“The destiny of Bosnia will also be our destiny”: Jakob Finci on the Jewish Community of Bosnia

Jakob Finci reflects on the historic and contemporary position of the Jewish community in Bosnia and on the implications of the Sejdić-Finci ruling for Bosnia’s minority groups.

Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Sarajevo, was born in an Italian concentration camp during World War II and was evacuated after the Italian armistice with the Allies. He graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Sarajevo in 1966 and has, over the decades, become a prominent public figure in the Jewish community in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Aside from his work in the country, he is also a former Ambassador of Bosnia-Herzegovina to Switzerland. Today, Finci is still waiting for Bosnia to implement the European Court of Human Rights judgment that bears his name–six years after the ruling.

A long sequence of discrimination against minorities in Bosnia began with Dayton Peace Agreement. While it ended the war, the agreement introduced various exclusionary measures in order to keep a fragile balance between three constituent people – Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs. The terms of the agreement stipulated that only Serbs (from the Republika Srpska), Croats, and Bosniaks (from the Federation) can be elected to the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina—thus foreclosing the participation of citizens of any other ethno-national background. In 2005, after the Electoral Commission in Bosnia said that he could not run for the Presidency, Mr. Finci decided to bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Around the same time, Dervo Sejdić, a member of the Roma community, initiated a similar case. The two were then combined into the Sejdić-Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina court case. In 2009, the ECHR ruled that certain provisions of the Bosnian constitution and election law are against the European Convention of Human Rights and discriminatory against minorities. Six years have passed since the ruling and Bosnia’s constitution and election laws have not changed.

Can you first tell us the history of the Jewish community in Bosnia?

The Jews are certainly the oldest minority in Europe and in the region of the former Yugoslavia. The Jewish community in Sarajevo was established in 1565 and this year marks 450 years of its continuation, which is not easy to achieve in the hilly Balkans—also known as a ‘powder keg.’ The question of the treatment of Jews in Bosnia is usually posed because of the dominant mantra about a clash between Islam and Judaism. However, I have to confess that that was not the case here. All the wars that took place in Bosnia, until the last one, always separated people along ideological lines, never along religious or ethnic ones. The last war alone brought ethnic divisions to the country.

What was the position of the Jewish population in socialist Yugoslavia?

Eighty-five percent of Jews from Sarajevo perished during the Holocaust, yet after the war all the survivors returned to Sarajevo. Maybe because nostalgia is a typical Jewish disease, or maybe because the whole of Europe was destroyed, and the state of Israel did not yet exist. The Community renewed its work, although to a smaller degree. The Benevolence was abolished, together with other national associations. That is to say, in the period of socialism you could have workers, youth or pioneer associations, but you could not have Serbian, Croatian, Jewish, or other national associations. Yet Yugoslavia was a state which supported the creation of the state of Israel and with which it maintained very good relations until 1967.

Jewish spiritual life consisted of commemorations of national and religious holidays. Although plenty of atheists and agnostics – since they were members of the Party – did not attend prayer every Friday, they celebrated Jewish holidays with other members of the community, which was not endangered in socialist Yugoslavia.

Can you describe inter-ethnic relations in Bosnia and Herzegovina over time?

First, what is interesting is that during the census organized after Bosnia  fell under Austro-Hungarian rule in 1878, citizens declared themselves as Muslim Bosnian, Catholic Bosnian, Orthodox Bosnian or Jewish Bosnian. However, when Bosnians became only those who affiliated themselves with Islam, all others who felt as Bosnian and Hercegovinian were excluded. Personally, I would not refuse the theory which says that until 1945 we all were Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims and then after communism came in 1945—when religion was not part of the state—the Orthodox became Serbs, Catholics [became] Croats, and Muslims were undeclared until 1974. Even though it is clear that Serbs and Croats have always lived in Bosnia, they never came from Serbia or from Croatia. However, it was inconvenient for a socialist country to have groups defined only by religion. Consequently, Bosnian Orthodox and Catholics became Serbs and Croats, which was more in line with Tito’s politics of national identities, especially after the break with Stalin in 1948. He never insisted on “Yugoslavhood”: only ten percent of the population declared themselves as Yugoslavs in the 1991 census.

