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From Sarajevo With Love: Bosnia’s Jewish Foreign Minister Speaks to American Jewry

by George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, April 29, 2011

Sven Alkalaj is a Jew from Sarajevo, descended from ancestors who came there in (at the latest) the early 19th century. His community is at least two centuries older. And he has served—for several years now—as Foreign Minister of the Republic of Bosnia & Herzegovina. As such, he is—as far as is known—the only Jewish Foreign Minister of a Muslim-majority country. He spoke to me recently, in an exclusive interview, at the offices of the Bosnian Mission to the U.N. in New York.

The Jewish community of Sarajevo is primarily a Sephardic one, having migrated there (perhaps via Turkey or Thessaloniki [northern Greece], according to Alkalaj) in the early 17th century (about 1620), some 130 years after their expulsion from Spain. Its first community cemetery dated to 1662. Their most precious community patrimony, the renowned Sarajevo Haggadah is in fact not Bosnian at all, but a medieval Sephardic illuminated manuscript, created in Spain, and brought to Sarajevo by members of the Cohen family. Replete with exquisite gold leaf and elaborate designs, it is kept—when not on rare public display—in a vault at the National Library in Sarajevo. It has been reproduced for sale, as an exquisite work of art.

Until the mid-1980’s, Sarajevo had been known mostly for one notorious, tragic moment, its 15 seconds of fame: on Sunday, June 28, 1914, the Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand von Habsburg, with his wife Archduchess Sophie, was assassinated by a conspiracy of anti-monarchist Serbian nationalists. It was the “spark” that incited what was to become the First World War. The Jewish community had been already well-established by that time, although Sarajevo had always been a Muslim-majority city. Then in 1984, it hosted the Winter Olympics, which put an entirely different face on the Bosnian provincial capital, then still part of Yugoslavia. Alkalaj says that the Chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, described it as “the best Winter Olympics ever”.

Sven Alkalaj was born in Sarajevo, as were his parents and grandparents. He has traced his family roots there, back to at least the early 19th Century, and very likely beyond.  He tells of growing up in the Bosnian capital, with many Muslim neighbors: 

“That’s one of the phenomena of Sarajevo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The people always lived together.  Not side-by-side, they always lived together, because Sarajevo is a multi-cultural, multi-religious city. You would have a Muslim family living next to a Serbian Orthodox or Jewish or a Catholic church. It was good in Sarajevo for Jews, even during the Ottoman empire. There was a Sephardic temple…and we also have an Ashkenazi synagogue which is now in use [albeit for Sephardic worship]. And those Sephardic synagogues were now transformed into the Jewish Museum”.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was but one province of Yugoslavia (“South Slav state”), a new country created by the Versailles Conference out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Though part of the Ottoman dominions, it had been “administered” by the “dual monarchy” of Austria-Hungary, which explains what Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was doing there, as the heir to the throne.

After the Second World War, Yugoslavia became a [Socialist] Federal Republic, ruled by the leader Josip Broz, who took the surname “Tito”.  It consisted—beside Bosnia-Herzegovina—of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Today, these provinces (as well as Kosovo, the former southern part of Serbia) are all independent republics. Then, after the death of Tito and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the “Federal Republic” all broke apart into the present seven countries. Bosnian Serbs, encouraged by their Serbian brothers across the border in Serbia proper, laid siege to Sarajevo, which is a city among the mountains and inherently difficult to resupply.  Alkalaj tells what happened:

“The worst crimes were committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, because all three communities (i.e., Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats) were living there. Serbia and Croatia, who wanted to carve up Bosnia, were using proxies. In other words…this was a war about territory. Nothing about religion, nothing hatred. It was a war of grab of territory”.

It was one of those cases where “geography becomes history”, where “religion was used for territorial expansion”. Sarajevo endured a siege of more than 1,300 days, exceeding even the 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II. The city was kept alive by means of a tunnel dug under the airport runway. The Jewish Community’s “Benevolencija” played a critical part in this supply lifeline. Medical supplies, in particular, were handed out “…to all citizens of Sarajevo, regardless of their ethnic or religious background”.

This story was borne out, in even greater detail, at a presentation—just a few days after my interview with Alkalaj-- by the American Jewish documentary filmmaker Edward Serotta, who specializes in portrayals of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Serotta describes how the citizens of Sarajevo ran a clinic, with medical professionals from the Bosnian Muslim, Serbian, Croatian and Jewish communities all working together. Alkalaj describes how

“…the Jewish doctors were visiting homes, they were going under the shells to visit them”.

And he tells how all the Jewish doctors always had “free passage” through all the checkpoints, because “every side in the War wanted to have [the] Jews on their side”.

Finally all the sides were assembled in Dayton, Ohio, under the leadership of the American Jewish diplomat Richard Holbrooke, and in late 1995 a Treaty of Peace was crafted, which became known as the Dayton Accords (Alkalaj was then serving as the Bosnian Ambassador in Washington.). It provided for a power-sharing arrangement and a somewhat irregularly-shaped enclave called the “Republika Srpska” (Serbian Republic), which would have Serbian rule, even though it was part of the larger Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The country’s constitution now provides for a three-man presidency (One Bosnian Muslim, one Bosnian Serb and one Bosnian Croat) among whom the presidency rotates for a period of eight months each. It is a tense arrangement, but [so far] it has worked. And Bosnia-Herzegovina is currently completing its second year as the Eastern European representative on the United Nations Security Council.

I asked the Foreign Minister what future he saw for the long-established community of Bosnian Jewry. He said that there is a good future for Bosnia Jewry. “They have a very good role, they have status. People still remember how they behaved…and the whole city, during the siege. I believe that I myself as a Jew never had any problems. We have, always at least one Jewish Ambassador  (They currently have Jewish envoys in both Switzerland and Israel.)”.

I then asked Alkalaj what message he had for American Jewry, and the wider Jewish world.

“I think that the close cooperation that we had with the American Jewish Committee, and American Jewry in general. I would first like to thank them a lot for their un-restless efforts, at the very beginning of the War, from Jewish grass-roots groups. They were very much advocating Bosnia to be helped. They were pointing out to the violation of human rights. So what they did at the time was instrumental in making and pushing [the] Clinton administration at the time, to help Bosnia. This kind of effort and support we are lacking now. Because without U.S. leadership in general, things in Bosnia will not move in a good direction, they will not move in the direction of becoming a member of NATO. I would like to see more, closer cooperation with         American Jewry with the U.S. Administration to take the lead in bringing Bosnia-Herzegovina to NATO and E.U."

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