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Behind the Headlines: As Jews Grapple with Bosnia, Vows of `never Again’ Echo Loudly

August 23, 1995
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As war began to engulf the former Yugoslavia four years ago and reports of atrocities assaulted the senses, American Jews began to wonder whether they were betraying the sacred vow of `Never Again.’

“Why have we betrayed a solemn promise – `Never Again’ – that was forged out of the ashes and pain of the Holocaust?” said Henry Siegman, then-executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

“The people who have betrayed that promise have faces and names, as the victims do,” Siegman said during Chanukah 1992 at the first major Jewish rally protesting atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. “They are our own leaders. those in Europe and, finally, they are us.” Siegman had joined a dozen Jewish activists on a rainsoaked lawn in freezing temperature for the rally across from the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum, which was still under construction at the time.

Since then, American Jews have been among the loudest critics of the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and among the strongest advocates of U.S. action to end the conflict.

Now, as the 4-year-old war stands at a crossroads between the possibility of peace and the threat of a wider conflict, frustration over the carnage continues.

As Yugoslavia began to crumble in 1991, Serbia and Croatia engaged in fierce battles between ethnic Croats and Serbs, who refused to live under an independent Croatia. Within a year, the fighting had spread to Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs, initially aided by Serbia, rebelled against the newly independent, predominantly Muslim Bosnian government.

Amid endless reports of mass murders, rape and ethnic cleansing, Jewish groups lobbied the White House, met regularly with Bosnian leaders, sent news releases, formed coalitions and staged rallies and protests against the atrocities.

But many of the same questions that plagued American Jews continue today:

Should Jews have been more forceful in calling for military intervention during the early stage of the war? Should there have been major civil disobedience protests? Should Jews take into account the history of the warring parties’ collaboration with the Nazis during World War II?

Could the Jewish community have done more? Should the Jewish community have done more?

“I don’t know of any situation where I can say that we’re done all that we can,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, an umbrella Jewish group.

“Presumably there’s always something more that can be done,” he said. “Should we have been chaining ourselves to the White House fence? Marching? Taking out more ads? I don’t know.”

The NJCRAC has been among the more vocal Jewish organizations protesting the atrocities in Bosnia and called for a lifting of the arms embargo and use of limited air strikes.

Although Jews grapples with the moral and political dilemmas involved with their approach to the war in Bosnia, there was also a deep sense of pride over the Jewish community’s role in successfully sustaining a major nonsectarian humanitarian relief effort for refugees struggling to survive in Bosnia.

As recently as this week, the Bosnia Jewish relief organization La Benevolencija, which is heavily supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, managed to get a truckload of supplies to Sarajevo. It was the latest in a succession of relief supplies distributed to Jews and non- Jews in the region during the war.

But more of the focus was one the political role of American Jews here. Dissatisfied with the level of activism by the organized Jewish community, some rabbinical students in Philadelphia started their own group, Jews Against Genocide in Bosnia.

“I’m proud of what the Jewish community has done, but clearly it’s not enough,” said Joyce Galaski, chairwoman of the activist group and a third-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wayncote, Pa.

“We could raise our voices a lot louder than we have, more often and more insistently. This is such a desperate situation.”

As the Jewish community continues to struggle with the questions of what can be done and what could have been done differently, the course of the war appears to have shifted yet again.

In recently weeks Croatian forces soundly defeated Serbs in the arena where fighting first broke out in 1991. Western diplomats hope to capitalize on the developments to bring the warring parties back to the negotiating table.

As fighting continues in Bosnia and Croatia and a widening of the war is seen as the major alternative to peace talks, there is a new sense of urgency to broker a division of territory between the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians.

For Jewish activists, horrific images of starving Bosnian Muslims rounded up in internment camps spurred the 1992 rally at the Holocaust museum. Reminiscent of images of Nazi concentration camps, photos of virtually naked near-skeletons behind barbed wire awakened the world to the plight of the Muslims in Bosnia.

