The Rabbi Writes – Bosnia

The Jewish Humanist, August 1993, Vol. XXX, Number 1

Bosnia. Before last year most Americans had never heard of the place. Now like Vietnam, Bosnia has been seared into the consciousness of the world. Bosnia now means genocide. 

Bosnia is a land of mountains and valleys in the Balkans. About thirteen hundred years ago it was invaded by Slavs wandering south from their northern homeland. After they conquered the land, the Slavs split into two nations. The Slavs, who converted to Catholic Christianity, became Croats. The Slavs, who converted to Orthodox Christianity became Serbs. Because of their religious differences the Croats and Serbs came to hate each other. 

In the fourteenth century an enemy arrived from the south. They were the Ottoman Turks and they were Muslim. Having conquered the Serbs and Croats, they converted many of them to Islam. The Slavic converts became the Bosnians (sic). The Serbs and the Croats continued to hate each other. But they now also hated the Turks. And they, especially, hated the Bosnians, whom they regarded as traitors, and whose privileged status, as friends of the Turks, they resented.  

In time, the Serbians won their independence. After the First World War, when the Turks and their German allies were defeated, the Serbians were rewarded with the gift of Croatia and  Bosnia. The new enlarged Serbia was called Yugoslavia (land of the south Slavs), and was dominated by the Serbian military. 

During World War II the Germans invaded and conquered Yugoslavia. They dismembered Yugoslavia and rewarded the Croatians with Bosnia. Croatian fascists, aided by Bosnian Muslims turned on the Serbs and massacred thousands of them. For the Serbians it was a “holocaust”.  Their hatred of the Croatians and the Bosnians grew even more intense. 

When the Russians gave Yugoslavia to Tito and the Communists, Tito tried to erase the differences between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians to create a new “Yugoslav” identity.But the success of his campaign depended on the success of Communism and on his own personal immortality. Neither happened. Tito died and Communism failed. And when Communism failed, Yugoslavia fell apart. 

First, the Croats seceded from Yugoslavia.  And then the Bosnians seceded.  Both actions provoked the Serbians to military action.  They wanted to “rescue” the hundreds of thousands of Serbs who lived in both Croatia and Bosnia.  They also wanted to wreak vengeance for the fascist “holocuast”.  They were very self-confident.  They were in possession of almost all of the military equipment of the former Yugoslav army.  Their leadership were (sic) former communists who traded Marxism for Chauvanism (sic).  They gave guns to violent and angry men who assumed the status of Serbian militia.  A cruel war became inevitable. 

The war has been worse than horrible.  It has given license to criminals to commit crimes in the name of patriotism. 

It has revived old hatreds which forty years of Communism had suppressed.  It has turned neighbor against neighbor.  In a land where Serbs, Croats and Bosnians lived intermingled and intermarried the war has re-erected human barriers that were falling down. 

In the Second World War the Croatian fascists were the criminals.  In this war the Serbian nationalists are the criminals.  Croats and Bosnians have committed atrocities.  But the overwhelming majority of the atrocities have been committed by the Serbian military and para-military.  Rape, pillage and destruction have followed the Serbian military with terrifying consistency.  Thousands have been killed.  Over half the people of Bosnia are refugees. 

At first the Croatian supported the Bosnians. But, when they saw that no one would intervene to save them, they turned against them, they struck a deal with the Serbians. Croatans and Serbians would divide Bosnia. The war would end. The Bosnians would be without independence and without a home. 

The Bosnians are today a people abandoned. They have no allies or active friends. They are the victims of genocide. They have been driven from half of their territory. They have no effective arms with which to defend themselves. Their Serbian and Croatian enemies are eager to dispose of them so that they can divvy up their territory. All that is left is a bombed out capital, a few disconnected towns and refugee centers teaming (sic) with the homeless. When peace comes they will have just enough land to constitute an “Indian reservation”.  They will be the prisoners of the Serbs and the Croats. 

During this terrible War many nations expressed outrage. The Germans were outraged. The Italians were outraged. British and Americans were outraged. But no one did anything. The United Nations sent humanitarian aid. The Security Council imposed sanctions on the Serbians. But nothing was done to frighten the Serbians into withdrawal. No one bombed their gun emplacements. No one sent adequate arms to the Bosnians so that they could defend themselves against slaughter. 

Clinton said he would do something. But, in the end, he did nothing. He sent his wimpish Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, to mobilize our European allies into effective action. They refused to help and Christopher accepted their refusal without resistance.  The nation that led the world against Saddam Hussein in a grand coalition was “powerless” to prevent the genocide of a small vulnerable nation. 

There are multiple consequences for this neglect, for this failure to take action. 

A people that is entitled to its territory, its independence, and its survival has been destroyed.  Bosnian refugees like Jewish refugees in the last war will seek asylum in the cities of the West or linger in camps on the borders of Serbia and Croatia. 

Muslim Albanians, resident in the Serbian province of Kosovo (where they are the overwhelming majority) are next on the list of victims.  Serbian nationalists will deal with them in the same way that they dealt with the Muslim Bosnians.  They will terrorize them and drive them away.  It is clear that neither America nor the European powers are prepared to do anything to prevent another atrocity. 

Fascism in Serbia will grow stronger. The military victory will strengthen the power of strongman Milosevic and will lead to the suppression of the Serbian democratic opposition.  Serbia now represents the kind of chauvinistic authoritarian state-supported by fascists and former Communists-that America said it would not allow to rise from the ruins of the now defunct Communist empire. 

