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U.S. Jews and the Balkan Situation

by Alvin Dorfman and Heather Cottin 
Printed in Jewish Currents - April, 1996 

Reproduced with the permission of the authors. Alvin Dorfman is a contributor to Jewish Currents and has had a long association with the magazine. Heather Cottin is a new contributor. She is a public high school social studies teacher. 

There is at present widespread support in American public opinion for the policies of the U.S. government in the Balkans. It is a striking and dark paradox that Jewish opinion has played an important role in helping to mobilize that support. 

U.S. policy in the Balkans has now carried the United States into direct intervention in two civil wars, one between Croatian Serbs and the new proto-fascist state of Croatia, and one between the Bosnian Serbs and a Bosnian Muslim government which has become increasingly fundamentalist. In the first case, the U.S. helped the new Croatia to plan, organize and carry out the invasion of the Krajina region in Croatia, which led to the uprooting of more than a quarter of a million Serbs and the slaughter of thousands who tried to remain in their ancestral homes there. In the second case, the U.S. used NATO, against the advice of many of its allies, to destroy the military infrastructure of the Bosnian Serb army and to shift the balance of power in favor of a minority Muslim government in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This, too, has led to the flight of well over 100,000 Bosnian Serbs. 

In intervening in this manner, the U.S. has not just taken sides in an internal European war; it has allied itself with the most reactionary elements in Europe, including a newly expansionist, racist and increasingly militaristic German government. Worse still, the U.S., in order to create what it thinks will be a more favorable atmosphere for the re-election of Pres. Bill Clinton, is now seeking to impose an unworkable overall peace "settlement" in Yugoslavia and to enforce it with a 60,000-man NATO task force, which will include some 25,000 U.S. troops. Even Richard Holbrooke, the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, admits that this could well lead to another Vietnam. 

To anyone who lived through World War II and who still understand the meaning of Nazism - and this applies especially to Jews - all of this should be not just astonishing, but repulsive. The United States, in alliance with the German government, is now pursuing policies very similar to those pursued by the Nazis who wished to splinter the Balkans in order to dominate the area. It was the Nazis who unleashed clerical fascism in Yugoslavia during World War II. And it was the Nazis who displayed a pathological hatred of the Serbs, as well as of Jews and Gypsies. 

It is difficult to understand how U.S. policy toward the Balkans could have taken such a turn in any reasonably democratic country. Unfortunately, a large part of the explanation is that public opinion in this matter has been driven into something like a frenzy by what seems to be an officially inspired and large-scale campaign of propaganda. No foreign policy can succeed without public support. And U.S. policy in the Balkans is clear testimony to that fact. Although as recently as four years ago, the American public did not even know the location of the regions known as Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the Krajina and Montenegro - and perhaps many Americans still don't - key individuals and groups in this country were targeted for a propaganda barrage designed to demonize the Serbs, to hide the reality of Croatian fascism and to canonize the Bosnian Muslims. 

Several groups received special treatment by the government and the media in the course of this propaganda campaign. Since they, like many other Americans, were for the most part ignorant of the history of the region, they were relatively easy to convince. The groups which were singled out were liberals, women and Jews. And government spokesmen and the media have been hammering at them for years now. To take but one example: in Washington the public relations firm of Ruder/Finn mounted a campaign to get American Jews to associate the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the Holocaust. This campaign, according to Justice Department documents, was paid for by the governments of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, although the head of Ruder/Finn later explained these governments had not paid for all the costs of the campaign. What other governments were passing money to Ruder/Finn? Was the C.I.A. helping to subsidize the campaign through traditional means, the usual kinds of "front" companies, or "proprietaries," as insiders like to call them? Every effort was made by Ruder/Finn to reach the leading Jewish organizations in the United States at an early stage. Facts were distorted. Lies were reiterated so many times that they became "facts." In an interview with the well- known French TV journalist Jacques Merlino, James Harff, director of Ruder/Finn Global Affairs, boasted that the achievement he was most proud of was "to have put Jewish opinion on our side." He said, "We out witted three Jewish organizations - the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress..." Harff called getting these organizations to publish a pro-Bosnian Muslim ad in the N.Y. Times, and to organize demonstrations outside the United Nations "a tremendous coup." He crowed, "By a single move we were able to present a simple story of good guys and bad guys which would hereafter play itself...We won by targeting the Jewish audience..." He explained, "Our work is not to verify information, our work is to accelerate the circulation of information favorable to us. We are not paid to be moral."* 

It should be remembered that Jews have also been singled out as targets of official propaganda in the not-too-distant past. When the Reagan administration was secretly trying to overthrow the Sandinistas government in Nicaragua, it used the same techniques that Ruder/Finn used in demonizing the Serbs. And some Jewish leaders allowed themselves to be used to discredit the Nicaraguan government. They helped to promote the idea that the Sandinistas were anti-Semitic. There was not a grain of truth to the claim. But some Jewish leaders signed a full-page ad in The N.Y. Times, The Washington Post and The L.A. Times which referred to the Contras as the moral equivalent of American revolutionaries and as "freedom fighters." 

