Opinion |

Abusing the Holocaust to Deny Genocide: The Serb 'Truth Commissions' and Their Israeli Helpers

'I am Jewish, and I know what genocide means': How Serb nationalists co-opted Israeli academics to whitewash atrocities, bigotry and irredentism in cynically revisionist reports on wartime Srebrenica and Sarajevo

A Bosnian woman walks among gravestones at the Potocari Memorial Center to victims of the Bosnian genocide near Srebrenica
A Bosnian woman walks among gravestones at the Potocari Memorial Center to victims of the Bosnian genocide near SrebrenicaCredit: AP Photo/Amel Emric

The most cynical form of genocide denial has to be the use of Jews as a means to downplay war crimes.

But that's exactly what Serb ethnonationalist politicians are doing. They are hiring Jewish experts on the Holocaust – and not for their expertise. Rather, they need Jews as tokens to legitimize their projects of historical revisionism, and so they can say: It’s not us saying it, it’s a Jewish person, and they know what 'real' suffering is.

From 1992-1995, Bosnia was the site of some of the worst atrocities in postwar Europe, when, as the former Yugoslavia disintegrated, nationalist leaders from Croatia, Serbia and their local Bosnian allies tried to carve up territory and power for themselves no matter what the price in civilian and military lives.

The war cost around 100,000 lives, of which more than 40 percent were civilians. In November 1995, a peace agreement was signed in Dayton, Ohio, dividing the country into two subnational entities, the Serb-majority Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, both administrative units with their own institutions, and overseen by a state-level presidency, parliament, and a council of ministers.

Those administrative divisions are significant because the Dayton Agreement framed the conflict as having no clear winner, no conferral of responsible or identification of a guilty party, in order to 'keep' the peace.

Refugees from Srebrenica look through the razor-wire at a UN base, outside Tuzla. July 13, 1995.Credit: AP Photo/Darko Bandic, File

That 'equalized' outcome was also an invitation for rewriting, or even whitewashing, history at the expense of the facts of the conflict, and its war crimes. It has facilitated some political leaders to spout vitriol (often similar to the vitriol that preceded and accompanied the war's most heinous crimes) for years without any special consequences.

International war crimes trials have proven that the Bosnian Serb army, aided by the Belgrade government, engaged in the most vicious acts of violence specifically aimed at Bosniaks, due to their nominal Muslim faith.

Today, Serbian nationalist hardliners routinely deny there was a genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995, when more than 8,000 Bosniaks were summarily executed over the course of three days. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has ruled that those events constitute genocide.

For decades, there was little that could be done to prevent local Serb nationalists, including the Bosnian Serb member of the presidency, from repeating that there was no genocide in Srebrenica at public rallies, to journalists and even in his regional and international statements.

Banner with faces of Bosnian Muslims killed in the genocide outside the trial of ex-Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic at the International Criminal CourtCredit: MICHAEL KOOREN/ REUTERS

Everything changed two weeks ago, when Bosnia’s High Representative – a peace envoy backed by the country’s Peace Implementation Council to monitor its post-war transition and to step in when local lawmakers cannot deal with pressing or sensitive issues – decided to use his supranational powers to circumvent the country’s institutions, and pass a law penalizing genocide denial.

Although the law was almost universally supported by the international community, the Bosnian Serb member of the country’s three-way presidency, Milorad Dodik, who has called the genocide an "arranged tragedy," even suggesting some of the "alleged" victims are still alive, chose an immediate provocation. He called an impromptu press conference, where he publicly stated that there was, in fact, no genocide in Srebrenica five more times.

He then proceeded to voluntarily report himself to the state prosecutor’s office days later, once the law entered into force, characteristic of his usual theatrics combined with nationalist bravado. So far there has been no proper investigation launched, since the law does not apply retroactively. He hasn’t made any statements violating the law since, but everyone knows he’s just biding his time.

Yet when Dodik is questioned about his denialism, the almost sinister justification he reaches for comes in the form of a weighty 1,000-plus-page report and, specifically, the identity of its key authors.