What was the role of the national question in Yugoslavia compared to today’s situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

In the former Yugoslavia, there was a social agreement when it came to the individuals in political cadres. Each organization had three main positions which were always occupied by the three different national groups or minorities. Therefore, it was accepted and acknowledged that a Jew can occupy any of these three positions. However, the national demand at that time was not as strict as it is today when, according to the constitutional provision, the Federal Government must have eight Muslims, five Croats and three Serbs. By contrasts, in Yugoslavia we had cases when Jews occupied quite high ranking positions; not many of them, but still in proportion with the size of the Jewish population at that time.

However, Jews today, after the wars of the 1990s, are in the same situation with many other citizens of Bosnia who are effectively excluded from the highest offices. We can see that, for instance, in the constitutional provision which states that members of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina can only be a Serb from Republika Srpska, and Bosniak and Croat from the Federation. It is discrimination not only against those who, according to the Constitution, belong to the “others” – members of the minorities – but also against the members of the constituent people who do not live in the “right” part of the territory. So, if you are a Serb from the Federation you cannot be a candidate. At the same time, it is almost impossible to prove that ethnic origin. If you declare yourself as a Croat, how do you prove that you are a Croat? I heard many very peculiar answers. I believe that we have not yet made a distinction between citizenship and ethnic belonging; this is important so that we can clearly know what it means to be Bosnian by citizenship, to be Bosniak by ethnic belonging, and to be Muslim or Orthodox by religious affiliation.

Photo credit Andrea Rossini/Osservatorio balcani e caucaso
Photo credit Andrea Rossini/Osservatorio balcani e caucaso

How was the Jewish community affected by the last war?

At the very beginning of the war, we first evacuated children and elderly people from Sarajevo. Children were evacuated because in a war, a child can only die. Our nice fairy tales about the young Partisan heroes from the Second World War are only that – fairy tales. Elderly people were split into two groups. One group were not ready for another war; they only wanted to run away. The other group decided to stay asking for our assistance and help during these difficult days. We managed to evacuate around a thousand Jews and a thousand and five hundred non-Jews from Sarajevo. More than forty percent of Jews from Sarajevo who fled during the last war returned to the city. If you compare that with other ethnic groups, we have the highest percentage of returnees in Sarajevo.

Do you think that implementation of the Sejdić-Finci decision can change the position of the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina–at least in terms of political participation?

I started the entire case as an individual and not on behalf of the Jewish community: this is not exclusively a Jewish nor Romani problem. It is a problem of injustice that divides Bosnian people into first and second class citizens. As the European Court said, it is against all European principles and against European Convention for Human rights which demands equal treatment of all people.

For me it would be quite appropriate and sufficient to modify only one provision of the Constitution in order to stipulate that one member from the Republika Srpska and two members from the Federation can be elected for the Presidency – without specifying national belonging, but stating that it cannot be more than one member of the same group.

To be honest, from the Jewish point of view, it is seeking justice which cannot bring any positive results. This country has a population that is ninety per cent constituent peoples. Even though they are divided into eighty political parties, it is difficult to imagine that somebody outside from the three main ethno-national groups could be elected. Yet we now have the example of Romania, where a German–a member of German national minority– has been elected as a President. Theoretically it is possible in Bosnia as well, but very difficult. I think that our infatuation with ethnicity is far stronger than the Romanian case.

Now, what will happen in the future, who knows. We now celebrate 450 years of Jewish community and I love to say that I hope that in the next 450 years we will still be here. It is good that contrary to the most of the countries in Europe today, in Bosnia and Herzegovina we do not have anti-Semitism. Yet the destiny of Bosnia will also be our destiny.

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Cover photo: “vieux temple juif” by Béatrice BDM is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Katarina Tadic

Katarina Tadic is a researcher based in Belgrade. You can find her on Twitter @KatarinaTadic_