These images and calls to action were reinforced during recent months as the world remembered the 50th anniversary of Allied forces liberating Jews from the concentration camps.

The shock and horror of the world ultimately led to the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi captors and their leaders.

And now for the first time since World War II, a U.N. war crimes tribunal has been established.

Although it is still unclear what its impact will be, the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal last month indicted Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and his top general, Ratko Mladic, accusing them as war criminals.

As reports of catastrophic human rights violations mount, so does the frustration among Jews, who, as a people, collectively share the unique history of the Holocaust.

“Relatives and survivors of the most horrible atrocities in the history of man must express our horror,” said Hyman Bookbinder, a longtime Jewish activist.

“Any persecution, ethnic cleansing, any atrocity should shock every human being, but ever more so, a Jewish person,” Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in a recent interview.

Outraged by the killings and atrocities, most Jewish groups have called on the United States to lift unilaterally the arms embargo on Bosnia. Their call long preceded any congressional action on the issue.

But difficulties in persuading U.S. government officials to pursue a different course has left many Jewish activists wondering how to proceed.

“History will not forgive this generation,” Leonard Fein wrote in a recent column in that Forward newspaper. “Our children watching the documentaries will ask where we were, what we could have been thinking as we will frown and mumble a shoddy alibi and be sick to our stomachs.”

Jewish efforts have been complicated by a number of factors, including concerns for the Jews living in the region.

Last spring, the president of the Sarajevo Jewish community appealed to American Jews to tone down their appeal for lifting the arms embargo, according to officials in the Jewish community.

The Jewish community in Sarajevo, Jewish community appealed to American Jews to tone down their appeal for lifting the arms embargo, according to officials in the Jewish community.

The Jewish community in Sarajevo, numbering about 600, feared that if the American Jewish community was seen as leading the charge, there would be reprisals against the Jews in Bosnia, who have maintained their neutrality throughout the conflict. They also feared repercussions on their successful humanitarian assistance program, which provides more than 300 meals per day to Sarajevo residents and operate two pharmacies.

It is such concerns that prompt Jewish officials her to at least publicly emphasize their neutrality.

“We don’t have an investment in either side in the war,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “Our investment is in stopping the atrocities and the horror.”

Another source of frustration was the timing of the war. With the outbreak of this Bosnia was coming so soon after the Persian Gulf War, when the Jewish community was seen as particularly supportive of U.S. military intervention, some Jewish activists expressed concern that the Jews not be too vocal in calling for military action without other coalition partners.

Numerous attempts to reach out to other religious communities failed, except in the case of some local Muslim organizations, adding another layer of general frustration.

“There was private tension in the Christian community about military intervention” at the outset of the war, said Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee. “It is still there.”

American Jewish efforts have further been complicated by knowledge of the Jewish experience in the region during World War II.

Many in the Jewish community have struggled to get beyond that history. But others, including many Holocaust survivors, have no sympathy for Bosnian Muslims, many of whom cooperated with the Nazis during World War II, or for Croatia, which set up a Nazi puppet regime known as the Ustashe during World War II and whose current president, Franjo Tudjman, has been criticized for anti-Semitic writings.

In contrast, the Serbs, who have widely been as the aggressors in the current war, fought against the Nazis during World War II.

An estimated 60,000 Jews perished in the former Yugoslavia during the Holocaust, most of whom were victims of Nazi collaborators in Bosnia and Croatia.

But for Miles Lerman, a Holocaust survivor who chairs the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, the past, while not to be forgotten, should not deter Jewish activism today.

At a recent ecumenical prayer service at the Holocaust museum, designed to call attention to the carnage in Bosnia, Lerman reproached Bosnia-Herzegovina’s ambassador to the United States for his nation’s failure to admit to the Bosnian history of collaborating with the Nazis during the World War II.

At the same time, however, he told the gathering: “Fifty years ago we watched with anguish” as the “world stood by the did nothing to stop atrocities.”

“Today as we watch the carnage in the former Yugoslavia,” he said, “we cannot remain silent.”

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