With the establishment of two "truth commissions" (at Dodik’s behest) in 2019, the decades-long practice of genocide denial by Bosnian Serb politicians – both in power and in opposition – turned into full-on revisionism. One examined the plight of Serbs from Sarajevo and another one reviewed the events that took place in Srebrenica. Of course, the funding for these reports came from Republika Srpska.

Homepage of the Serb-commissioned 'truth commission's report on the 'suffering of all people in the Srebrenica region'Credit: Twitter

Both commissions were helmed by Israeli experts. The Sarajevo commission was chaired by Raphael Israeli, professor emeritus of Islamic, Chinese, and Middle Eastern History at Hebrew University.

Israeli's bibliography showcases a generalizing hostility towards Muslims. In a previous moment of public infamy, Israeli published a book calling Arab citizens of Israel "fifth columnists" and "parasites" who should be "interned" in camps, for which he was slammed by the ADL.

Two other notably pro-Serb books of his, one on the Bosnian war and the other on Kosovo, blame a lack of Serbian "self-confidence" for letting its territory "fall into the hands of Muslims" and criticizes Serb acceptance of the Dayton Accords, which diluted "Serbian territorial integrity."

The Srebrenica "commission" was led by Gideon Greif, an eminent Holocaust scholar who worked at Yad Vashem. Greif also has pro-Serb form: He's been awarded several medals by Belgrade in recognition of his work, having worked with the Serbian government to put on an exhibition at the UN about the Jasenovac concentration camp, which he identifies as a site of the "genocide of the Serbian people."

Greif sees clear parallels between Jewish and Serbian history – a narrative pushed for decades by the Serbian government: "The suffering of the Serbs was a terrible suffering…[one day] the nations of the world will recognize it and show empathy and sympathy for the persecuted Serbian people, whose fate is largely similar to the fate of the persecuted Jewish people for many generations."

But Greif has no recognition or sympathy for Bosniaks' suffering. Interviewed about the commission on Republika Srpska's public broadcaster, RTRS, Greif offered the clearest possible argument for why Serbian revisionists were so delighted with his participation:

"I am Jewish, and I know what genocide means. I belong to the old people who were subjected to total, to the genocide in history of mankind. Nobody can tell me what genocide is and this event was no genocide, not at all," said Greif. "And we proved it."

In honest academic scholarship, the background or ethnicity of the authors of a body of research is entirely irrelevant. Yet Greif's Jewish identity is a core trope, and lest anyone missed it, the project is referred to as "Greif’s Commission" by Dodik and other Bosnian Serb outlets. Beyond Greif, some of the other members of the commission seem like they weren’t selected solely based on their academic or professional acumen.

One of the members is a former spokesman for FCA Serbia – a key government-controlled company that produces vehicles for Fiat; another is a Serbian pathologist previously tasked with finding the burial site of Nazi collaborator Draza Mihailovic. While Greif is a Holocaust historian, the commission does not have a single expert on comparative genocide studies itself.

Perhaps if it had, it would not have featured so prominently terms immediately recognizable to those who have studied sophisticated denialism or propaganda throughout history. The full name of the report is "The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Suffering of All People in the Srebrenica Region Between 1992 and 1995" – italics mine. By using the "all people" trope, the authors immediately disregard the distinct, targeted slaughter, torture and displacement of the Bosniak community, whether or not one describes it as a genocide.

Women and children, Bosniak evacuees from the besieged town of Srebrenica, jump off a U.N. truck after arriving in Tuzla, after a tense journey across the most contested battle lines in BosniaCredit: AP

The report declared its professed aim is to "strengthen trust and tolerance between the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina." Then it claims that the "simplified image of the cold-bloodedly planned murder of up to 10,000 Muslim men does not hold up to detailed research and critical appraisal." The stage is set: This is not just about the definition of genocide but also a determined effort to slash the numbers of Bosniaks killed.

And that effort starts on deeply misleading ground: 10,000 is never the figure used in reference to Srebrenica. The common understanding is that 8,732 civilians, mostly men and boys, but also women and toddlers were killed. The report has the meta-reason for this "inflation": the reason it's so hard to learn "the truth" is "before any solid information was available, Srebrenica had already become…the Bosniak founding myth."

