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Besieged by an Agenda: The Sarajevo Haggadah

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A Jewish, world and Bosnian treasure will not be making the visit to New York. The Sarajevo Haggadah came, as many Jewish and Moorish refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, via Italy, to a tolerant Bosnia & Herzegovina, (BiH). It was hidden from Nazis and fascists during WWII and escaped incendiary bombardment by ultra-nationalist Serbian forces besieging Sarajevo during the 1992-95 war. Now though, it is a prisoner of the political structure that also keeps most BiH citizens hostage to the crude fixes that ended that war and ethnic cleansing. Some argue that the conflict, in fact, has never ended but now is transplanted to the crude nationalist politics that still dominate. The reintegration of BiH that I had hoped for during the Dayton peace talks has not occurred. While the Sarajevo Haggadah symbolizes to most citizens of Muslim, Christian Orthodox, Catholic, secular, as well as Jewish background, a tradition and culture of diversity and tolerance, the current political wave is effectively led to the lowest common denominator by those who would divide BiH.

During the last assault upon BiH and siege of Sarajevo in 1992-95, the Haggadah was safeguarded in basement and vault hideouts. The National Museum in this capital city, which had been bombarded and burned, has been rebuilt and is again the home of the Haggadah. In great demand around the globe as potential visitor, the Sarajevo Haggadah was ready to travel.

However, just as the first trip to New York on loan was arranged, the politically imposed artificial divides appear to have yanked back the Haggadah, not too different than the chains of the recent past that keep the country from moving forward to join the rest of the Euro-Atlantic family in the European Union and NATO. As Foreign Minister of BiH, I was one of those responsible for negotiating the Dayton Accords. While BiH had primarily been defended and saved by its citizens/soldiers from 1992 to 1995, we entrusted hope in the future that the values of open societies as well as dominant political eminence of the U.S. and Europe would be allies in gradually wearing down the ultra-nationalist, bigoted forces that had launched the war of intolerance and genocide. Unfortunately, that hope has either been misplaced or, if I want to be optimistic, yet to be realized.

The Sarajevo Haggadah needs special preservation preparations to travel, but there has been no funding for BiH's National Monuments Preservation Commission. Writing for the Associated Press, Aida Cerkez describes the morass:

"The National Museum and six other institutions that are the custodians of Bosnia's national heritage -- and care for precious medieval manuscripts, religious relics and natural history artifacts, among other items -- are victims of the 1995 (Dayton Accords) peace agreement that ended Bosnia's war. The deal split the Balkan nation along ethnic lines into two semi-autonomous parts linked by a weak central government and guided by a constitution that did not envisage a culture ministry... For years, the museum survived from ad hoc grants and donations. Museum staff worked for a whole year without pay before they lost every hope last October, gathered one more time at the fountain in the museum's botanical garden, threw a coin into it and made a wish that the institution will reopen soon. Then, they left the building and nailed wooden boards that read "closed" across its front door. Many cried. Sarajevo's students tried in vain to chain themselves to pillars inside the building, but eventually lost the battle with the police and hung a banner on the building with a message to Bosnia's politicians: 'Shame on you. 'Since then, no progress has been made toward solving the problem."

During the Dayton Accords negotiations, the BiH delegation and I struggled for a Ministry to safeguard shared symbols and expressions of culture and heritage. Those that had sought to first wipe away BiH and then divide it sought to eliminate any joint institutions and especially those that might evidence the history of coexistence and the fruits of pluralism. In the end, a Commission was envisioned, but some have continuously sought to suffocate it by choking funding, a small commitment compared to the cost of myriad layers of unnecessary political institutions that feed nationalist patronage and crony capitalism. Some argue that this is the responsibility of Bosnians/Herzegovinians to resolve, but it was Washington and European powers that guaranteed the Dayton Accords' comprehensive implementation and the reintegration of BiH, from refugee return to the reassertion of pluralistic institutions. More to the point, these same powers continue to insist that BiH retain the Dayton Accords, even if flawed and selectively applied to the lowest common denominator.

Of course the Dayton Accords may have largely outlived their usefulness. Some would argue that it more served to legitimize the politics of Milošević, Karadžić and Mladić than aid in the re-establishment of the rule of law or coexistence. Regardless, as with the Sarajevo Haggadah, BiH and its citizens continue to be besieged by agendas promoting division and patronage. The still not quenched thirst of nationalism continues to drain the country. The trust and hope that I and others deposited with western democracies remains an illusion. Disillusioned with the Dayton Accords and current political delineations, BiH's citizens will have to recapture their own future through a revitalized, open political process. In the meantime, if you want to be in the presence of the Sarajevo Haggadah, you will at least for now have to visit the city where mosques, churches and synagogues share choirs and the rhythm of cafes, museums and houses of worship still play the song of tolerance even after...

To read more of the Sarajevo Haggadah, also see the novel (semi-fictional) "People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks.