Bosnian politicians mull ending constitutional discrimination of Jews, Roma

Politicians from Bosnia and Herzegovina discussed changing the country’s constitution to end discrimination against Jews and other minorities.

The politicians met on July 13 but did not come up with a concrete plan. Two days earlier, an Irish minister had urged Bosnia’s government to allow Jews, Roma and other minorities to run for high elected office. Ireland is the 2012 chair of the Organization for Security in Cooperation in Europe – an intergovernmental body.

“There is no excuse to discriminate against anyone, especially minorities,” Irish European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton said during a visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. “This is especially important in a post-conflict society.”

The Bosnian Constitution, drafted during peace talks in 1995, restricts the highest offices of state to members of three ethnic and religious groups – Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats. The constitution was devised to avoid ethnic strife, following a bloody civil war which ravaged the country from 1992 to 1995.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2009 that the exclusion of Jews and Roma from Bosnia’s highest state offices is unlawful discrimination.

Jakob Finci, a Bosnian Jewish lawyer who filed the lawsuit, told JTA that “nothing has been done” since the ruling. He filed it along with a Roma colleague.

“Being a small group of 1,000 Jews, we do not have any power to change this,” Finci said. “[It’s up to] the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which we do not have even one representative.”

Opinion: All in

Two years ago, before our very eyes, a liberation movement of great courage and hope began to unfold halfway around the world. Blood ran like water in the streets of distant capitals, and still people fought, flesh against tanks, citizens against infantry, poets against police.

How could we not see the parallels to the Passover narrative, how could we not embrace their calls for liberation as our own?

Oh yeah, because they’re Arabs.

Because those uprisings have taken place in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria, the collective Jewish response has been more teeth-gnashing than hand-clapping. Yes, we want people to be free — that, at face value, is our central communal narrative, the one we’re about to gather and read this weekend at our seder tables. But … but … but what about Israel? 

Our worries over how these sweeping changes will affect Israel dull our reflexes and dampen our humanitarian impulses. Sure, freedom is good, but what about the Muslim Brotherhood? We’re all for an end to torture, but what about the peace treaties? We applaud nonviolent resistance, but what if it sweeps into the West Bank?

Tunisia and Libya are one thing, but Egypt and Syria are something else. The closer the Arab Spring blooms to Israel, the greater our allergic reaction.

The great shame in all this is that American Jews, with their power, their voices and their skills can do much, much more to come to the aid of the Syrian rebels and help bring about the end of the Bashir Assad regime.

The most immediate thing we can do is tell our good friends Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to step up and act boldly. I don’t mean Iraq III.  I mean something closer to Kosovo II.

The parallel to Syria, as Fouad Ajami pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, is Bosnia. There another Clinton hesitated to use military action to thwart the murderous march of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair steeled the American spine, and Clinton ordered a NATO air campaign against Serbia. Congress supported it — as I’m sure it would a concerted, well-planned action against Assad — and the paper tiger crumbled and ran away.

“We could, with some moral clarity,” writes Ajami, “recognize the Syrian National Council as the country’s legitimate government, impose a no-fly zone in the many besieged areas, help train and equip the Free Syrian Army, prompt Turkey to give greater support to defectors from Syrian units, and rally the wealthy Arab states to finance the effort.”

With some moral clarity. That’s the operative phrase here. Passover is a time of moral clarity. The Children of Israel were freed with “an outstretched hand,” the story goes, but with no guarantees of what happens next.

The realists among us warn that Syria, smack in the middle of every ethnic and religious tension in the Middle East, is better left to stew in its own juices. Israel doesn’t need the headache of another unstable nation on its border, with the possibility of an extremist Muslim takeover. 

But Syria is already unstable, and some of its most radical elements, like Hamas, given shelter by the Assad regime, have wisely departed, before being run out. 

The truth is, if we don’t help now, we may forfeit the ability to influence the direction of the coming crack-up.

“If the international community doesn’t arm them [the Syrian rebels] and provide logistical support, ‘everything’ the world fears from the fall of Assad will come to pass,” a Syrian rebel leader told Foreign Policy magazine.

“The people will get weapons, one way or another, so help us,” the leader said. “If you give us weapons, we can control them. We want the fall of the regime, not the fall of the state. If the international community helps us, we’ll help them. If it doesn’t, our people offer no guarantees.”

