Head of Bosnian Jewish Community 'Astonished' by Israeli Memo on Election Reform

Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, criticizes an Israeli memo endorsing an electoral reform plan which many say would minimize the political influence of Jews and other minorities in the country

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
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Jakob Finci, President of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jakob Finci, 2017.
Jakob Finci, President of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jakob Finci, 2017.Credit: Kate Bartlett
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

The President of the Bosnian Jewish community harshly criticized Israel’s decision to involve itself in his country’s internal politics on Thursday, accusing the embassy of acting in support of a local ethnic Croat political party.

In an email to Haaretz, Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, declared himself “astonished” by an Israeli memo endorsing a controversial electoral reform plan which critics say would minimize the political influence of Jews, Roma and other minorities in the country.

The leaked memo, which was issued by the Israeli Embassy in the Albanian capital, Tirana, which is also responsible for Bosnia, asserted that “the readiness and proposals of the Croat side, as demonstrated throughout negotiations on changes to the electoral legislation, [are] welcomed.”

Promoted by the Office of the High Representative —an EU-supported institution created after the Balkan wars of the 1990s to oversee civilian aspects of the implementation of the agreement ending the war in Bosnia— the plan would weigh local demographics in elections, which could in turn further consolidate the power of ethnonationalist parties.

It has been welcomed by Croat nationalists while eliciting protests from the country’s Jewish community, which numbers fewer than 900 out of a total population of 3.2 million.

Bosnia’s current political system is based on a power-sharing agreement among its three major ethnic groups: Muslim Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats – an arrangement that is believed to have excluded more than 100,000 citizens from top level political representation.

“This was the first time that Israel is taking a position in internal Bosnia affairs, not helping the Jewish Community, or at the request of Jewish Community, but one political party in the country,” wrote Finci, who has previously petitioned to change the current system at the European Court of Human Rights.

Finci’s comments came less than a day after the Israeli Foreign Ministry told Haaretz that the embassy’s memo had expressed “support [for] the preservation of the rights of the Jewish community in the country” and had been “sent following a local initiative to change the election law and the fear that the implications of the discussion around this change might harm those rights.”

The ministry declined to comment on Finci’s comments or on an email apparently written by the Israeli ambassador which was published in the Bosnian media on Wednesday. In the letter, Ambassador Noah Gal Gendler claimed that “the rights of the Jewish community in the country are being misused to block essential internal processes in [Bosnia and Herzegovina.]”

“We know and greatly appreciate [Finci] and his work for the Jewish community and we have no interest in responding to his words,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman told Haaretz.

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic, a Bosniak politician of Jewish heritage, told Haaretz on Tuesday that she was surprised by the Israeli memo.

“It is hard to fathom how the official policy of the State of Israel could be to welcome the discrimination of Jews in not being able to hold office in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” she said.

“A sincere approach and genuine support by the government of Israel is required in order to protect the rights of the Jewish people in Bosnia and Herzegovina rather than heaping praise on those who perpetuate inequality by denying people of other backgrounds, such as Jews, their rights in Bosnia.”

The foreign minister also echoed these sentiments in a letter to the Israeli Foreign Ministry in which she demanded a clarification and asserted that the majority of Bosnian parties were against the proposed reform.

Turkovic’s condemnation appeared to spark anger among Bosnian Croats, with Deputy Foreign Minister Josip Brkić disavowing her comments on social media.

“Today, during my phone call with Israeli Ambassador H. E. Mr. Noah Gal Gendler, I conveyed that the demarche sent to @IsraelinAlbania is not the official position of State of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the particular view of one political party,” he tweeted.

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