Does Bosnian Football Have an Anti-Semitism Problem?

Is a new anti-Semitism emerging in Bosnia-Herzegovina? Dario Brentin analyzes the phenomenon inside and outside the football stadium.

During this weekend’s UEFA European championship qualification game between Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Israel in Zenica’s ”Bilino polje” stadium, the result was disturbingly overshadowed. Yes, BiH won the match and thereby kept the dream of participating in the Euro’s alive, but what stood out and what should be at the centre of international focus, were the blatant anti-Semitic incidents prior and during the game perpetrated by a section of the BiH fans.

The trouble began prior to the game when the BiH fans commenced on their march to the stadium, led by the official BiH national team fan group, the ”Fanaticos”. That said it was more of a political demonstration than a coordinated march to a football game. Whilst the loud chanting of ‘Palestine, Palestine’ can be identified as a political statement directed towards Israeli politics and is not anti-Semitic in itself, the fact that the choreography also included an orchestrated stomping on an over-sized Israeli flag by the entire cordon of fans, was however additionally distasteful. Considering the general context in which this happened, clear anti-Semitic sentiment is present. The posting of an image depicting the act on the Facebook profile of ‘BOŠNJACI’ (“Bosniaks”) has thus far gathered more than 11.000 likes and many of the comments found under the postings vary only in the intensity of anti-Semitism they display.

Photo via The Gateway Pundit
Photo via The Gateway Pundit

According to the Times of Israel the fans also rioted in front of the hotel where players of the Israeli national team were staying lighting flares, chanting political slogans, and throwing smoke grenades. Loud jeering and chanting of ‘Palestine, Palestine’ was continued throughout the intonation of the Israeli anthem and the duration of the game itself. Also some reports, as in the Croatian newspapers Novi list and Slobodna Dalmacija, mention the ongoing chanting of ‘Juden, auf wiedersehen’ (Yes, chanting ‘Jews, goodbye’ in German) during the game. Although the report of discrimination by the FARE (Football against Racism in Europe) observer present at the game has not officially been published yet, it is safe to assume that it will mention anti-Semitic chanting—and should. Today, UEFA has opened disciplinary proceedings against the Bosnia and Herzegovina Football Federation (NFSBiH) over the disruption of the Israeli national anthem, the setting off and/or throwing of fireworks and objects and general racist behavior.

The incidents however, did not come as much of a surprise. The general atmosphere in the country was already tense in the days before the game, with media reporting on the heavy security measures, as well as constantly mentioning prior incidents of an anti-Semitic nature at sporting events in Bosnia and the entire region. The Association of Sport Journalists of Southeast Europe and other personalities from the field of sport had called for calm, for tolerance, and fair-play prior to the game. Apart from the media hype it did not really help to calm the atmosphere that a couple of days before the game the Israeli player Ben Sahar gave a particular interview in Israel before leaving. He explained that he was looking forward to demonstrating his will to fight for the Israeli flag in front of a Muslim and hostile audience. The day this information made its way into the Bosnian media space, the statement was more widely shared on social media than the news that Naser Orić, the war-time commander of the Srebrenica corps of the Bosnian Army, had been arrested in Switzerland on behalf of a Serbian warrant.

An isolated incident?

Yet the scenes from last Friday were unfortunately not the first of their kind.  Only last year, during a FIBA European championship basketball qualification game between BiH and Iceland in Tuzla, fans unfolded a huge banner depicting the Israeli flag with a Swastika in its middle instead of the Star of David. The radical action was defended by the fans as a political statement against the ongoing war in Gaza during the summer of 2014.

Photo via TuzlaLive
Photo via TuzlaLive

The arguable peak of this behavior, however, came when fans of the BiH national football team joined a pro-Palestine protest on Vienna’s main square, the Stephansplatz, just before a friendly game between BiH and Austria earlier this year. The fans joined the protest and started chanting ‘Kill, kill, kill, the Jews’ in a very exuberant fashion. In an open letter to the UEFA president, Michel Platini, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre expressed shock at ”the behavior of Bosnia football fans” and urged UEFA ”to take the strongest disciplinary measures against the Bosnian Football Association and [we] expect that other European clubs take care that such behavior be banned from any match, by the fans of any team.”