It sounds like a threat, but it’s really desperation. Nothing in the history of the Assad regime, father or son, can lead one to believe Syria will honor commitments to the current U.N. ceasefire efforts, or to the longer-term interests of its people. We who come together each year to celebrate the gift of freedom, the miracle of liberation, should know that better than anyone. Pharoahs can’t be persuaded. Pharoahs can only be beaten.

“There are risks to be run, no doubt,” concludes Ajami, “But at present we have only the shame of averting our eyes from Syrian massacres. If we act now, President Obama, when he pens his memoirs, could still claim vindication, or at least that he gave Homs and Hama and Deraa his best.”

The Syrian people have decided to outstretch their own hand — the question is whether we will reach out to grab it.


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Despite UNESCO victory, Palestinian statehood push running aground

They may have scored a victory at UNESCO, but the Palestinians are running into new obstacles on their push for statehood recognition at the United Nations.

The effort to pursue the issue at the U.N. Security Council has encountered a stumbling block in Bosnia, where the country’s Serbian co-president appears to have helped cost the Palestinians a crucial ninth vote.

Meanwhile, U.N. officials are sending a strong message regarding any further efforts to get U.N. agencies to follow UNESCO’s lead in granting the Palestinians membership: Please stop.

“I believe this is not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody,” Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, said in a Nov. 3 interview with The Associated Press.

U.S. laws requiring an automatic cutoff in funds to U.N. agencies that grant statehood recognition to the Palestinians already have threatened massive cuts to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural and scientific agency.

“When an organization is not properly functioning because of a lack of resources, you have to think about the millions and millions of people who are being impacted and affected,” Ban said.

The Palestinians have taken heed. On Nov. 3, the day that AP published its Ban interview, Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said the Palestinians would stick to pursuing the Security Council option.

“The backlash that’s coming from UNESCO, including from the secretary-general, made it clear it might be a risky counterproductive process to go to other agencies,” said Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. “So for the time being they’re concentrating on the Security Council.”

Pro-Israel officials said this should be a “duh” moment for the Palestinians, who had been clearly warned of the dangers—not least by congressional appropriators. The appropriators had said repeatedly that cutting off U.N. agencies recognizing “Palestine“ was a matter not only of policy but law.

“Any agency that was considering the Palestinians will now not consider it,” said Tom Neumann, the executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “There was no margin for wiggling out of it. The State Department is unhappy about cutting UNESCO, but they didn’t have a choice.”

Israel and the United States say the only route to statehood for the Palestinians is through direct negotiations. The Palestinians refuse to return to talks until Israel freezes settlement building.

The Obama administration had made it clear that it would veto any Security Council bid. The Palestinians could have put the United States in the difficult position of having to use its veto in the Security Council by garnering nine votes from the council’s 15 members, the minimum required to approve a membership request. That, the Palestinians believed, would have been an important symbolic victory.

The Palestinians had secured the backing of China, Russia, Brazil, Lebanon, South Africa and India at the Security Council. Pledging to vote against or to abstain were the United States, Britain, France, Germany and close U.S. allies Colombia and Portugal. The U.S., Israel and pro-Israel groups had targeted the three countries that were seen as up for grabs: Nigeria, Gabon and Bosnia.

Nigeria and Gabon, both with close oil-based ties to the Arab world, reportedly moved into the Palestinian column, giving the Palestinians eight votes. That left Bosnia, a recipient of Western assistance that still nurtures hopes of joining the European Union.

The wild card for the Bosnians turned out to be its unique presidency, where U.N. votes must be approved. Three co-presidents represent the country’s major communities—Muslim, Croat and Serb.

The Muslim president reportedly favored statehood recognition, and the Croat’s position was not known. But the Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, was adamantly opposed, and last week the president’s office announced that lacking unanimity, Bosnia would abstain.

A request to the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington as to Palestinian strategies going forward went unanswered.

The Palestinians can still bring the case to the General Assembly, where they have the votes to achieve enhanced observer status, equivalent to the Vatican.

The setbacks to the Palestinians’ U.N. strategy do not mean that the issue of Palestinian statehood is off the table, said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Absent the diplomatic route, he warned, the Palestinians might press for statehood through violence.

“There’s a frustration that it’s not on the Israeli agenda, it’s dropped from the American agenda and they have to do something to put it back on everyone’s agenda,” Alterman said.

The alternative to progress toward statehood could be the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, under pressure from a populace that is fed up with its diplomatic failures, said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, an Israeli strategic policy think tank.

Speaking Tuesday in Denver to JACPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, at a session convened during the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly, Grinstein said that Israel and the United States should embrace the Palestinian U.N. bid as a means of avoiding what he said would be a disaster.

