One-on-one | BiH

Igor Kožemjakin: We aren’t diaspora, we are indigenous residents of BiH

By - 23.09.2021

The hazzan of the Sarajevo Jewish Community talks about tradition, antisemitism and the future.

Igor Bencion Kožemjakin is the hazzan of the Jewish Community of Sarajevo, the person who leads prayers and other rituals at the synagogue. At the same time, through social and traditional media as well as through direct contact with his fellow citizens, Kožemjakin promotes the over 500-year-old traditions of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Jewish Community.

From a peak of approximately 12,000, Sarajevo’s Jewish community has shrunk to around 500 members, most of whom are elderly. They face numerous issues, from economic and political concerns to a struggle for basic sustenance.

The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated collection of religious precepts and mores related to Passover celebrations. The Haggadah can be traced back to approximately 1350. After Jews were expelled from Spain, the owners of the prayer book carried it across Europe before it ended up in Sarajevo. The first written record of the book dates to 1894, when the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina bought it from the Koens, a Sarajevan Sephardic family. Kožemjakin says that the Haggadah is “the cultural heritage of all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

In mid-September, a facsimile edition of the Sarajevo Haggadah, produced a few years ago by a local publishing house, went on display in Madrid, alongside some graphics and a monograph about the book. The original copy is kept at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Kožemjakin spoke with K2.0 about the Sarajevo Haggadah, the lives of Jews in Sarajevo today, hate speech and the idea of “constituent peoples” in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Photo: Adi Kebo.

K2.0: How large is the Jewish Community in Sarajevo and what challenges does it face?

Igor Kožemjakin: The Jewish Community is conceived such that lay people lead it rather than clergy, unlike other religious communities. It’s fairly small, numbering about 500 members. Aside from being a religious group, it’s also an ethnic community of Jews. Their families are also part of it, and we’ve got a lot of mixed marriages.

The average age is unfortunately 67, according to my simple calculations, which means that it’s a rather old community. There’s only a modest number of young or middle-aged families with children.

The community has set up a Sunday school for children. Does it help the community survive?

The youth are our future, if we believe that the community will survive and continue its life in the city. Quantitatively speaking, the Holocaust annhihilated us on a demographic, cultural, and religious level. On every level. It wasn’t only a genocide, but also an urbicide and a linguicide, considering that the language once widely spoken in Sarajevo — which was once almost 20 percent Jewish — almost completely died out. It was their native language, a language they spoke at home, in the street, among each other or in trade. Sadly, Judeo-Spanish is nearly dead in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. Only a couple speakers remain who actively use it among themselves.

We work with the children through a Sunday school that combines religious, cultural and historical education. Unlike other religious communities, we don’t have any religious classes organized in public schools, so we organize them within the community. We have about 12 regular attendees, the oldest one being 13. They aren’t taught only about the religious aspect of Judaism, but also about customs, traditions, culture and some language. Nowadays, we’re more focused on Hebrew, which is at its root a sacred language. We’ve also set up a youth club, a club for young teenagers, and a students’ club with about 30 members.

Do you transliterate prayer books?

Yes. For me as a religious minister, it’s important to train young people so they can read from prayer books written in Hebrew without relying on transliteration. However, that’s also part of my job: to transliterate prayer books in Latin script so people can follow along and read. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to.

As a hazzan, which means cantor, I’m not a mediator between God and believers in that sense, but only the first among the equals, the one who’s most knowledgeable and who leads worshippers. It’s normal that not everyone knows the Hebrew language and script; it used to be like that even before. It has never been an obstacle though because the hazzan leads worshippers.

Photo: Adi Kebo.

You work with the elderly as well. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected them?

We have a lot of programs for the elderly. One of them is caring for survivors of the Holocaust, another is eldercare, an inclusive homecare project where both the caregivers and the recipients come from all ethnic and religious groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We try to assist those who have been left without their children’s support or who don’t have anyone to give them a helping hand. We try to help as much as possible — with housework, trips to the doctor or getting medications. Unfortunately, we also have a soup kitchen where about 30 people get their meals every day.