However, the last part of the statement expressed that the “action debases the beautiful game and presages violence in sport from a new Jihadist-Nazi alliance.“ As much as the anti-Semitic nature of the chants is unquestionable and disgusting, one may pose the question whether the conclusion is entirely correct. Can we talk of a ”new Jihadist-Nazi alliance” that is spreading amongst BiH sports fans or are there also other explanations for that kind of repulsive behavior?

The myth of Bosnian anti-Semitism?

BiH officials often pride themselves as a country with little to no Anti-Semitism polluting its society. These same officials will point out that BiH’s Jewish community originally arrived in Sarajevo in 1565 after being expelled from Spain in 1492 and that they have been able to maintain their traditions and identity for centuries despite living in a majority Muslim country. Jakob Finci, the head of the Jewish community in Bosnia and former ambassador to Switzerland, will often reiterate in international media (and indeed at Balkanist) that ”this country is almost entirely free of anti-Semitism.“ Furthermore there is a popular and mythologized narrative claiming that the Bosnian and Jewish people are two ”brotherly nations” destined to friendship due to their mutual experience of suffering and victimhood.

However, just one quick glance at (social) media discourses quickly makes one question this statement. The portal Prometej.ba i.e. has compiled an insightful and shocking account of everyday anti-Semitism in the BiH media space, which only echoes what can be found on various forums and social media sites. But is this “only” a new kind of ”digital hate speech” perpetuated by the beauty of internet anonymity or is it a manifestation of a growing and real anti-Semitism in BiH?

Take the attacks on popular hip-hop artist Edo Maajka in 2014. Last year, Maajka was attacked in the media over his “failure” to condemn the Israeli attack on Gaza, which resulted in repeated insults via social media. As Maajka was married to a Jewish woman, and lived in Tel Aviv, the insults ranged from despicable personal attacks to the usage of clearly anti-Semitic tropes and patterns. At the time, a commentator in the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, pointed out that the reaction was not just an angry response to Israeli policies, but that in Bosnian society, Jews and Judaism had increasingly come to be stigmatized as a hostile alien presence, in BiH and seemingly the world as a whole.

Across the former Yugoslavia there is an ongoing banalisation of anti-Semitism. This is especially visible in the world of sport, through various fan practices, as I have previously argued with regards to the singing of the fascist salute ‘Za dom spremni’ by Croatian fans. A factor in explaining the rise of anti-Semitic incidents and discourses coincides with the rise of religious conservative and Salafist groups in BiH over the past few years. Not to say that they have been the driving forces behind an increasingly radicalized and polarized public discourse in reference to the Middle East in general, and the Israel vs. Palestine conflict in particular, but these groups have certainly played a significant role all the same. Indeed, the fascinating (and disturbing) transformation of the wide-spread narrative/myth of Bosnians as being a ”brotherly nation” with the Jewish people to one of anti-Semitic solidarity with the “Palestinian people”, as is being argued in many anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic statements all over the internet, would certainly be worthy of more research.

Furthermore, as much as stadiums should be understood as a public sphere, there are mechanisms and reflexes as to how football “fan tribes” react to (particularly external) criticism. They want to provoke, with the fullest of intentions to shock. Yet the expressions prior, during, and after the game (especially in social media) indicate that the anti-Semitic sentiments were genuine and there was no feeling of wrong-doing. It was in fact, a moral, courageous act, to read these comments, one motivated by enlightened Bosnian “anti-Zionism.”

Many voices in BiH say that the international community, as well as journalists who criticize the existing discourses on Israel and Palestine, simply do not want to differentiate between anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic political standpoints. That may be but how else should those statements be understood if (legitimate) pro-Palestinian sentiment and critique of Israel’s policies is expressed in a clearly anti-Semitic manner? Yet, it has to be pointed out that the criticism and anger over one country’s political and military actions, cannot justify the spreading of hateful and discriminatory sentiments towards an entire national community and/or religious group. As pointed out by Danijal Hadžović, it does not matter whether we are talking about Jews, Muslims, homosexuals or someone else, what matters is the principle. As justified as some of the anger towards the current government in Israel might be, this rage can never be expanded to an entire group of people, especially one with as storied and vibrant a history as the Jewish community in BiH.

Cover photo via Patria

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!
Avatar
Dario Brentin

Dario Brentin is a PhD-candidate at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London working on the topic of sport and national identity in post-socialist Croatia. He obtained his Mag. Phil. in Political Science and Eastern European History at the University of Vienna and is currently a University Assistant at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. He just recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Südosteuropa entitled Football and Society. You can follow him on Twitter @dariobrentin.