Israel midfielder Nir Biton (left) battles Croatia’s Luka Modric for the ball during last night’s 2-0 defeat in an international friendly in Osijek.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Is anti-Semitism common in Croatia? • By EFRAIM ZUROFF Imagine the following scenario: The Israeli national football (soccer) team is invited to Germany for a friendly match. The game is attended by the German prime minister and education and sports minister, as well as the resident Israeli ambassador. Everything starts out as planned, the national anthems are played and more than 11,000 spectators take their seats to cheer on the home team. After about 10 minutes, however, all of a sudden thousands of the fans start loudly chanting “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Wir Deutschen! Nazis! Nazis!” If you are wondering why you haven’t heard about this outrage, which actually transpired two weeks ago, there are two reasons to explain your ostensible ignorance. The first is because it didn’t take place in Germany, where such behavior would never be tolerated, neither by the hosts nor by the Israeli guests. The second is that the site of this terrible spectacle was Osijek, Croatia, a country where manifestations of fascism and anti-Semitism are very common, especially in the local soccer stadiums, but not easily identifiable by those ignorant of the country’s World War II and Holocaust history.
The chants in this case were “Za dom spremni!” (Ready for the Homeland!) and “Mi Hrvati! Ustaše Ustaše!” (We Croats! Ustasha Ustasha!). The former was the Croatian equivalent of the Nazi sieg heil salute and was only used during the existence of the fascist satellite Croatian state established by Nazi Germany and Italy following the dismemberment of Yugoslavia by the Axis, and is currently a symbol of support for fascism and extreme right-wing politics. The Ustasha were the fascist movement which ruled the NDH (Independent State of Croatia) and carried out a program of mass annihilation against the country’s minorities, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Serbs, 20,000 Jews (an additional 10,000 were deported to be murdered in Auschwitz) and several thousand Roma.
The ignorance of the delegation which accompanied the national team and the players can perhaps be understood, but in theory our ambassador in Zagreb should be well acquainted with the problem of such fascist manifestations, and should have found a way to protest. Even more upsetting is the fact that both Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic and Education and Sports Minister Predrag Sustar chose to remain silent and stayed in their seats. Given the fact that these chants were clearly heard by all those in the stadium, their failure to respond is an indication of tolerance for such outrageous, insulting and clearly anti-Semitic behavior.
If the prime minister and/or at least other ministers would have clearly and unequivocally denounced the disgusting behavior of the Croatian fans after the match, the damage done would have been mitigated somewhat, but the only response from the prime minister’s office was a short press release condemning the use of symbols and slogans of totalitarian regimes, without mentioning the match and the specifics of the event. The only locals to protest were Croatian human rights activists and the local Jewish community. To the best of my knowledge, there were no protests from Israeli officials, neither from the embassy nor from our football federation.
It is important to note that the events in Osijek were not the first instance in recent years of fascist manifestations at a Croatian football match. In March 2015, Croatian fans screamed “za dom spremni” at a match against Norway, and FIFA fined the Croatian Football Federation 55,000 euros and ordered one home match to be played without any fans. At that game, which was held in Split in June, a swastika was carved into the playing field, which prompted the deduction of a point, a fine of 100,000 euros and two more matches with no fans in attendance.
These incidents, however, are only the tip of the iceberg of a much wider and dangerous phenomenon, whereby fascist slogans have become acceptable parlance in Croatia, and are considered to be expressions of patriotism, or what researcher Dario Brentin of Graz University in Austria, who has examined sports, nationalism and memory politics in Croatia has dubbed “the banalization of totalitarian symbols.”
According to Brentin, a large part of the problem has been the reluctance of the political elites and the local media to condemn incidents like the one at Osijek because they come from a similar ideological background.
At Osijek, the Croatian fans not only yelled “za dom spremni” which expresses their supposed patriotism, but also added their identification with the Ustasha, the same Ustasha who murdered half of Croatian Jewry and sent an additional quarter of the community to Auschwitz to their deaths.The “za dom spremni” chants should have been enough for Israel to protest, but in this case, we have a special obligation to condemn these manifestations of current-day fascism and anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, however, not a word about this incident appeared in the Hebrew media and either everyone is purposely remaining silent for political reasons, or once again our enemies are benefiting from our ignorance and apathy.
The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His latest book, together with Ruta Vanagaite, is Musiskiai; Kelione Sun Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), published by Alma Littera two months ago, which deals with Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes. His websites are: www.operationlastchance.org and www.wiesenthal.com He can be reached on Twitter @EZuroff.