You mentioned the Sunday school and how you work with children there. Does the education system in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where public schools offer religious classes, allow for the preservation of the Jewish identity? Can those children who want it take religious classes?

We try to give our children some semblance of an opportunity to grow up with the Jewish identity and maintain it. This is what they most certainly get through modern schooling and other activities we organize in our community. With regard to what I said previously about how there are many mixed families, it happens that children opt for religious classes pertaining to their other parent’s religion. We’re at great loss in such cases as these children may lose their identity and end up being assimilated.

In the past, antisemitism wasn’t that pronounced in the country, but in the last two years, and especially online, it’s been growing.

We have neither the will nor the ability to exert any sort of pressure. If these kids had the option to take religious classes in public schools, perhaps they would do so, but I see no problem with having an alternative. My daughter is in the second year of primary school and there’s a subject called Democracy, Culture, and Religion; among other things, it covers all religions, and does so quite well. As parents, we’re satisfied with what our child is offered there, which is built on further in Sunday school. The essential thing is how children are raised at home. It isn’t problematic for us; it would be far more problematic to organize classes for five students who don’t attend them while going to five different schools.

We have the example of a family that lives in Kreševo, where a local high school allowed the daughter to attend religious classes here. Her school has registered it as an elective and it’s entered in her school report.

Does the domestic education system teach enough about the Holocaust?

People in Bosnia and Herzegovina don’t know much about Jews. In the past, antisemitism wasn’t that pronounced in the country, but in the last two years, and especially online, it’s been growing. But hate speech has been increasing in general and we aren’t spared.

We think it’s crucial for schoolchildren to be introduced to their neighbors, who they rarely get a chance to meet because such a small number of Jews live here. We put on lectures on the history, tradition and culture of Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Teaching about the Holocaust is also important to us; the program is in its early days. Although Bosnia and Herzegovina signed a number of treaties and committed itself to teach about the Holocaust, history classes only briefly touch upon World War II, so there’s barely any room to discuss the Holocaust at length. We think it’s necessary to discuss it, not only for the sake of the Jewish Community, but for the sake of society in general.

Learning about such an example can only bolster the prevention of future crimes. Though humankind hasn’t learned much beyond the slogan “never again,” and what we’ve said “never again” to repeats itself. This is why it’s important to teach about it and we regret that the issue is underrepresented.

Photo: Adi Kebo.

You’ve mentioned an increase in antisemitism. This spring, a swastika was drawn on the obituary of Sarajevo musician Želimir Altarac Čičak. Similar incidents take place from time to time. Where else do you notice a rise in antisemitism?

There is a noticeable radicalization of society. It can be seen in this case you’ve mentioned, someone drawing a swastika on Čičak’s obituary. Looking at the security camera footage, it seems that a teenager did it, one who obviously belongs to a far-right group, some skinhead, or similar group connected to white supremacists.

We don’t consider ourselves as diaspora here, but as an indigenous people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

That’s an issue plaguing the entire society, not only our community. Luckily, we haven’t had any serious incidents for a long time, at least since 10 or 12 years ago when a number of gravestones at the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo were vandalized.

Do you see it in the insults aimed at the Jews of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the context of what has been happening in Israel and Palestine?

Yes, and I see it in the media, too. I see it whenever the state of Israel is mentioned, which we haven’t got a lot to do with, besides some family relations with former nationals of Bosnia and Herzegovina who now live in Israel. But with the state itself we don’t have any real connection. And that’s a classic example of antisemitism, when the entire Jewish people, and especially those in the diaspora, are blamed for the actions of the state of Israel. Notwithstanding the fact that we don’t consider ourselves as diaspora here, but as indigenous residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We’ve been present here for 500 years. However, even though we’re integrated into the local society, we haven’t assimilated. Bosnia and Herzegovina is like that in itself, and it should be like that, multicultural. The war did change that, the demographics changed everywhere, but we try to maintain good relations with our neighbors, other religious communities and ethnic minorities — both institutionally and bilaterally. Furthermore, by taking part in the Council of National Minorities and its activities, we’re trying to assert our presence and help people break down prejudices they have concerning Jews.

