Death by Indecision

The war in Bosnia has shown that aggression does pay. Under the terms of the Geneva Agreement, the Serbian nationalists together with their Croatian accomplices have been satisfied in their demand for land and power. Bosnia, as we knew it eighteen months ago, no longer exists. Yet Sarajevo seems to have survived that evil bombardment—as well as the ravages of exhaustion, hunger, epidemic and a breakdown of law and order—to be finally placed under temporary UN authority. This is the sad culmination of the long drawn-out asphyxiation of a well-known European capital while the world dithered. Death by indecision.

Whatever finally happens, the ideal of Sarajevo as a haven for inter-ethnic cooperation and tolerance has been cast to the winds, an expendable sacrifice to post-Communist realpolitik. The ultimate aim of the Serbian nationalists—whether immediately, in the coming months, or more gradually through creeping annexation—will be the dissection of the city along ethnic lines. For Sarajevo, read Beirut.

Over ten thousand people have been killed in the city by shells and snipers. Like the conflict in other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, this is not a civil war, but a war against civilians. Each night, we have been treated to the latest unspeakable atrocity. Television has graphically informed the world. No one is ignorant. Channel Four’s week of programmes entitled “Bloody Bosnia” performed an invaluable public service while both the Independent and the Guardian have not allowed the reading public to become either complacent or desensitized to the horror of it all. Yet such knowledge has not bred intervention but only a handwringing acceptance of tragedy.

For the indifferent, Bosnia is a minor distraction from life’s enjoyment. A far-off land of medieval tribes where- the killing fields are regularly ploughed. For the committed, the sight of the prolonged suffering of the people of Sarajevo has been a source of deep shame, a profound guilt that western leaders have found every excuse to do nothing. To paraphrase Abba Eban, the West has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

And what of Jewish opinion?

There has undoubtedly been considerable anguish at the sight of murder, rape and pillage—and this, in turn, has triggered memories of persecution and pogrom as well as similarities to the Shoah itself. Yet, as many Jews have noted, there are no crematoria; the Bosnians are armed, albeit poorly, fighting on home territory and can still flee to other countries if the need arises. But the Jewish tsores over Bosnia runs much deeper.

Many Jews believed that the victory over Nazism had established a new value system in Europe. Not a paradise on earth, but a break with the horrific past. Europe, it was believed, had learned a hard lesson. Bestialities were left to the likes of Idi Amin and Pol Pot. And, despite the imperfections of the post-1945 world, coloured by the bumbling machismo of Soviet injustice and American hegemony, “Never Again” became a reality in Europe. It was more than a slogan utilized by the politically neurotic.

The destruction of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia and then multi-ethnic Bosnia by rampant Serbian nationalism, catalysed externally by German economic greed, demonstrates that the world has learned little. The succeeding generation—both in Yugoslavia and in the West—did not understand the lesson of 1945 because they themselves did not experience the full horror of the rule of National Socialism and its siblings, Fascism and ultra-nationalism. Does “forgetfulness lead to exile” for every new generation? Is such inhumanity to fellow human beings an ongoing, repeating and inevitable reality that from time to time is quenched? Will the Shoah be merely a footnote in history a hundred years from now—remembered only by the Jews?

Much has been written about the paucity of western leadership and the painfully studied hesitation of the British government, but what of Jewish leadership? After all, the Jews, after centuries of bearing witness, have a duty to warn, to speak out, to confront, to perform the task of truth-telling. In the scandalous absence of large scale protest and demonstrations to parallel those about Vietnam, apartheid, nuclear disarmament and even the poll tax, could not the Jewish community have taken the moral lead? And if not us, then who?

As an organized community, Anglo-Jewry has projected a neutral stance by supporting humanitarian efforts to support Jews and non-Jews in the former Yugoslavia. A benevolent leadership has endorsed all calls to aid the starving and the homeless in Bosnia. For example, they supported “A Statement on the Former Yugoslavia”, drawn up by a number of committed individuals, which presented comprehensive guidelines as to how to help. It commented:

Our tradition teaches us that we should protect the victim and the defenceless, that we should love the stranger as ourselves, and that we should speak out against oppression.

While such dedication should be accorded the deepest respect, official Jewish endeavours have not been politically directed towards stopping this reversal of history. There has been recognition of tragedy, but no recognition of aggression. Condemnation of sin is meritorious, but it should also lead to an identification of the sinners and to a policy which would ensure that they cannot commit such sins again.

Anglo-Jewry has valiantly striven to sustain the inhabitants of Sarajevo in their hour of need. Yet such humanitarian aid was designed to make the patient comfortable, not to cure him. Clearly no Jew would have wished for the triumph of enraged nationalism over cooperative cosmopolitanism, but did we do enough to help Bosnia? Could we have done more? Was the middle way, in helping the helpless, the most effective and moral Jewish response? Or was official policy simply a replay of attitudes towards the Spanish Republic in the 1930s when Jewish representative bodies never discussed the issue once and the European democracies refused to assist the doomed state. And we know that what started in Madrid led to Munich and the cataclysm of world war.

