How American Jewish legislators supported Bosnian Muslims

The story of the American Jewish support for Bosnia is a fascinating but understudied aspect of the international response to the war.

TOM LANTOS  (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the war erupted in Bosnia in spring of 1992, a California Democrat wrote to his colleagues on Capitol Hill that “the latest Serbian military aggression against the newly independent Republic of Bosnia continues a pattern of outrageous behavior.” Congressman Tom Lantos was prescient about the unfolding events in this newly independent republic in post-communist Europe. In this letter dated April 21, 1992, Lantos urged fellow congressmen to support his legislation to impose sanctions on Serbia until that country ceased military operations in Yugoslav successor states.
While many European politicians at the time obfuscated the nature of the conflict in Bosnia, Lantos was clear about it even before the country descended into full-fledged war. Tom Lantos was no ordinary congressmen. Born in Hungary in 1928, Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor elected to US Congress and went on to serve for nearly three decades in the House of Representatives. His support for Bosnia during the 1992-1995 war carried special significance.
The story of the American Jewish support for Bosnia is a fascinating but understudied aspect of the international response to the war. A major push to support Bosnia in Washington was taking shape on the Capitol Hill from 1992 onward with legislators crossing the aisle to support the beleaguered nation. A crucial issue was the UN-imposed arms embargo in place since 1991 that effectively prevented Bosnia from arming itself while freezing the military superiority in favor of Serbia. A number of US senators and congressmen undertook a sustained campaign on Capitol Hill to have the arms embargo lifted. American Jewish legislators supported the effort to allow Bosnia to defend itself. Among them were reps. Tom Lantos, Benjamin Gilman (R-New York) and senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut).
Lantos, who had settled in the US after World War II, had earned a reputation as a champion of human rights. During the war in Bosnia, he had co-sponsored legislation supportive of Bosnia, including Frank McCloskey’s (D-Indiana) amendment in 1994 aimed at lifting the embargo. Along with Lantos, Gilman also supported the amendment, which placed the House of Representative on the record in favor of lifting the embargo by a wide margin. Gilman, who had introduced his own bill in early 1994 with the same purpose, penned a piece in The New York Times in May 1994 in support of Bosnian Muslims. Responding to congressmen who argued against a US intervention in Bosnia, Gilman wrote that “Diplomacy may be working, but not for the Bosnian Muslims, who have been denied their right under the UN Charter to arm and defend themselves.” Echoing the view of many congressional Bosnia hawks, Gilman’s position was clear: “The only honorable option, contained in a bill I have introduced, is to allow Muslims to arm themselves in self-defense.”
In the Senate, Lieberman was a co-sponsor of a series of Bob Dole’s (R-Kansas) legislative efforts aimed at lifting the embargo on Bosnia. Dole had established himself as a leading Bosnia hawk who had passionately and consistently advocated for Bosnia. Lieberman’s support for his efforts added both weight and a sense of bipartisanship. The most consequential of these was Dole’s Bosnia and Herzegovina Self-Defense Act of 1995, introduced in early 1995 and supported by Lieberman. The bill, also referred to as the Dole-Lieberman bill, passed by a vote of 69–29 and had the bipartisan support of 21 Democrats and 48 Republicans. Bob Woodward described it as “stunning and direct repudiation of [US president Bill] Clinton and his policy… It was binding legislation and an open challenge to Clinton’s authority.” Congressional pressure, especially in the aftermath of Srebrenica, prodded the Clinton Administration into taking a more forceful stand on Bosnia. The House version of the Dole-Lieberman bill included Lantos and Gilman among its supporters.
After the war, American Jewish legislators’ support was significant in commemorating the genocide perpetrated on Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). On the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in 2005, both chambers of Congress adopted resolutions to commemorate the atrocities. Lantos was a co-sponsor of a House of Representatives resolution (H. Res. 199) reaffirming the genocide. The resolution passed by a margin of 370-1. In the Senate, Lieberman was among eight co-sponsors of S. Res. 134, which passed unanimously. The resolutions placed the US Congress on the record as reaffirming the genocide and paved the way for subsequent parliamentary commemorations of Srebrenica in a number of European countries.
The writer is associate professor of international relations at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.