Today American Jewish organizations are being used in a similar way. It is important to contrast what has happened in America with what has happened in Israel. The Israeli public has proved much harder to deceive than the American public. Jews are people of the Book, and very aware of their place in history. Israelis are, not surprisingly, much more aware of history in general than American Jews, and especially of European history. Israeli Yugoslav Jews were therefore more immune to media manipulation during the world-wide campaign against the Serbs. American Jews jumped on the anti-Serb bandwagon rolling through the American media. In Israel, Yugoslav Jews knew very well that the Serbs had been their strongest allies during the Holocaust, carried out in Yugoslavia primarily by Croatian fascists. They remembered that the Croatian Ustashi had murdered hundreds of thousands at the Jasenovac death camp. They remembered that the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, had declared that "only 1,000,000 Jews had died in the Nazi Holocaust." They knew that Tudjman had proclaimed proudly that his wife "was neither a Serb nor a Jew." 

Israel may have recognized Croatia - under pressure. But it is no secret that Israeli arms have ended up in Serb hands. Israel has still not recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina. It would be a near-suicidal step for any Israeli government to support a Bosnian Muslim regime whose president (Izetbegovic) has written that "There can be no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic societies..." 

In the United States, the process of rehabilitating Croatia has been incredibly successful. Croatian fascists, who still provide the model of ideal nationalism for the Croatian government today, killed 60,000 Jews in World War II. They recently destroyed Jewish synagogues as well as Serbian churches. 

If one can ignore such things, it is hardly surprising that there was little international protest in August, 1995 when 250,000 Serbs living in the Krajina region of Croatia were driven off the land on which their families have lived for 300 years. How could such "ethnic cleansing" have been carried out without international opprobrium? 

The Croatian campaign in the Krajina was the largest and most violent attack on European soil since the end of World War II. And much of it, because the Croatian Serb Army was quickly shattered, was directed at unarmed civilians. The international media called the Serbs "rebels" even though this region was recognized as Serb by the Croatian government during World War II. No CNN horror films catalogued the Croatian air force strafing of Serb refugees, the destruction of their churches, the cold-blooded assassination of old people, the burning of more than 16,000 homes and other properties. No American refugee organization concerned themselves with the hundreds of thousands of Serbs, from Croatia and Western Bosnia, streaming into Yugoslavia. And since, by the summer of 1995, American Jews had been properly brainwashed and made anti-Serb, no Jews spoke out about a horror which should been chillingly familiar. Somehow the fact that Croatia expelled more than 40,000 Serbs when it declared its independence in 1991 has been ignored. Somehow the fact that Croatia has denied its population basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press and that it operates a repressive police state has been hidden. In fear of their lives and livelihoods, some Croatian Jews extol the virtues of the Croatian government. When Croatian fascists commit atrocities, people seem to respond with the familiar refrain, "We didn't know." 

Things have not been very different with respect to Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the U.S. media and among senior American officials, Bosnian Muslim spokesmen are taken at their word where Serbs are not. Jewish leaders have been trotted out to make condemnatory anti-Serb pronouncements. Even when UNPROFOR (UN Protection Force) spokespersons denied or raised doubts about stories of questionable veracity, the Bosnian Muslim position or claim has been taken as truth. 

Feminists in the U.S. were treated to a propaganda blitz about rapes allegedly carried out by Serbs. It had an electrifying effect. In the end, the radical group "Madre," which previously supported Central American women, launched an emotional campaign to save thousands of Bosnian Muslim women allegedly raped by Bosnian Serb soldiers. Gloria Steinem lent the story respectability in Ms. Magazine. The N.Y. Times wrote that 20,000 to 50,000 Bosnian women had been raped, despite the fact that there was no substantiation for such numbers - except, of course, from the Bosnian Muslim "Ministry of Information." Despite doubts expressed by Helsinki Watch, Human Rights Watch and respected individuals such as Simone Weil, the president of the European Parliament, the American media relied on the Bosnian War Crimes Commission and Caritas, the Catholic charity connected to the Croatian government, for verification of these outrageous claims. The German media promoted the rape hysteria for their own reasons, which British historian Nora Beloff ascribed to the German need "to Satanize the Serbs in order to cover their own responsibility for pitching Yugoslavia into war." 

