THE BLOG
03/18/2014 09:20 am ET | Updated May 18, 2014

Bosnian Sephardic Jews - Few But Influential

Sarajevo

Sephardic Jews were brought to the Balkans after their expulsion by the Spanish and Portuguese Christian authorities, beginning in 1492. They were rescued by the Turkish Sultan Bayazet II, who lived from 1447 to 1512 and ruled the Ottoman empire from 1481 until his death.

At the Sultan's command, tens of thousands of Iberian Jews were conveyed eastward across the Mediterranean. Most settled throughout western Turkey and the Balkans. The port of Salonika in northern Greece became the Ottoman Sephardic capital, but their communities thrived in Constantinople and Sarajevo, and many points between.

Under Ottoman governance, they kept their Judeo-Spanish language, flavored here and there with Portuguese. As the centuries passed, the idiom borrowed many words from Turkish.

Recently, the Spanish government has debated offering citizenship to descendants of Sephardim who can prove their origin. This was treated as a novelty by global media, including Jewish periodicals. In reality, Spain had afforded official protection previously to descendants of Sephardim.

The distinguished historian of Spain, Stanley G. Payne, notes in his 2008 volume, Franco and Hitler, that a "limited Sephardic citizenship decree" was established in 1924, under King Alfonso XIII, and expanded after proclamation of the Spanish Republic in 1931. According to Payne, "hundreds of new 'certificates of nationality' for Sephardim were issued during the Republican years [from 1931 to 1939], mainly in Greece, Romania, and Egypt."

A considerable number of Sephardim with Spanish nationality were thus protected from the Nazis, during the Holocaust, by the Franco authorities in Madrid.

Sephardic Jews, although never accounting for such large numbers in the land as the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, were viewed as the "fourth Bosnian nation" because of their role in building up Sarajevo and their prominence in trade. A late-medieval Catalan Jewish Haggadah, or Passover ritual book, was found in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the end of the 19th century, and became known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. It is now a symbol for all Bosnians of mutual respect and a common life in the country.

Today, according to a leader of the Jewish Community of Bosnia, Jakob Finci, about 1,000 Jews remain in Bosnia, of whom 4-500 may be eligible for Spanish citizenship.

During the 1992-95 Bosnian War, Jews were prominent in the defense of the besieged city of Sarajevo. The Sarajevo Jews reestablished a relief agency, La Benevolencija, which assisted anybody of any ethnicity or religious identification in the city. A soup kitchen was opened in the Synagogue and Community Center, with food available to all in need. With contributions from abroad, the organization and the Jewish Community opened three free pharmacies that equally served any Sarajevan without distinction of national identification or creed.

Sarajevans have said that the drugstores were crucial for the survival of Sarajevo, as the city, surrounded and devastated, might otherwise have succumbed to epidemics.

La Benevolencija has inspired efforts in other countries. For example, in Amsterdam, the La Benevolencija Humanitarian Tools Foundation, inspired by the Sarajevo experience 20 years ago, campaigns against human rights violations in Africa and Sri Lanka, as well as focusing attention on the plight of Roma [Gypsies] in Europe.

The link with the fate of Roma people may reflect the common victimization of Jews and Roma by the Hitler regime. But in Bosnia, there is another, important functional relationship.

Under the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War in 1995, and the Bosnian Constitution attached to them, the highest posts in the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina are restricted to members of the main local communities: Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats.

This requirement was challenged by two Bosnian minority leaders, Dervo Sejdic, a Roma, and Jakob Finci. "Sejdic-Finci" was litigated at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, which, in 2009, found for the plaintiffs. The ECHR noted that as a Roma and a Jew, Sejdic and Finci "are ineligible to stand for election to the House of Peoples (the second chamber of the State Parliament) and the Presidency (the collective Head of State)." The Strasbourg tribunal determined that the provisions of the Dayton Accords violated European human rights law in being discriminatory and preventing free exercise of the vote.

"Sejdic-Finci" remains to be implemented in Bosnia-Herzegovina but its symbolism is important to Bosnians, especially those who in recent protests have expressed their discontent with political stagnation and corruption, as well as economic deprivation, in their country. Thus, last week, Sarajevans saw disgruntled cabdrivers with signs reading "Taxi Drivers for Sejdic-Finci."

At first glance, one might ask why cabdrivers would be concerned about a petition for political rights affecting Roma and Sephardim. But the sentiment is easily explained: "Sejdic-Finci" may help break up the ethnic deadlock that holds back Bosnian reform.

In addition to the effort by Finci, another Bosnian Sephardic Jew, Sven Alkalaj, has been Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) since 2012. The chazzan (cantor) of the Sarajevo Synagogue, David Kamhi, was a Bosnian diplomat in Spain during the 1992-95 war. Igor Davor Gaon, a veteran of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the same conflict, and former Sarajevo municipal official, has served the UN, and is a leading global investigator of human trafficking. Eli Tauber, whose mother was Sephardic, is associated with the Institute for Research of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law at the University of Sarajevo, alongside various well-known Bosnian Muslim personalities.

Sephardic voices continue to be heard in Bosnia-Herzegovina, providing an important alternative to a clogged system, obstructed progress, and hopelessness.