Volunteers dig in a temporarily drained Lake Perucac in eastern Bosnia as they search for the remains of victims of the genocideCredit: AP

With that, the authors parrot the slogans of Serb ultranationalists who say that Bosniaks, tellingly referred to in the report simply as "Muslims," did not properly exist as a nation before the Srebrenica genocide.

At no point does the report – which Dodik declared, in a laughable show of 'balance,' was "also bad for Republika Srpska" because it points to crimes committed "by a few bad apples" – even acknowledge the fact that the Bosniaks were exclusively targeted for their religious identity.

So what is the overarching narrative that Greif presents to 'explain' the war in Bosnia and its atrocities? An athletic attempt to show that the true lords of the land are the Serbs – while at the same time, the Serbs are the region's most iconic victims.

In one of the two report chapters written by Greif himself, he goes back to the Ottoman Empire. That may seem odd: after all, the report aims to dismantle the International Criminal Tribunal's genocide verdicts, which did not deal with historical events prior to the 1990s. It's less odd when seen as part of a concerted Serb effort to otherize the Bosniaks, while claiming sole ownership over victimhood.

In extraordinary detail, the report explains how the Podrinje region, in which Srebrenica is located, was Islamicized by the Ottomans, with hold-out Orthodox Christians forced to leave (in fact, the Ottomans did not expel the non-Muslim population, but rather incentivized conversion or resettlement).

Posters depicting former Bosnian Serbian commander Ratko Mladic and reading 'You are our hero', are displayed in the town of Bratunac, on November 22, 2017Credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP

The only possible relevance of this quasi-history is to perpetuate the Serb nationalist belief that Srebrenica was a form of historical "justice," since the "Muslims" are interlopers on ancient Serb land. (This by the way exactly reflects the works of the other Jewish commission member, Raphael Israeli).

Indeed, one of the common tropes used to vilify the Bosniak population in the 1990s was call them "Turks," after their supposed (foreign, imperialist) ancestors.

When he entered Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, Ratko Mladi announced that "the time has come to enact revenge upon the Turks." And only last week, responding to the arrival of a new UN High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dodik slammed as "pathological" Bosniak "joy" at Christian Schmidt taking office, and again called them "converts" who had abandoned their original religion.

The other historical period that Greif seizes on is WWII, and particularly, the "unfinished business regarding the Nazi Croat death camps." Greif is an expert on Jasenovac, the vicious death camp run by the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet state, where between 77,000-99,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma, Croat and Bosniak opponents of the regime were brutally murdered.

Why, again, did Greif focus at such length on a period outside the historical purview of the International Criminal Court's charges? The only logical conclusion is its usefulness harking back to history when ethnic Serbs were victims. Here, the report again confirms its political role – to diminish Bosniak victimhood by appealing to the unjustly 'unrecognized' genocide of Serbs – and its connection to the Holocaust.

Two Serbian policemen guard a group of Bosnian Muslim men from the Srebrenica enclave who crossed into the Serb town of Uzice from Bosnia seeking sanctuary. August 5 1995.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Serbian government seeded the same narrative by hiring experts such as Michael Berenbaum, another Holocaust historian and executive editor of the New Encyclopaedia Judaica as a producer and advisor to Serbia’s 2021 Oscar entry, "Dara From Jasenovac." The film's gruesome scenes were intended to prove to the viewer that prior to the Srebrenica genocide, there was a Serb genocide, too. Morning TV shows in Serbia talked about how the film was legitimate because there was "a Jewish expert" attached to the project.

Prior to Berenbaum, it was Greif who was popular among Serb nationalists and revisionists for repeatedly inflating the number of Serb victims at Jasenovac. Instead of the commonly accepted estimate of around 50,000, or 60 percent of the camp’s casualties, Greif claims that "at least 800,000" Serbs perished, "to the dismay of responsible historians," as a recent rebuke of the commissions’ report by Menachem Z. Rosensaft points out.