The stature of the West in Muslim eyes is now much reduced.  It is clear that Western Christians are not prepared to do anything to rescue a Muslim nation in Europe.  The Muslim powers have new reason to distrust the West and America.  Even though Muslim governments would have done more to help, they see themselves as helpless without Western intervention. 

The “world order”, which was reinforced after the Cold War with the American resistance to Iraqi aggression, has now been undermined by American ambivalence.  Every two-bit fascist dictator now knows that America and Europe will do nothing to stop genocidal war unless oil is involved.  The moral authority of America, which was high, is now low. 

Had America stood firm two months ago, she would have prevailed.  Milosevic had already capitulated before the threat of American intervention. But once he knew that America was not serious, he returned to his belligerency. 

Clinton lost an opportunity to demonstrate that he was a strong leader.  And the Bosnian people lost their life. 

We Jews, the victims of genocide, cannot be indifferent to what happened.  The Bosnian cause is our cause.  Our government needs to hear our displeasure  One more Bosnia in easstern Europe and fascism will be the heir of communism. 

Bosnia – US to Intervene?

The Jewish Humanist, January 1996

Should American troops go to Bosnia?

Many Americans are having heated arguments about this question. After all, there is the risk that American soldiers will be trapped in a civil war that no outside force has the power to stop. Bosnia is not Vietnam. But it is also not Haiti.

The tragedy of Bosnia is the tragedy of Yugoslavia. Many centuries ago a single nation was split into three parts by religion. First the missionaries of Christianity divided the Slavic tribes of Yugoslavia into Catholics and Orthodox. The Croats became Catholics. The Serbs, who spoke the same language as the Croats, became Orthodox. When the Ottoman Muslim Turks conquered the area, many Serbs and Croats chose Islam. Most of the new Muslims lived in the Turkish province of Bosnia. In time the division was aggravated by literacy. The Croats wrote the language in Latin letters. The Serbs wrote the language in Cyrillic letters. And the Muslims sometimes resorted to Arabic script. What had been one became three. And, as we know, there is no hatred like the hatred inspired by religious faith.

The Serbs were the first to achieve independence. After the defeat of their Austrian and Turkish enemies in the First World War, the Serbs created Yugoslavia. The new country brought the Croatians and Muslims under Serbian domination. The forced union did not work. The arrival of Hitler and the German army in the Second World War split the new nation into a Croatian and Serbian part. With the help of the Nazis, the Croatians and their Muslim allies carried out a war of extermination against their Serbian enemies. Together with fifty thousand Jews, over six hundred thousand Serbs perished. The Serbs never forgot this genocide.

After the Second World War, the Russians and their Communist allies decided recreate Yugoslavia. For thirty-five years th federation” was preserved by the iron will a Communist dictator called Tito. Tito tried to secularize the country and encouraged the Serbs, Croats and Muslims to intermarry. But he continued to preserve Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia as sub-units of Yugoslavia. He had no alternative since the official party line did not correspond to the strong nationalist loyalties and hatreds which survived despite propaganda. The death of Tito and a world recession undid the bonds of the fragile Yugoslav nation. War was inevitable because the boundaries Tito had drawn did not correspond to the ethnic realities. The Serbs were the first aggressors, egged on by painful memories, arrogant chauvinism and the ambitions of a former Communist leader, the Serbian president Milosevic. Since the aggression in 1991, four years of war have produced three hundred thousand dead and three million refugees. And Bosnia he turned into a devastated land. Along the way genocide (euphemistically called “ethnic cleansing”) became an ordinary weapon of war.

Despite the moral outrage of the terrible genocide and the threat to peace in the Balkans, neither America, its European allies, nor the United Nations were willing or able to stop the war. America was absorbed by domestic concerns and saw no vested interest in intervention.

And Russia prolonged the war by offering its support to the Serbs. Even the nearby Germans, French and British were ineffective because their so-called unity was only a sham.

But now Clinton has decided to intervene. After all these years of indifference, his action is hardly humanitarian. It is clearly political. He needs to establish his credibility in the face of Republican victories and an aggressive Republican Congress. Having long neglected foreign affairs, he has now concluded that becoming a world leader will enhance his chances of staying in power after November 1996. What followed was the impossible “Treaty of Dayton.”

Right action often emerges from questionable motivation. The intervention in Bosnia is one of them. Regardless of Clinton’s agenda, it will provide relief to a desolate population, enhance world law and order and serve the vested interest of the United States.

World law and order depends on the power and initiative of America. There is no democratic nation able to assume the necessary role of world disciplinarian. The United Nations suffers from the disabilities of too many conflicting agendas and too many vetoes. With the fall of Communism and the balance of power provided by the Cold War, the alternative to American resolve is chaos. Worse wars than the war in Bosnia will ensue if ‘outlaw’ nations realize that there are no penalties for bad behavior.

The vested interest of America lies in a stable international economy. That economy depends on restraints being imposed on aggressive nationalism. A continuing war in Bosnia will bring the Russians and fundamentalist Muslims into the fray. It could unleash a broader war in the Balkans and destabilize fledgling democracies in the area. Anti-democratic militaristic states are more interested in arms rather than trade.

The “Treaty of Dayton” provided for the restoration of Croatia to its pre-war boundaries. It also provided for the preservation of Bosnia as a “unified” state with two parts, one Serbian and one Croatian-Muslim. It is not clear that this “new” Bosnia will be viable. In the end Bosnia may have to be divided between the Serbs and Croats, with the Muslim state becoming a protectorate of Croatia. A multiethnic Bosnia may be more illusion than reality. But, as a first step, the treaty is appropriate.

There is always the risk that Americans will be killed. But the alternative of non-intervention is worse. Educating the American people to this reality is the task of the Clinton administration.