Opinion |

Jews Can’t Let the Genocide Deniers Win

A scant generation since committing the worst atrocities on European soil since the Holocaust, unrepentant Bosnian Serb leaders are on the secessionist warpath again. This is why Jews, and Israel, must speak out

Esther Solomon
Esther Solomon
Women and children, evacuees from the besieged Bosniak enclave of Srebrenica, packed on a truck en route to the UN ‘safe area’ of Tuzla in March 29, 1993. Their male relatives were not allowed to leave
Women and children, evacuees from the besieged Bosniak enclave of Srebrenica, packed on a truck en route to the UN ‘safe area’ of Tuzla in March 29, 1993. Their male relatives weren't allowed to leaveCredit: AP Photo/Michel Euler
Esther Solomon
Esther Solomon

"I will never forget," Vanja told me, "the gratitude I felt."

He was one of the children evacuated from Sarajevo on bus convoys organized by international Jewish humanitarian organizations amid its brutal siege by the Bosnian Serbs during the war of 1992-1995.

Conditions in Sarajevo were bleak: The siege, characterized by desperate shortages of food, medicine, water and electricity, lasted 1,425 days – the longest siege of a capital city in modern times – and cost 5,400 civilian lives, including those of 1,600 children, many of whom were picked out by snipers hiding in high-rise buildings along the city’s central boulevard.

Thousands of women and children were evacuated. The Bosnian Serbs refused to allow male relatives to leave.

The war was spattered by atrocious events: the establishment of rape and concentration camps, mass deportations, the widescale destruction of homes, villages and mosques, the siege of Sarajevo, and the deliberate and systematic murder of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) civilians, particularly (but not only) in the area of Srebrenica. All were committed by Bosnian Serb forces.

Mejra Djogaz with photos of, from left to right, her husband Mustafa and three sons, Zuhdija , Munib, Omer, all killed by Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war in Srebrenica, Bosnia-HerzegovinaCredit: AP Photo/Amel Emric

The massacre in Srebrenica of at least 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, separated from their mothers, wives and sisters in a grim selection process conducted within what was supposed to be a UN-designated and defended "safe haven," was determined in post-war trials by both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and International Court of Justice as genocide. They remain the worst atrocity against civilians in Europe since the Holocaust.

Now, a mere quarter of a century later, there is apprehension, if not dismay, in Bosnia. Bosnian Serbs are talking up secession again, just like they did in the 1990s, and they are ramping up anti-Bosniak incitement again, just like they did in the '90s.

A war in Europe, triggered by racist, irredentist hyper-nationalism with a savage track record and indifference to international agreements, mixed with political and economic meddling by Russia and China: This surely sounds like it should grab attention across the Continent and in the White House.

Pushing back against pervasive genocide denial, if not triumphalism, threats to a multiethnic state with a long history of Jewish culture, and the encirclement of another of Europe’s vulnerable non-Christian minorities, whose demonization is a key theme of antisemitic white supremacists across the globe today: These surely sound like issues that should pull in Jews and Jewish advocacy groups.

But even these seething issues struggle to get anything like the attention they deserve, because we’re talking about Bosnia and its most exposed community: Bosnian Muslims.

'The genie is out of the bottle again'

Members of Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik (L), Zeljko Komsic (C) and Sefik Dzaferovic (R) gather before an official meeting in Sarajevo earlier this yearCredit: ELVIS BARUKCIC - AFP

Bosnia Herzegovina, a country of 3.2 million people in the western Balkans, wedged between Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, is one of the post-communist successor states to Yugoslavia. Its contemporary form, governed by a tripartite presidency (Serb, Bosniak, Croat) divided into two entities, unified by a weak federal government, is the result of a compromise hammered out at a U.S. air force base outside Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, ending three and a half years of war that left 100,000 dead.