What has been your reaction to these types of events?

Since we are a religious community, it’s often expected from us to express our political views, but it would never occur to us to do so. We’re sorry about everything — we’ve made public announcements in this regard — and we mourn every human being, every human life that’s been lost. We regret that room for dialogue fails to be found in the Middle East. That’s what hurts every normal person — seeing children dying. It’s also clear to us that there are two sides to every conflict. The position we’ve found ourselves in is far from envious. People expect us to express our political views, but we don’t want to do that.

When there are instances of hate speech, many say that they are the acts of individuals. Is antisemitic hate speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina the act of individuals, or is there a wider community supporting this hate speech?

These really are individuals. There are no organized groups. Unfortunately, the mutual hatred between other peoples here is so deep that there’s barely any room for hatred towards Jews. That’s the most probable reason why we haven’t faced any such antisemitic insults. However, anti-semites have been around as long as Jews themselves, so it’s something that enables and makes space for everyone to express their views, to read such things…

But still, is there something that has been encouraging them?

Of course there is and that’s the rise of antisemitism, which is evident in other countries, too. It’s become a security risk in some places to walk the street with clearly displayed Jewish symbols — this is a really tight spot. Fortunately enough, it isn’t like that in Bosnia, although such words reach us too. And we are affected quite often, especially because there have been calls for another destruction of our people, which is disastrous. So, yes, there have been comments like those, as well as some more harmless ones that obviously stem from ignorance and prejudice.

Photo: Adi Kebo.

Do the institutions and society address hate speech appropriately?

Very rarely. It’s mostly the NGO sector that addresses it, but even they do it a bit coldly and never beyond words. And that’s an issue, of course, but we haven’t got a law that would deal with it. Considering the widespread outbursts of hatred, our courts would have nothing else to do but prosecute hate speech. It’s a social problem — all of us ought to ask ourselves where this could lead us, what people our children would grow into if this becomes our normal reality. Or our social normality.

Recently, the former high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, imposed changes to the Criminal Law that make genocide denial a crime. Could you draw a parallel about the denial of crimes throughout history in this part of the world — we’ve seen that the amendments were met with furor as one part of the country officially does not accept the new legislation.

Yes, they don’t realize that it will clear a path for every victim and prosecution not just for genocide denial but also for [war] criminal prosecutions to be protected. The denial of all types of verdicts, both international and local courts, could be prosecuted.

I don’t see why an entire people would feel called out for acts committed by individuals, perhaps even in their name. They should come forward and publicly say that those acts have not been committed in their name. But, it’s obvious that the society as a whole is fairly ill and that we need a professional and multidisciplinary approach to solve this problem. However, there’s no will for something like that, so our prospects are bleak, very bleak and gloomy.

But the amended law has been adopted now, so it does give some ground for progress, doesn’t it?

Yes, the law has been adopted and we’re to expect that the competent institutions will do their job. I don’t think prosecutors will open a case themselves until someone files a report. I don’t know how capable we are as a community to take on such a fight and to what extent we need that in the first place. For example, I don’t think that an announcement from the Jewish Community regarding an antisemitic incident can yield any results. Others should respond to that — if we raise our voice when someone attacks us, it will have little impact.

Does that mean that BiH society tolerates antisemitism and hate speech?

When any sort of human rights violation occurs, one should stand up in defense of those whose rights are being violated. As a community — especially if another religious community is attacked — we raise our voice and call for understanding and tolerance, because these attacks are crimes. Religiously motivated crimes are crimes against religion itself; in no religion is it normal to do something like that.

