‘Disgrace to diplomacy’: Bosnia accuses Israeli diplomat of genocide denial

Envoy to Serbia draws intense criticism for telling Russian media that calling 1995 Srebrenica massacre a genocide ‘diminishes the importance of that term’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

United States Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina Michael J. Murphy kneels next to the coffins containing remains of 30 newly identified victims of the Srebrenica Genocide in Potocari, Bosnia, July 10, 2023. (AP/Armin Durgut)
United States Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina Michael J. Murphy kneels next to the coffins containing remains of 30 newly identified victims of the Srebrenica Genocide in Potocari, Bosnia, July 10, 2023. (AP/Armin Durgut)

An Israeli diplomat in the Balkans has set off a firestorm of criticism this week, after telling Russian state media that he did not believe that an infamous 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys constituted a genocide.

Speaking with the Kremlin-controlled Sputnik news agency, Yahel Vilan, Israel’s ambassador to Serbia, stated that calling the mass execution committed by Bosnian Serb troops in the town of Srebrenica a genocide “diminishes the importance of that term, which, in my opinion, should only be used for genocides.”

“And Israel was invited to The Hague because of the alleged genocide in Gaza. For me, Srebrenica should not be called genocide,” Vilan said, referencing the recent South African motion accusing Israel of genocide before the International Court of Justice.

International courts in The Hague have branded the crime in Srebrenica a genocide, Europe’s first since World War II. Bosnian Serb top army officers and political leaders also have been convicted of genocide by United Nations judges.

Yahel Vilan (Courtesy)

Vilan’s comments came as Bosniak Muslim politicians push for the passage of a draft UN resolution commemorating the genocide. While the measure is supported by a number of European countries and the United States, the diplomat said that he was unsure how Israel would vote on the matter.

In response, Bosnian Foreign Minister Elmedin Konaković decried Vilan’s “shameful statement,” arguing that such claims are “not only deeply wrong, but also insulting to the victims and survivors of the genocide in Srebrenica, as well as to all those who hold to truth and justice in the international community.”

“To remind Ambassador Vilan, the comparison of the Holocaust and the genocide in Srebrenica is not a matter of competition in suffering, but recognition that every victim of crimes against humanity deserves equal honor and justice. Downplaying the crimes in Srebrenica under the guise of ‘importance of terminology’ is not only intellectually dishonest, but also morally questionable.”

Vilan, he continued, is “a disgrace to diplomacy and a human disgrace.”

Srebrenica Genocide Memorial director Emir Suljagic — a massacre survivor who has been subjected to a campaign of antisemitic rhetoric for refusing to condemn Israel following October 7 — also condemned Vilan’s statement, declaring that the latter “does not speak for the [Jewish] people, and especially not for the victims of the Holocaust.”

While “until this moment, Israel fulfilled its international obligations by extraditing those accused of genocide at the request of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” its ambassador’s statement “crosses a red line,” he continued, adding that “there is no Holocaust memorial today that questions the genocide in Srebrenica.”

Suljagic was joined in his opprobrium by senior leaders of Bosnia’s Jewish community.

Speaking by phone from Sarajevo, Jakob Finci, president of the Bosnian Jewish community, argued that Vilan had made things harder for his constituents.

Jakob Finci, head of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Jewish community, in his Sarajevo office. (Anne Joseph/Times of Israel)

Many Bosniaks are already against Israel because of the war in Gaza and denying that Srebrenica is a massacre only exacerbates such tensions, he said, speculating that the ambassador’s comments were linked to the conflict.

“They are a bit afraid of the final results of Gaza, that some countries will start a case like South Africa [arguing] that this was genocide in Gaza. So it’s better to keep to the other side, to deny any kind of crime [can] be called genocide,” he said.

Such an approach could rebound on Israel, added Vladimir Andrle, the president of the Jewish community’s La Benevolencija philanthropic organization.

“By denying genocide in Srebrenica we are opening the door for Holocaust deniers to use the same logic and to deny verdicts which determine genocide against Jews and courts which brought those verdicts,” he said in a WhatsApp message.

“I do hope that this position is the position of one ambassador [and] not the official stand of [the] State of Israel.”

A Bosnian man waves a Palestinian flag during a protest against Israel and in support of Palestinians in Sarajevo, Bosnia, October 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Armin Durgut)

Bosnia and Herzegovina remains ethnically divided and politically tense long after the end of the 1992-1995 war. The troubled Balkan nation is seeking European Union membership, but internal divisions — which have been significantly heightened by arguments over the legacy of the conflict — have hampered the effort.

Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik has threatened that Bosnian Serbs, who control about half of Bosnia, would split from the rest of the country if the Srebrenica resolution is passed in the UN General Assembly.

In an effort to enlist Jerusalem’s opposition to the measure, Zeljka Cvijanovié, the Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency, wrote directly to Israeli UN envoy Gilad Erdan last month.

In her letter, Cvijanovié argued that the resolution, advanced by Bosniak politicians, stood “in clear violation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitutional framework” and its adoption “would cause internal strife in Bosnia and Herzegovina, badly undermining the inter-ethnic reconciliation that is vital to its future.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Israeli official with knowledge of the matter told The Times of Israel that “high-level officials from both sides in Bosnia… look forward to seeing how Israel will vote.”

“Our vote is very meaningful due to the context of the Holocaust,” the official noted, adding that Israel’s position on Srebrenica has always been “pretty vague.”

“Only two years ago, Israel was the driving force in getting the UN General Assembly to condemn Holocaust denial. And in 2013, Israel did the legally and morally right thing when it extradited a Bosnian Serb accused of participating in the Srebrenica massacre to stand trial in Bosnia,” argued Menachem Rosensaft, a Cornell law professor and genocide expert.

Menachem Rosensaft delivering the keynote address at the commemoration marking the 28th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, July 2023. (Courtesy)

“It would be unconscionable if Israel were now to side with Republika Srpska, Serbia, and most probably Russia in opposing — or even abstaining on — the UNGA resolution,” the former World Jewish Congress general counsel said.

“At a moment when Jews and Muslims around the world are drifting farther and farther away from each other, all too often set against one another by political and religious leaders intent on stoking the flames of hatred and paranoia, we must at the very least all come together in according the same respect and dignity to the Bosniak victims of the Srebrenica genocide as we accord to the Jewish victims of the Shoah.”

Bosnian and Serb politicians have previously sought to mobilize Israeli politicians and scholars as part of the battle over the legacy of Srebrenica — with former Bosnian foreign minister Bisera Turkovic in 2021 explicitly calling on then-foreign minister Yair Lapid to intervene in a domestic battle over genocide denial legislation.

The following year, Lapid, then prime minister, ordered an Israeli diplomat reprimanded for involving himself in a contentious Bosnian domestic political debate over electoral reform.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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