“Instead of fighting the Palestinian motion in the U.N., embrace it and work for it,” Grinstein said. “There’s a lot of risks on this option, but are there lesser risks with a Palestinian Authority that could implode?”

Israel to extradite alleged Bosnian war criminal

A Bosnian Serb with Israeli citizenship can be extradited to Bosnia to stand trial on charges of genocide, a Jerusalem court ruled.

Aleksandar Cvetkovic, who is married to an Israeli woman, will be extradited to a court in Sarajevo in the next 60 days following Monday’s ruling by the Jerusalem District Court, unless he appeals to Israel’s Supreme Court within 30 days.

Cvetkovic, 43, is accused of involvement in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Serbian troops.

He was arrested in January following an extradition request from Bosnia. He is alleged to have been part of an eight-man firing squad that executed Bosnian Muslim males at the Branjevo Farm as part of the massacre.

Cvetkovic, who has lived in Israel since 2006, said he served as an army driver in Srebrenica during Bosnia’s civil war between 1992 and 1995, and did not participate in the massacre.

Bosnia genocide unrolls in scroll of shame

Radovan Karadzic has been arrested. He faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity before the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague. It’s an occasion to recall the genocide in Bosnia and the shame of those who did not prevent it.

When Yugoslavia broke up into its constituent nations in the early 1990s, Yugoslav Communist Party leader Slobodan Milosevic reinvented himself as a Serbian nationalist. He called on all the Serbs in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia to form a single state. In Karadzic, he found a willing henchman.

Karadzic was the leader of the Bosnian Serbs. Until the war, Bosnia was an ethnically mixed state of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Karadzic’s mission was to create an ethnically pure Serbian space in eastern Bosnia that could be assimilated into a “greater Serbia.” In the war that followed, the euphemism “ethnic cleansing” entered the unholy vocabulary of genocide.

The war raged from 1992 to 1995. It was an ethnic war; a religious war; a war against people, property and culture; a war of irredentism; a war of savagery and barbarism; a war of shame.

First in the scroll of shame are the Serbs themselves. While not alone in perpetrating war crimes in Bosnia, they excelled. They let themselves be swept up in the spirit of fascism.

In Bosnia, they murdered and destroyed like beasts. In Serbia, they cheered. The voices in opposition were too quiet, too few.

Even today, too many Serbs regard Karadzic, Milosevic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, as heroes instead of war criminals. Many greeted the capture of Karadzic with dismay. He might be free still, were his dispatch to The Hague not a condition for Serbia’s accession to the European Union.

Shame on the United Nations. When the war began, it imposed an arms embargo on all sides to the Bosnian war. The Bosnian Serbs continued to receive arms from the Yugoslav army. The Bosnian Muslims had nothing. Thus, the United Nations did not merely equate the aggressors with the victims it favored the aggressors in the guise of evenhandedness.

The Bosnian genocide included the murder of some 7,000-8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica by Serb forces. Despite the fact that Srebrenica was a U.N.-designated “safe area,” Dutch peacekeepers stood aside and did nothing to protect the Bosnian Muslims from the Serbs.

Shame on America. President George H.W. Bush did nothing to intervene. During the 1992 campaign, candidate Bill Clinton criticized Bush for his inaction. Then Clinton was elected and did nothing. A stream of excuses poured out of Washington, while the agony of the Bosnian Muslims went on.

When Clinton was finally roused to action, two weeks of bombing brought Serb aggression to an end. This showed how heart-rendingly easy it would have been for earlier intervention to save scores of thousands of lives.

Shame on NATO. For over a decade, while it patrolled Bosnia after the war, it failed to arrest the indicted Karadzic. At various times, his location was known, but the political will to seize him was missing. It is even said that the NATO powers quietly agreed to let him be, fearful of the repercussions.

Shame on the Jews? It is possible that the Jews have the least reason to be ashamed. When there were rallies and protests to support the Bosnian Muslims, Jews were in the forefront. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was a leader in the Senate effort to end the U.S. arms embargo against Bosnia.

At the 1993 dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel turned to President Clinton and said, “Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew, I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country. People fight each other, and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.”

Putting war criminals on trial doesn’t bring anyone back to life, doesn’t return a single refugee to his home. Evil must be fought before the thousands or the millions die, not merely deplored or put on trial afterward. If we don’t really believe this, we should stop saying, “Never again.”

Paul Kujawsky is a member of the board of directors of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles. He can be reached at

Passover Refugees

It was March 31, the first night of Passover, and his native Yugoslavia was again convulsed by war.