The issue of migration should be solved by the state, of course, but people on the move shouldn’t have it worse than they already do.

I’ve got to be frank, when things get serious others defend us too, churches and other religious communities, as well as civil society organizations. However, rarely does it lead to a more serious investigation by the relevant institutions such as prosecutors’ offices or courts. Even the Cantonal Prosecution in Sarajevo turned down our report on the vandalism at the Jewish Cemetery; the case was not upheld. That’s outrageous. We weren’t really vocal about it, but maybe we should’ve been.

Radical ideas are gaining steam across the globe, but they differ in the way they manifest themselves as well as in the targets of their hatred. Though America doesn’t lag far behind, closer to us in Europe Nazism is getting stronger. Is it spilling over into Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Yes, we’re witnessing a U-turn. Simply, historical revisionism has led to some ideologies becoming socially acceptable once again, it’s a phenomenon that’s present all around the world. The radicalization is taking place on both poles, not just on the one that is often mentioned — radical right-wing groups — but also something similar on the left is happening, so it’s a polarization of society.

The global migrant crisis speaks volumes about the current state of humankind, given how people on the move are treated.

The wider issue of migration is a global problem. Throughout the history of mankind there have always been migrations, but these ones have led to outbursts of hatred. Our religion opposes this and the Torah teaches us to be good towards newcomers, because we used to be newcomers ourselves in the land of Mizraim, in Egypt, before our Lord God rescued us with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.

Migrants are people who should be offered a helping hand; at the very least, we should make it clear to them that they aren’t welcome where they’re headed, so they should either stay in their own countries or stay here to live. The issue of migration should be solved by the state, of course, but people on the move shouldn’t have it worse than they already do — they shouldn’t be beaten up and denied the opportunity to try to figure things out.

So, everything is bound to get mixed up here, including our “traditional” hatreds?

Yes. Those aren’t traditional hatreds, but traditions do tend to be set up rather quickly. A tradition is established within a generation and that’s what I fear. Although we’ve had a fair share of those conflicts throughout our history, throughout the years and centuries, some nice spaces of mutual coexistence have always been there — spaces where one could have a good life in the given circumstances.

Photo: Adi Kebo.

In this context, let’s talk about last year’s mass for Bleiburg held at the Sarajevo Cathedral. The service was conducted by Cardinal Vinko Puljić. Did the event cause damage?

The damage is done because it was public; it was publicly announced. None of us has anything against a religious rite for the dead, but this — at least that’s how I see it — this is an intimate act, so it should take place within the Church.

I think the Catholic Church made a mistake by doing it so publicly. Even though we did raise concerns in public, that didn’t sever our relations. We always look for ways to engage in dialogue.

How did they react after you had told them that they were making a mistake?

They still don’t think that they’ve done anything wrong because a mass is sacrosanct — it has to do with the believers’ right to practice their faith in public. I hope they realize why they really were in the wrong.

You’ve said that the damage is done. Where is it reflected?

The reputation of the Catholic Church has been damaged. I can see that in the reactions of others here, not just Jews. My neighbors and other Sarajevans, including some Croats who perhaps aren’t even Catholic — they are nominally, but they aren’t practicing Catholics — believe it shouldn’t have been held. They come from the families who maintain an antifascist legacy, which influences their opinions. According to them, the damage is done to their reputation as Catholics.

The law of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognizes the three constituent peoples of the country as Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. Jews and other citizens who don’t belong to one of these three groups are referred to as “the others.” What do you think about this term? Is it another factor that undermines your identity?

I think it’s offensive to everyone it refers to, especially to minorities. By the same token, but not at all less importantly, it’s offensive to those citizens who see themselves as the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and as Bosnians, as Bosnian-Herzegovinian citizens — regardless of what they identify as.

The fact that they are discriminated against when it comes to their active right to vote hurts everyone. However, I’m fully aware that this country can’t entirely catch on as a civic state: unfortunately, the current political reality doesn’t allow for it. When it comes to the concept of the constituent people in particular — even though it’s a rather odd term because it’s the ethnic groups that are constituent actually — I can’t see how this could be circumvented.