Now, the survival of that unlikely, dysfunctional Bosnian state, which nonetheless is a crucial protector of the rights and lives of those of its citizens who fear both statelessness and a repeat of the Serbian atrocities, or who don’t wish to be absorbed into the extraterritorial and often fiercely ethnocentric dreams of its neighbors, is under the most pressure it has faced since its founding.

The Dayton peace process was a success, says Vanja Filipovic, the evacuee who is now Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ambassador to the U.K., whom I met in the London embassy, "but it never addressed the nationalist idea of Greater Serbia. It clamped down on it for a while, but the genie is out of the bottle again."

There have been cyclical crises before but this time the context is very different, and far more ominous. The international community’s interest has waned drastically, even though their representatives are a key safeguard mechanism built into postwar institutions: from supervising the implementation of the peace accords, to the judiciary, to armed peacekeepers.

At the same time, the Bosnian Serb leadership has ramped up its attack on those institutions, to push the state into comprehensive dysfunction – a prelude to demanding secession.

Graffiti celebrating Russian President Vladimir Putin in a suburb of Belgrade, Serbia. Both Russia and Serbia are core allies of Bosnian Serb leader Milorad DodikCredit: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

Those attacks on international engagement in Bosnia and the Serbian separatism are applauded loudly in the Kremlin, playing a long game of geopolitics in the Balkans: intensifying its sphere of influence and closing off the region’s integration with the West, not least with the European Union or NATO. Filipovic says this is contrary to what Bosnians want: "We belong, culturally and economically, to the West. That is where our future is."

One palpable concern in Bosnia is that Russia, together with China (an extensive regional investor-with-strings-attached), will increasingly quash support for Bosnia in the UN Security Council, while President Vladimir Putin pressures the EU to drop its peacekeeping mandate.

The most immediate threat to Bosnia’s territorial and political integrity today comes from inside the house: from the leadership of one of its two constituent entities, the Republika Srpska.

Republika Srpska is led by Milorad Dodik, a Serb ultranationalist known as "Putin’s man in the Balkans." He is a committed genocide denier who calls Srebrenica a "fabricated myth" and an "arranged tragedy," and who introduced legislation striking from use any school textbooks which state Serbs committed genocide and besieged Sarajevo because, in his words, "it is not correct and will not be taught here."

Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, speaks after talks with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar in the capital Sarajevo last monthCredit: ,AP

Dodik is also an LGBT-bashing autocrat who enjoys rubbing shoulders with fellow travelers like Viktor Orbán and France’s far right Éric Zemmour. He is an anti-Muslim demagogue who likes to claim, fact-free, that Bosniaks want a "Muslim state." He’s been under U.S. sanctions since 2017 for obstructing the Dayton peace accords, which haven’t hurt his grip on power, nor the willingness of U.S. officials to meet him.

For most sentient observers, it’s clear Dodik is a centrifuge for both state-level destruction and anti-Muslim hate speech in the Balkans. And this is where genocide denial comes in: "It is a targeted political message aimed at creating further division between communities," says Filipovic. The aim is nothing less than extinguishing any hope in a shared society.

> How Do You Rebuild a Nation After a Genocide? | The Butchers of Bosnia's Muslims Are in Jail, but There Hasn't Been Justice | Justifying Genocide: How the Global Far Right Has Embraced Serbia’s Deadly Demonization of Muslims

At the same time, Republika Srpska leaders, such as its president Zeljka Cvijanovic, cynically if not maliciously accuse the Bosniaks of refusing to move on, of refusing to join an "open dialogue," while refusing point-blank to admit there had been a wartime genocide.

Bosniaks, says Filipovic, always sought justice, not revenge, for the atrocities committed against them, "even though you never have perfect justice for those types of crimes. But at the very least, they expected leaders of all stripes to allow the victims’ families to mourn their loss and to show them respect."