One more trope fully embraced by the report, and perhaps the most popular among quasi-intellectuals as well as the 'intellectual left,' is that America is to blame. NATO and the U.S., according to this theory, deliberately maintained the artificial idea of Bosniaks as a national minority, rather than Muslims with no national claims, exaggerated their "victim status," and reassigned to them parts of the Serb heartland, for their own nefarious "geopolitical benefit."

To back up the point, the report offers an article-by-article refutation of The Guardian, The New York Times, The New Republic, The National Review and others regarding their Srebrenica coverage, 'evidence' of a concerted international conspiracy to demonize Serbs. This is an admission of failure: Despite its best efforts, the report[AB3] did not manage to advance beyond often-rehashed talking points of conspiracists, and thus circles back to them.

Hardline nationalist protesters makes the three-fingered Serb salute and hold pictures of war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic, Vojislav Seselj and Ratko Mladic at a rally in Belgrade, Serbia.Credit: REUTERS

It’s extremely uncomfortable to watch Israeli and Jewish figures so happily lending not only their expertise but also their names and faces to minimize war crimes committed on European soil half a century after the Holocaust. But the choice of Greif and Israeli by Dodik and his collaborators was a conscious choice: to pre-emptively shut down any criticism of the report. If 'representatives' of that persecuted community say there was no genocide in Srebrenica, who are you to go against that?

The obvious question is why Greif and Israeli allowed themselves to be exploited like this, and why they would even bother with the convoluted, borderline necrophiliac narratives of the likes of Dodik, easily the most hate-mongering politician in the Western Balkans today.

There is no doubt that "the Jewish experience" is being used as the Serb ultranationalist measuring stick to legitimate and spread revisionist narratives. But just as Serb nationalists tokenize and celebrate "their" Jews, there shouldn't be an expectation that all academics of Jewish background would agree unanimously on whether the killing of Bosniaks should be defined as genocide. The question is whether those debates are conducted in good faith or not.

For instance, Srebrenica has spurred a lively, constructive discussion over the uniqueness of the Holocaust as the only European genocide. Well-meaning genocide experts like Holocaust studies professor Yehuda Bauer have never minimized the horrors of Srebrenica but disagree with its designation as a genocide: "Much larger numbers of victims in other situations were not considered genocide."

A flower is placed next to a name of a victim of the Srebrenica genocide, carved in memorial cemetery in Potocari, Bosnia-HerzegovinaCredit: AP Photo/Darko Bandic

But despite the glee of Serbian ultranationalists, this is still within the bounds of genuine debate. And there are plenty of both Israeli and Jewish experts who don't hesitate to call Srebrenica a genocide, such as Israel Charny, who heads the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and wrote "The Encyclopedia of Genocide."

But it’s not the nuances of academic disputes that are of interest to the average genocide denier in the Balkans. It is the privilege of having Jewish experts on your side, deemed by definition as experts on suffering, that explains the calculated philosemitism found among Serb nationalists.

Serb politicians serially instrumentalize the Jewish community and its suffering for their own goals without actually standing with the community itself.

Dodik, as well as other political actors in Bosnia, keeps quiet about the fact that Bosnian Jews, just like all citizens whose identities are not explicitly defined as Bosniak, Serb or Croat, are second-class citizens. He prefers to talk noisily about his good friend and advisor Arie Livne, after whom a Jewish community center was named in Banja Luka, as proof of his warmth towards Jews in general.

The audacity of using individual experts 'representing' an entire community as a prop to excuse atrocities, bigotry and irredentism is indeed beyond the pale. Since the Republika Srpska commission published its results, Serb nationalists have formed a chorus: "Well, if Jews say it wasn't genocide, you have no standing."

The imminent political crisis in Bosnia leading up to the 2022 general elections, which threaten the country's integrity in the name of the nationalist narratives backed by the "truth commissions," will sadly and inevitably see further manipulation and exploitation of Jews, the Jewish community, history and the Holocaust as a stick to beat the Bosniaks and validate the Serbs.

Aleksandar Brezar is a print, TV and radio journalist formerly based in Brussels and currently mainly reporting on Southeast Europe. Twitter: @brezaleksandar

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