Maybe a different approach by the leaders could be a way?

Unfortunately, we haven’t got political leaders. We’ve got ethnic leaders and I’ve yet to see an alternative to that. And with these new developments — as time goes by, I’m starting to realize that nothing will come out of it and that it’s just a graft inserted into an existing system that’s rotten in itself, which doesn’t allow society to develop. We’re trapped in this system. Some amendments to the electoral law or the Constitution might provide equal rights, but nothing much would change in that respect either. On top of that, I don’t know any Jew who has such aspirations. However, the fact that they don’t have an opportunity puts them in an inferior position while they pay the same taxes as everyone else.

It’s already been 12 years since the European Court of Human Rights decided on the lawsuit filed by Dervo Sejdić and Jakob Finci as members of the others — the Roma and Jewish communities — because they don’t have the right to run for the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina or the House of Peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nothing has changed, has it?

I believe that what I’ve just mentioned bothered Mr. Finci the most, so he filed a lawsuit in Strasbourg. It wasn’t an ambition to become a member of the Presidency, but the fact that a modern European country doesn’t guarantee equal rights to someone just because they are a member of some other ethnic group, which is scandalous.

We’re not a post-conflict society, but a conflict society.

Moreover, we have another form of discrimination: there’s inequality within those constituent peoples, considering that people can’t run for certain positions because they live in a particular local community. The territorial principle has to be changed.

What is the relationship of Sarajevo’s Jews to Bosnia and Herzegovina?

We are indeed here in the place where we belong. We aren’t Jews who live in Bosnia, but Bosnian-Herzegovinian Jews. I wish others would start considering us as such because we’ve lived here for centuries, contributing to the development of society on every front; with all our being, we’ve shown that we consider this place our own.

You’ve told me that everyone here is discriminated against in one way or another, not only the minorities as is often mentioned.

We aren’t discriminated against in institutional terms. No one has complained to me about being discriminated against because they are Jewish. We face the same problems like other people — we’re all in the same boat here.

Some sort of “apoliticization” has occurred within the society since the people who want to bring about change see that they can’t; therefore, they have completely distanced themselves from political action, as well as from commenting on political events. They just live in their own microcosms of sorts that have little to do with politics. They don’t have any ambitions in terms of active political engagement, which is why they don’t find all of this discriminatory. What hurts them more is that the economy is weak, that their salaries are low, that they have to turn to us for help so they can pay for their children’s kindergartens or buy diapers. That hurts more than the discrimination. We’re too small to be organized.

It sounds exactly like you said earlier — the prospects are very bleak and gloomy for society in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Do you see any hope in the future?

Right now, we’re rooting for the constituent people to come up with something that would get the ball rolling. We’re aware that nothing can be imposed from the outside. The Dayton Agreement has been imposed and it left the country in the status quo.

We’re not a post-conflict society, but a conflict society. We’re still in conflict — it’s high time people realized that, including the people in the NGO sector who have been trying to implement a methodology suitable for post-conflict societies. Such an approach is wrong. We have been witnessing that for 20 years because no progress has been made for that to become public opinion and push things forward. For me, it’s a vicious cycle. That’s why I pray to God for the constituent people to find a way and reach an agreement.

There are fewer and fewer opportunities for leaving. The doors are closing, but we’ve already run out of a qualified workforce — those who are qualified have already left Bosnia and Herzegovina. At least those who have stayed should try to reach an agreement, find a way to build a normal, functioning society.

When people are no longer discouraged by existential problems, I think other things will come up, so we’ll be able to address the problems we’ve talked about — Holocaust denial, Islamophobia, “Christianophobia,” antisemitism… We want to fight against all forms of xenophobia in society, because these are all different sides of the same coin.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in Bosnian.

Feature image: Adi Kebo.


This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.