Even so, many individual Jews, both within the communal structure and those estranged from it, have courageously taken a political stand against Serbian and Croatian aggression and have called for military intervention. At the beginning of August 1992, the playwright, Arnold Wesker, with another twenty Jewish signatories—including many intimately involved with this publication—wrote to the Guardian in protest at the incarceration and death of Muslim women and children in cattle trucks—an event which evoked an all too familiar resonance. The full tragedy of Bosnia-Herzegovina only penetrated general Jewish consciousness a few weeks afterwards when Serbian prison camps were opened to the world’s press for the first time. The sight of their emaciated, frightened inhabitants was the face of Belsen. Buried images rose to the surface and a shudder of despair went through Jews everywhere.

And yet Jewish outrage in Britain was channeled solely through aid agencies such as CBF and UK Jewish Aid, as well Bosnian organizations such as Mir Sada—ironically, Serbo-Croat for “Peace Now”. Why was such energy not galvanized towards a political end such as selective air strikes at the Serbian nationalists around Sarajevo? In hindsight, the fact that Jewish policy called only for the supply of humanitarian aid seems to have been misplaced.

The reasons preferred by the Jewish leadership were numerous. It would have sharply brought Anglo-Jewry into direct opposition to the policies of the British government, thereby diminishing any possible influence. Instead of effectively endorsing Douglas Hurd’s grandiloquent explanations, the official approach of rationalizing and legitimizing a philosophy of “cynical realism” could have been called into question—for this time the British Foreign Office could not say that they did not know.

There was also a residual sympathy for the Serbs who, like the Jews, suffered at the hands of the murderous Croatian Ustashe in World War II. Yet, although such war-time memories die hard, it did not prevent yesterday’s victim from becoming today’s perpetrator—to a much greater degree than either the Croats or the Muslims. Moreover, it was a Croat, Marshal Tito, together with a Jew, Moshe Pijade, the theoretician of Yugoslav Communism, who preached multi-ethnicity as a societal virtue and suppressed nationalist violence. Another argument concerned the fate of Jews who remained in Serbia. Yet many have already left the country for more liberal climates—and the remnant have had good time to prepare themselves.

And what of other Jewish communities? In October 1992, the American Jewish Congress passed a long resolution on the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It stated:

No compelling arguments have been advanced against the limited use of force in the form of surgical air strikes against specific strategic targets. The objective of these strikes would be to deter those who continue to engage in brutal oppression and to make more costly resistance to the humanitarian demands of the international community. Only a failure of moral nerve and moral commitment can account for the obvious unwillingness of some European states to join in concerted action towards this end. We call upon our government to demonstrate leadership in mobilizing international support for this course of action.

A year later, the sky has still not fallen in on Serbian Jewry because of such an audacious admonition. The leaders of the Jewish community of Sarajevo were even permitted by their besiegers to leave the city and tour Britain to garner humanitarian aid. Even more radical was the suggestion of the American Jewish Congress that the UN should restore the right of self-defence to Bosnia-Herzegovina, inherent in Article 51 of the UN Charter, by lifting the arms embargo.

Two other arguments advanced were reminiscent of the obfuscation generated by the Israel-Palestine conflict. One was that every Bosnian Muslim is a Jew-hater and deep down a fundamentalist; the other that, despite nightly coverage, “we really do not know the full facts”.

Perhaps the only valid argument was the one which everyone had to consider: namely, would selective air strikes help or hinder the plight of the victims? Would western troops become ready targets? Would humanitarian aid come to a grinding halt? In the absence of any intervention, all commentary was purely speculative.

John Major and Douglas Hurd made the decision not to make a decision and elevated it to the status of supreme policy while Bosnia bled slowly to death. Jewish tradition and Jewish experience stands firmly against such vacillation and prevarication. There should be no reward for initiating this bloodbath and no appeasement towards these angels of death. We should instead have supported those Serbs and those Croats who courageously opposed the demagogues who have led their countries into this madness.

For us, Bosnia is not a far-away country of no concern; for, if the nationalists succeed in eliminating multi-ethnicity as a beacon of civilized behaviour, the virus will spread to other places. Indeed, there were those British patriots who resented treating critically ill Bosnian children “at the expense of our own”. Would a bolder Jewish stand as history’s victims have made any impression on the British and other European governments? Jewish diplomacy has often followed the dictum that where there’s a will, there’s a way—and often been successful. Despite the tremendous Jewish effort to provide aid, our duty should have been to condemn acquiescence in the politics of indifference and to have advocated western military intervention. We may yet live to regret our voluntary marginalization and impotence. The tragedy of Bosnia has much to teach the world—and the Jews even more so.

Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1993

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