In the U.S., from the beginning of the conflict, there was never any attempt to see the civil wars in Yugoslavia from a position of neutrality. Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were simply "new states" welcomed into the brotherhood of nations, with seats quickly obtained for them at the UN. They were never pictured, as any briefing on history and politics would demand, as the fruits of the most extreme, exclusivist nationalism, the kind of nationalism which turned Central Europe upside down in the 1930s and led to World War II. But Yugoslav Jews in Israel, understanding what was really happening in the Balkans, actively opposed any government support of Croatians or Muslims, despite Croatian public relations efforts directed at Israel. Jews in Israel knew that Hamas members trained in Bosnia. They remembered that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem organized two Bosnian Muslim divisions for Hitler's army during World War II. 

It is distinctly peculiar that so many Americans, and more curious still that so many American Jews, should have taken the side of the Bosnian Muslim government. Of course, the USA has backed Muslim fundamentalism before, in Afghanistan, for instance, where it was a useful tool for ending Russian aid to the Afghan government. But these are European Muslim fundamentalists. That is perhaps why the theocratic ideas of Mr. Izetbegovic and his colleagues have received so little attention here. Jews might wince if they learned that the Bosnian president has said, "The struggle for Islamic order and the fundamental reconstruction of Muslim society can be successfully waged only by battle-tested and hardened individuals...The Islamic order should take power as soon as it is morally and numerically strong enough not only to overthrow non-Islamic rule but to develop new Islamic rule." Are these the heroes of the West? It is strange that Americans and American Jews, as a people who believe in multicultural diversity and freedom of religion, have embraced the Bosnian Muslim's struggle as their own. 

The Horror of the last four years was brought upon the Balkans primarily by Germany and the United States for geopolitical reasons. Yugoslavia might already in 1991 or 1992 have begun to break up as a result of internal disagreements. But, in the absence of German and U.S. interventions, it is unlikely that there would have been civil wars there. By the end of 1992, however, Germany, throwing its weight around as an economic power, was able to force the international community to recognize Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as independent states. It was quietly but effectively assisted by the Bush administration, which, almost immediately after the Yelstin takeover of 1991 in the Soviet Union, publicly abandoned its support for the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. By their joint maneuvering the two great powers created a situation which reduced the stature of more than two million Serbs outside Serbia and Montenegro to that of "ethnic minorities" in hostile states. 

When Croatia denied Serbs all political standing, the Krajina Serbs declared their independence from Croatia - with as much right as the Croatians had in declaring their independence from Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, where under Izetbegovic Serbs were denied all political and economic rights, the Bosnian Serbs also embarked on a struggle for self-determination. They had no wish to be dominated by a repressive fundamentalist regime. But Germany and the U.S. were determined to succeed in their efforts to break up Yugoslavia. Germany poured millions of deutschemarks into the Croatian military, and it trained and armed Bosnian Muslims, with help from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and other Islamic governments. Weapons, money and men poured into Bosnia for the jihad. And the Muslim government opposed every peace agreement that would have given anything of value to the Bosnian Serbs. The U.S. has provided finance, political support and covert military assistance to both the Bosnian Muslims and the Croatians. Thus, there had to be a battle to win the hearts and minds of the American people. Their support was needed if these policies were to succeed. The support of American Jews became a key to moving public opinion. Their major organizations carried weight, both in terms of resources and in terms of moral leadership. Jewish support underwrote the morality of the German-American policies in the Balkans. It also followed that a great deal had to be hidden. Germany's pursuit of divisive and expansionist policies in the Balkans for the third time in the century had to be hidden. The fundamentalist values of government leaders in Bosnia had to be kept hidden. And the role of Germany and the U.S. in building up extremist nationalist movements so that Yugoslavia could be torn apart had to be hidden: Widespread information about any of these would have made it very difficult to win the prize of Jewish opinion. The time has come to question our position on this issue. Progressives in the country, and Jews especially, have been inundated by a tidal wave of poisonous falsehoods. We must ask ourselves, "Since when were aggressive, anti-democratic foreign policies worthy of support?" We need to establish why Yugoslavia broke up. We need to understand the meaning of the U.S. German alliance after the Cold War. And we need to question why we have deserted the Serbs, our only friends in Yugoslavia, the only people who stood with us against the Nazis and who died with us at the death camp Jasenovac. Serbs in Belgrade, to whom we have spoken by phone, are appalled by what American Jewish organizations have done. Jews of Yugoslav origin in Israel are mortified. One has only to read the Israeli press to realize that. We must see our shame. If it comes from not knowing, or being misled, we need to atone for it. Jews have nothing to gain and everything that we morally stand for to lose by continuing to turn our backs on the Serbian people. 

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Last revised: April 22, 1997