In a landmark decision on July 27, 2022, the House of Nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), also referred to as the Parliamentary Assembly, passed a resolution supporting the IHRA definition on antisemitism. IHRA stands for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
This now allows Jewish organizations and others to combat antisemitism in the country. Bosnia and Herzegovina join nations throughout the world who have adapted the same IHRA resolution.
Milorad Dodik, the Serb representative of the BiH presidency, recently met with Israeli officials on a working visit to Jerusalem. During his time in Israel, he was encouraged to introduce the IHRA definition to Zeljko Komsic, and Sefik Dzaferovic, also representing the BiH presidency. Soon after Dodik’s return to BiH, in a rare moment of unity, the presidency unanimously adopted this legally non-binding definition on antisemitism.
The unanimous decision was carried forth by the Chairman of the House of Nations, Dragan Covic, who introduced it to the parliament, where it received a majority vote. Now, with the passage of the legislation, it becomes law, and can be enforced.
In a statement from the US Conference of Presidents of Jewish organizations: “Bosnia and Herzegovina join 37 nations, as well as hundreds of academic institutions, local governments, NGOs, and other entities, in their support of the most authoritative and internationally accepted definition of antisemitism. Defining antisemitism is an essential step to effectively combating it.”
BiH is expected to integrate the guidance of the IHRA definition into their education system, and apply it in matters of hate crimes, as a key instrument in the global fight against antisemitism in all its forms, according to the US Conference of Presidents.
Ambassador Dan Oryan, Director of the Balkan Department for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commented on the passage of this legislation. “Now that the decision passed the parliament it is an historic moment. I think it is a very clear declaration that things are changing. People are looking at the presidency and are listening to what they say. So, having clear statements by the presidency is no doubt something very important. I’m certainly optimistic.”
A special effort towards encouraging Bosnia and Herzegovina to adopt the IHRA definition was made by Noah Gal Gender, current Ambassador of Israel to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) and the Center for Jewish Impact (CJI) were also active in the field, to help bring this resolution forward.
Amir Gross Kabri, President of the Jewish Community in the city of Mostar in BiH, shared his comments in a letter to Dragan Covic, on the passing legislation. “This move is not only a significant formal act, but also a practical and useful tool for education and training purposes, for teachers, non-government organizations, state authorities, and the media – in line with the 2018 EU Council’s declaration on combating antisemitism.”
He added that it is an important first step toward ensuring that individuals and groups within the BiH, and European society, are safe against hate, violence, and discrimination. “It’s important to promote and to protect human rights… Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its diverse ethnicity, must show zero-tolerance towards a specific religion or nationality.”
On July 14, 2022, in Mostar, a significant action took place. Setting an example for all the cities in BiH, the community and its city council changed street names that were controversial. The mayor of Mostar decided to eradicate the memory of criminals who took an active role in the extermination of Jews and others during the Holocaust.
Oryan was hopeful about this action, too. “This is happening already in Mostar. Hopefully, it will happen in other places. There are also issues connected to Jewish property in Herzegovina, especially in Sarajevo, which should be taken care of. There are quite a few issues connected to Judaism, and the Jewish past in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that should be tackled.”
During the Holocaust, 8330 Jews were murdered in Sarajevo, and 137 Jews were murdered in Mostar. The property issue does not only include personal property confiscated during WWII, but also synagogues which have still not been returned to Jewish communities in BiH. “Now, we hope they will be given back,” Oryan commented.
There is currently a Jewish cultural center in the town of Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina, called “Arie Livne.”
There have also been ideas expressed to build a Holocaust Museum to honor those Jews who perished in Sarajevo and Mostar. Oryan is waiting for some action on this issue. “It didn’t happen yet, though we are supporting that, as well. We would love to see a Holocaust memorial, and a good one that will be open, not like in other places in the region where you have a museum, but it’s closed most of the time. So, having an open museum that is operating would be wonderful.”
Israel is willing to support the effort by providing experts to assist, but it will also need the help of philanthropists from around the world who can provide finances. Oryan admits it will be a long process that could take years to complete.
In the short term, Oryan said that Israel is renewing preparations for Balkan delegations to visit Israel for courses at Yad Vashem. “We are going to have teachers coming again, from the Republic of Srpska (the Serb province of Bosnia) to Yad Vashem, to learn about the Holocaust, and to learn to teach about this subject. It happened in the past, and we are going to do this in the future.”
Oryan adds, “We agreed to something very similar with the Croats, in their visits here. And, we hope to have teachers from all over the country; from all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who will come to these seminars at Yad Vashem.
Ana Trisic, Senior Advisor to Milorad Dodik, commented on the recent victories that have taken place in Bosnia and Herzegovnia. “We can call this month of July something special,” she said.
When this writer asked Trisic to comment on the visit of Dodik to Israel, she acknowledged that, “During the visit to Israel, this was one of the most substantial and productive visits that any officials from Bosnia and Herzegovina have had during the existence of this country. It happened with the Serb member of the presidency. This is the crown of the relations, for the Republic of Srpska and the Serb people.”
Trisic explained that the Serb people have strong ties to what happened during the Holocaust. “We would also like to keep supporting the Jewish people – that the younger generation would learn what happened during WWII.”
Tonka Kesic Gagro, head of the Cabinet in the House of Nations of BiH, said this about the legislation that just passed: “For me, personally, as a Croat of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Jewish family heritage, this is a tremendous step forward… This is a way to apologize, and ask, once again, for forgiveness, paying the deepest of respects to the millions who were brutally murdered in the Holocaust, as well as to those who survived.”
Israel is looking for partnerships with the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosniaks in BiH, but also reaching out to other Balkan nations, especially in the fields of innovation, agriculture, water technology, etc. Throughout the Balkans, there are Holocaust issues that need to be taught properly in schools and accepted in the public discourse.
Meanwhile, Israel is in a very important period in relations with Albania, which was one of the first Muslim majority states to adopt the IHRA antisemitism definition. The Albanian parliament helped organized the Balkans Forum Against Antisemitism in October 2020.
Combating antisemitism will continue to be a key issue for legislatures throughout the region of the Balkans, as Israel looks for those leaders who are willing to stop Jewish hatred from surfacing in that part of the world.