Forensic experts exhume the remains of victims from a mass grave of Bosniaks, executed by Bosnian Serb forces near the village of Snagovo, whose bodies were dumped into pits in the surrounding forestsCredit: REUTERS

Dodik revels in wiping these basic expectations on the floor. His constant denial recalls the tsunami of anti-Bosniak demonization that preceded the war. That targeted incitement created a climate where, eventually, Serbs could shoot their Bosniak neighbors and friends.

Dodik and his like feel today belongs to them. The chilling part is that this is a regression to the Bosnian Serb wartime separatist goals – but this time, to finish the job.

Parallels with Holocaust denial

Along with the bus convoys, among the few heartening episodes of the Bosnian war was the work of La Benevolencija.

The welfare arm of the Bosnian Jewish community, itself founded by refugees expelled from Spain in 1492, La Benevolencija benefited from its unique position as a "neutral party" to set up soup kitchens in Sarajevo, as well as pharmacies, clinics, educational courses and even, when the phone lines were cut, a two-way radio link to the outside world, all on a nonsectarian basis. It became one of Bosnia’s most effective wartime humanitarian NGOs.

These efforts engendered an affection toward the Jewish community which still lingers today, Jakob Finci tells me by email; he headed La Benevolencija during the war. "It became almost a privilege to be a member of the Jewish community." One consequence was a surprising postwar spike in membership, with 150 children of Jewish-Muslim marriages deciding to affiliate in the city that once vied with Salonica for the title of "Jerusalem of the Balkans."

The Moorish Revival-style Ashkenazi synagogue in Sarajevo, Bosnia, the third largest synagogue in Europe when it was built in 1902 to accommodate Ashkenazi Jews from the Austro-Hungarian empireCredit: AP Photo/Kemal Softic

That connection between the Jewish world and Bosnia continued, not least in relation to the wartime genocide and the postwar denial. Filipovic praises how vocal they were. "When the news of [Serb] concentration camps emerged, and the genocide in Srebrenica, many Jewish organizations were hurt and angry," he recounted.

For many individuals and Jewish groups, that indignation and horror has, rightly, persisted, pushing back against the concerted efforts to downplay, revise or outright deny the killings, despite comprehensive documentation and the successful prosecutions of perpetrators for war crimes. The parallels with Holocaust denial write themselves.

Srebrenica Memorial Day is marked on July 11 and, in the U.K., there is already a strong tradition of Jewish community participation. The respect is reciprocal: On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Bosnian genocide survivors join Jewish commemoration events.

Finci points out that recent legislation in Bosnia outlawing genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals, greeted by fury in Republika Srpska, applies equally to Holocaust denial. More broadly, Finci says the Jewish community in Bosnia fights Islamophobia hand-in-hand with confronting antisemitism: They are "two sides of the same coin."

Besieged Sarajevo in 1992: An elderly resident takes advantage of the break in firing by going out for supplies through a downtown area known as its most dangerous because of Bosnian Serb sniper fireCredit: Christophe SIMON / AFP

> Why Israel Should Recognize the Bosnian Genocide | Russia’s WWII Revisionism Is Dividing the Balkans. Just as Putin Intended | 'Quo Vadis, Aida?' Is This Year's Most Devastating, Urgent Film | Biden Wants to Restore U.S. Influence in Europe. He Should Start Here

But this narrative of an unbreakable bond of solidarity is not quite universal. There is more than a handful of prominent Jewish figures who have publicly refused to call a genocide a genocide, from the Wiesenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff to Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer.

And then there are more proactive participants in the Republika Srpska’s revisionism campaign, not least the two Israeli academics (including one Holocaust specialist, providing the full legitimization effect) handpicked to lead so-called “truth commissions” on Srebrenica and the suffering of Serbs in Sarajevo.

The commissions’ reports, blasted out on prime-time Republika Srpska TV shows, unsurprisingly "proved" far fewer Bosniaks had been murdered, and war crimes had been committed by a few "bad apples," and that Serbs were in fact the true iconic victims.

