Civilized Europe has not learned any lessons," he says.

For those for whom, as Avram Burg once put it, the Holocaust forever buzzes in their ear like a mosquito, it seems familiar. The ghettoization; the piles of lost possessions; the cowed, emaciated victims, although in this case they are depicted in color and in grainy VHS footage.

Hajra Catic cleans her husband's grave in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia. She is still searching for her son's remains; he was killed in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. June 23, 2015Credit: \ REUTERS

There was a selection in Potocari too, when the men and boys were separated from the women and girls and led away to almost certain death. That also took place in front of the UN, and no-one intervened.

At Potocari, I ask about visitors from Israel, whom I perhaps expected might be interested in solidarity with other victims of a twentieth century European genocide.

I asked about collaboration with Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Authority, Yad Vashem, naively assuming that the intersection of the rarefied world of genocide studies and the small club of nations who've experienced would have produced some form of relationship. A niche area of education and awareness-raising where all would be keen to share best practice and collaborate over resonance and impact.

But I am told that there is no relationship or interest. I find this strange because the Jewish diaspora, and its Holocaust memorial institutions and museums, have a much more universalist outlook on this darkest chapter of Jewish history - and practical collaborative relationships based on work against hate, racism and mass murder. Their work is to memorialize but also to warn, educate and prevent.

To further embitter matters, those who want to manipulate atrocity for their own ends in this part of the Balkans have already landed on the Holocaust as a ripe target for exploitation, and its researchers and experts as convenient enablers.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is now divided into two entities; the Federation, dominated by Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and Republika Srpska , which is largely Bosnian Serb. Their narratives of what happened during the war often diverge, to put it mildly.

A Bosnian Muslim woman as she searches coffins in Potocari, near Srebrenica July 9, 2011Credit: REUTERS

Earlier this year, Republika Srpska appointed Israeli historian Gideon Greif – who has worked at Yad Vashem for more than three decades - to head its own revisionist commission to "determine the truth" about Srebrenica, no matter that the Bosnian war is possibly the most forensically documented in history. (My emails to Yad Vashem to query Greif's role in the "truth commission" have gone unanswered).

To add insult to injury, another Republika Srpska commission will investigate the wartime suffering of Serbs in Sarajevo - besieged by Bosnian Serb forces for nearly four years, the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare – and it is also headed by an Israeli academic, Hebrew University professor Rafael Israeli.

Depressingly, other Israeli Holocaust scholars are also happy to be co-opted into such denial. Ephraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre has repeatedly insisted that what happened at Srebrenica was not genocide.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has been awarded numerous accolades from Serbia - including a nomination for a Nobel peace prize – for what former president Tomislav Nikolic (an on-the-record Srebrenica genocide denier) describes as his "exceptional achievements."

In a 2015 interview, academic advisor to Yad Vashem, Yehuda Bauer, also denied that the Srebrenica atrocities were genocide, arguing that there had been "mass murders on all sides" in Bosnia.

Cosily, Republika Srpska is one of the very few entities to base its Israeli representative office in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv.

An aerial view of the Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 20, 2015Credit: \ Dado Ruvic/ REUTERS

In the UK, Holocaust Memorial Day is marked each year on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Explicit in the project’s remit is that victims of other genocides and mass atrocities are always included; they include Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

Similarly, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum campaigns over atrocities in South Sudan, against the Rohingya, in Syria, in Zimbabwe.

In Israel, it seems, the Holocaust must only be viewed as a unique event in human history. Maybe this is because it is yoked to the narrative of the redemptive power of Zionism: in this telling, the genocide ended and a free state for its survivors was born from the ashes. But that arc is a problematic enough lens for the Holocaust; for other victims, it has no relevance at all.

In Rwanda, survivors live in a police state. Bosnia remains dysfunctional and communally fragile nearly 30 years later. The fact that one of Srebrenica’s destroyed mosques was rebuilt and the call to prayer is heard there again - or that H has moved back in defiance to the town he fled in July 1996 - is a small and hollow victory.

Redemption is not the quid pro quo of genocide. There really isn’t one. Memorial and justice are the very least we owe the victims, and it feels particularly grievous if those values cannot be recognized as universal.

Daniella Peled is managing editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has reported widely from across the Middle East. @DaniellaPeled

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