Moe’s Juggling Act

The way Moe Sacirbey tells it, it was back in high school, as an immigrant kid in a mostly Catholic suburb of Cleveland, that he began to see himself as part of a community defined by commitment to human rights and ethnic tolerance.

“There were only a few of us who weren’t from your standard Christian background,” says Sacirbey, now 43. “People knew us as different, and we became very close.” Adolescent angst, but also something more: the stirrings of lifelong activism. “I was elected to the student council before I even became a U.S. citizen. To me, that was indicative of what the United States was about.”

After law school and starting work with a prestigious Jewish law firm in New York, Sacirbey’s religious identity returned to define him. Adding him to the letterhead, the partners urged him to drop “Moe,” the name he’d used since childhood, and reclaim the name his parents gave him: Mohamed.

Identity becomes destiny. As Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations for nearly a decade, Mohamed Sacirbey now plays a unique role as a bridge between the disparate worlds that shaped him.

As Bosnia’s voice to the international community, Sacirbey (pronounced “Shocker-bay”) is one of the world’s most visible advocates of Balkans peace. As a spokesman for Moslems in former Yugoslavia, he’s deeply involved in U.S. and NATO strategy on Kosovo. He’s a leader of the influential Islamic group at the United Nations, working with fellow envoys from Saudi Arabia and Iran. He’s a leading human-rights crusader, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bianca Jagger and Richard Gere.

Most intriguing, he’s a crucial but little-known bridge between his many worlds and the American Jewish community. It’s a job he took on himself, partly because of his background, partly because of Bosnia’s multiethnic history. And, he admits, “in part because the Jewish community is a very effective political community, especially on questions of genocide.”

“Tragedy can bring people together in surprising ways,” he says.

Sacirbey’s alliance with American Jewry began when the Bosnian war erupted in 1992. Heading his own law firm, he was recruited — “sucked in,” he says — to represent the homeland he’d left 25 years earlier. The job included not just U.N. diplomacy but a public campaign to arouse the world’s conscience. He quickly found the organized Jewish world was a key ally.

“The response from the Jewish community to the Bosnia crisis was overwhelming,” he says. “Part of it was a human response. Part of it was a sense of protecting the legacy, that if you say, ‘Never again,’ it has to have a universal application.”

Not all Jews agreed. Some flatly opposed siding with Moslems. Others backed the Serbs, in thanks for their anti-Nazi record. For that matter, Sacirbey says, “some in the conservative Moslem community were suspicious of the Jewish community’s reaction. Some said that Jews are always the enemy.” Some pressured him to back away. He persisted.

“We’ve worked very closely with Moe over the years on various issues,” says American Jewish Committee Executive Vice President David Harris. “It’s principally focused on the conflict in Bosnia, but also on establishing diplomatic relations between Bosnia and Israel. He’s been a good friend.”

Sacirbey’s current agenda centers on Kosovo, just south of Bosnia. They share a religion, Islam, and a common enemy, Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia. But the differences are crucial. Bosnia was an independent state fighting dismemberment. Kosovo is a Serb province threatening secession.

It’s awkward for Sacirbey. As a Moslem, he sympathizes with the Kosovars. As a Bosnian, he supports territorial integrity, even Serbia’s. As a diplomat, he’s supposed to steer clear.

Sacirbey isn’t always diplomatic, though. He’s blunt, independent, and does his job his way. “Moe is the genuine article,” says his former law partner and close friend, Sam Kirschenbaum. “He’s a guy who has strong feelings on things, and he acts on them. As an Orthodox Jew, I don’t always agree with him, but I trust him more than anyone I know outside my family.”

Sacirbey’s diplomacy includes bringing rock bands to Sarajevo, working with Tibetan activists, bringing Israelis and Arabs together. “Somebody has to make an effort to walk between those worlds,” he says. “Otherwise they become disjointed and ridiculous to each other.”

One recent afternoon, he convened a U.N. press conference for Bianca Jagger, the human-rights activist and rock ‘n’ roll legend. She had come to demand Milosevic’s indictment for war crimes. Sacirbey didn’t personally endorse Milosevic’s indictment, on which his multiethnic government is neutral. He just wanted folks to meet Bianca Jagger.

Next was a meeting of Islamic ambassadors, with Jagger in tow. He invited a Jewish journalist to tag along (“just keep your mouth shut and act like you work for me”).

It was the Islamic envoys’ Kosovo committee, chaired by the Iranian ambassador. Judging by body language, many wished they were somewhere else. And not just because of the sultry rock icon before them. Whatever their sympathies for Kosovo’s Moslems, many hate supporting the Pentagon.

Sacirbey worked the group patiently, persistently, nudging them forward like a sheep dog with a stubborn flock. His goal is to forge them into a lobbying group, to produce a General Assembly resolution that condemns Milosevic. Each, in turn, reported on contacts, raised procedural problems, fretted over complications. Sacirbey answered, cajoled. They said things like, “I thank the distinguished deputy permanent representative for his reference to paragraph 17 of the working document.” Sacirbey said things like, “While the world is silent, people are dying.” One envoy praised refugee relief donations from American Moslems. Sacirbey interjected that American Jews had donated generously, too.

Western diplomats say that NATO won’t send ground troops to end Kosovo’s agony without U.N. authorization. But the Security Council, the only U.N. body empowered to dispatch armies, can’t authorize ground troops, because of Russia’s veto.

Sacirbey’s strategy, these diplomats say, looks like an attempt to shame the Security Council into action by passing a General Assembly declaration of world conscience. It could work, they say, but it’s a long shot. The Third World remains too suspicious of Washington. For that matter, Washington is suspicious of the General Assembly.

Sacirbey denies that he’s up to anything so devious. Bosnia has no policy on NATO ground troops. No, a call from the General Assembly to end the brutality would stand on its own merits. Still, he admits that it’s a long shot.

“It’s very tough to develop the will to confront someone like Milosevic until his brutality has been demonstrated,” he says. “Look at what happened with Hitler.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.