The reports are suffused with language that "others" Bosniaks, suggesting that they are inherently alien and threatening, just as hard-right rhetoric across Europe and beyond pushes the idea that Muslims can never "belong" there either.

The terrible sense of déjà vu in Bosnia, and the difficulty of gaining traction for people to care, naturally raises the question whether the post-Holocaust "Never again" slogan has lost its moral power, or whether it ever really meant anything.

Filipovic is adamant that the battle isn’t over, whether in Bosnia or in any country where radical hate has become mainstream. "Losing faith in ‘Never again’ isn’t giving up on some lofty liberal slogan but on the kind of society in which we all live," he said. "Setting the bar lower would be disastrous: it means giving up on our basic human values, our part in a civilized world."

Israel ‘could speak with a loud, powerful voice’

More fuzzy is the stance of the Jewish state established in the wake of the Holocaust. Israel recognized Bosnia in 1997 but has never formally recognized the Bosnian genocide.

It officially endorsed the UN wartime arms embargo, but there are persistent reports of Israeli weapons being supplied to Bosnian Serb forces, and there is still a gag order covering details of defense exports to the area from 1990-1996, for fear of "damaging Israel’s foreign relations and security."

'Ratko Mladic is a hero, not them': Graffiti supporting Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic on a monument honoring WWII anti-Nazi partisans and Yugoslav-era national heroes in Belgrade, SerbiaCredit: Darko Vojinovic,AP

Israel’s current finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has been a close business partner and political ally of Dodik for decades, and he is not alone.

The unending scandal surrounding the Israeli cyber surveillance firm NSO is only the latest example of how coldly and pragmatically Israel weighs up its defense exports and foreign relations, without losing too much sleep about the nefarious abuses against human rights and democratic values facilitated by those weapons or alliances. The mostly unspoken rule is that Israel can’t afford the "luxury" of prioritizing human rights in its external relations.

And historical revisionism, if not genocide denial, isn’t much of a red line for how Israel makes friends either: In recent decades, Israel has hunkered down with those European states most committed to a WWII revisionism that whitewashes collaboration with the Nazis and the killing of Jews.

But Filipovic is unperturbed by Israel’s long pro-Serb tradition, pointing out strong Israel-Bosnia relations. He suggests Jerusalem could even apply leverage on the Republika Srpska: "Friends tell friends hard things. Israel can talk to its contacts and allies in Belgrade and Banja Luka, reminding them that this kind of tolerance for hate doesn’t serve anybody’s interest."

Images of US President Joe Biden and Bosnia's first President Alija Izetbegovic projected on to Sarajevo’s National Library as Bosnians celebrate Biden's election victory. November 8, 2020.Credit: Kemal Softic,AP

But the real help an embattled Bosnia hopes Israel would offer is to raise its cause with the United States. Filipovic believes Jews’ own experience of genocide gives it particular moral weight if it decided to advocate for Bosnia’s survival, and against the unrepentant genocide deniers: "It could speak with a loud, powerful voice on these issues."

There were perhaps extravagantly high hopes in Bosnia on Joe Biden’s election, based on his forceful wartime advocacy for Bosnia and Kosovo as a U.S. senator, calling out Serbia’s military aggression and calling for U.S. airstrikes to preempt further atrocities. They hoped the Biden administration would make good on its promises to prioritize human rights in foreign policy in place of the barefaced transactionalism of the Trump years.

More Jewish voices need to be raised in support of Bosnia and against predatory Serb nationalism. Whether the State of Israel will fulfill or disappoint Bosnian expectations of solidarity remains to be seen.

Filipovic is judicious, but still a believer. "I don't think anybody in Israel would ever publicly support leaders who defy all the international norms and legal norms and engage in brutal genocide denial, who daily voice religion-based hatred and intolerance," he said.

I didn’t have the heart, or (as yet) the total loss of faith, to disabuse him of that notion.

Esther Solomon is the opinion editor of Haaretz English. Twitter: @EstherSolomon

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