So it was fitting, perhaps, that young Ismael chose melodies from the repertoire of the old Sephardic rabbis of Bosnia and Kosovo while leading his first seder.

In Bosnia, during the Yugoslavian civil war earlier this decade, and now in Kosovo, the policy of ethnic cleansing had prompted the mass exodus of entire local populations. Yet any parallels with the Exodus recorded in the Haggadah were lost on Ismael’s audience — Yugoslav Jews who are now into their second week as refugees in Budapest.

They were preoccupied with thoughts of family and friends back home, where NATO’s intensifying air assault is aimed at ending Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s repression of 2 million Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo.

All of which made for a pretty gloomy seder. Despite the glittery Christmas decorations hung by their well-meaning Hungarian hosts, the 150 Yugoslav Jews were crammed shoulder to shoulder in a dimly lit hall and eating with plastic cutlery and off paper plates. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to bring three Serbian-language Haggadahs with them from Yugoslavia.

Since he is studying to be a cantor, Ismael was pressed into service.

“It’s the first one I’ve led, but I’m not really in the mood for it,” said the amiable 22-year-old, who asked to be identified by his Hebrew name rather than his Serbian one. “We’re all tired, and everyone’s nervous.”

Indeed, the seder underscored the pain of people separated from their families. Olga, her parents and two older sisters traditionally celebrate Passover with the local Jewish community in Yugoslavia. But when NATO began shelling on March 24, her father didn’t take any chances. He sent away his wife and youngest daughter.

The Nazis had killed his father in 1941, when they invaded Serbia.

“After his experience with World War II, this frightens him,” said Olga, a 23-year-old sculptor. “People are confused and panicked, and the sirens are on most of the time. So tonight, he’s not celebrating Passover. He’s in a bomb shelter.”

As the war heats up, it’s unclear how many more Jews will head north to Hungary. Some 250 to 300 of Yugoslavia’s 3,000 Jews are now waiting out the conflict in quiet Budapest. Most are teen-agers and twentysomethings. But the Yugoslav government has now ordered all men 16 to 60 years old to stay put — in case they are needed for combat if NATO sends in ground troops. Women and children are freer to go.

Nothing epitomizes the disruption of the lives of Yugoslav Jews more than the story of Branka and Stephane. Branka, a single mother from Yugoslavia, was slated to marry Stephane, a Frenchman, on April 8 in her hometown of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. When missiles began raining down, Stephane insisted that Branka take her 5-year-old, Brian, by train to Budapest; he flew from Paris to meet her.

This week, however, they failed to get the requisite permission from Hungarian and Yugoslav authorities to marry in Budapest. The only bit of luck was that they didn’t plan a lavish wedding. Few people even knew about it.

“I was so superstitious, I only told a few friends,” said Branka, a university Hebrew teacher. “And I guess I was right.”

Like the others here in Budapest, they are in limbo. But at least the Yugoslav Jews are welcomed with open arms, unlike the Kosovo Albanians, who are pouring into the neighboring countries of Macedonia and Albania each day with nowhere to go.

“What we are doing is nothing more than Jewish solidarity,” said Gusztav Zoltai, executive director of the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities.

The Yugoslav Jews are indeed grateful, but they are anxious to get home. Some are concerned for the security of cars and apartments they left behind. Most of them, though, are anxious to resume their lives.

“We have so many problems with our lives, with our futures,” said Olga. “What the Hungarians have done for us is great, but we want to go home. This is not a solution.”

Others are actually looking for a fresh start. Even before the NATO campaign, Yugoslavia’s economy was already in ruins, and Milosevic had cracked down on most forms of freedom. One Jew already found her way to England, another to Italy. Seven have made aliyah to Israel, including a family from Kosovo.

Ismael, also a theater student and talented pianist, is looking toward Israel as well. He may accept a one-year offer to continue his cantorial studies there.

“Even if the bombing is over in a few days,” he said, “Yugoslavia was a rough place before. Now it’ll be even rougher.”

Kindness for Kosovo

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles made a special $10,000 donation to the Kosovo Refugee Relief Fund of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “As the largest representative body of the Los Angeles Jewish community, the Jewish Federation wishes to show its deep concern for the men, women and children who are suffering as a result of this conflict,” said Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel.

Donations can be made to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee at:

Kosovo Mailbox, 711 Third Ave., 10th Floor, New York, N.Y., 100017;

or to UJA Federations of North America,

111 Eighth Ave., Suite 11E,

New York, N.Y., 10011.