Germany reconsiders award ceremony for Israeli historian accused of genocide denial

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The German embassy in Tel Aviv announced the postponement of a ceremony intended to honor an Israeli Holocaust historian who in recent years has come under fire for allegedly engaging in historical revisionism and genocide denial in relation to the Bosnian war.

Prof. Gideon Greif was originally slated to receive the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany alongside former ambassador Colette Avital, the current chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, during a ceremony at the German ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituah on November 10.

The news of Greif’s award generated a fierce backlash this weekend, with angry media coverage in both the Balkans and Germany relating allegations that Greif, whose work on Sonderkommando units in the Nazi death camps has been lauded as groundbreaking, had subsequently attempted to whitewash the mass murder of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica in July 1995.

One German paper called it “outrageous” that Greif was being awarded Germany’s highest civilian honor for his “questionable work” on the Balkans, noting that “relatives of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide are outraged by Greif’s appreciation.”

In 2019, Greif was commissioned by the government of Republika Srpska, a semi-autonomous Serb enclave within Bosnia and Herzegovina, to write a report about the massacre. His findings, released earlier this year, were widely panned by scholars as revisionist.

Chiefly, he claimed that despite the findings of bodies such as the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the massacre did not constitute genocide and that only “about 3,900” people were murdered.

Following the media firestorm, the German embassy informed those invited to the award ceremony that “due to unforeseen internal reasons” it “will unfortunately be postponed.”

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“My best guess is that someone didn’t do the necessary due diligence and was looking at Greif only with respect to his earlier work on the Sonderkommando, which was in fact groundbreaking work,” said Menachem Rosensaft, Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress.

Rosensaft, who also teaches genocide law at Columbia Law School and wrote a scathing response to Greif’s report this summer, said that all Greif’s work constituted was a “denial of a genocide in order to carry out the agenda of the folks of Republika Srpska who commissioned the report.”

“It has no historical or legal validity,” he said, stating that the report “studiously and deliberately ignored” all of the legal decisions regarding the massacre by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia “which found conclusively…that the massacre was indeed a genocide under international law.”

Ivan Ceresnjes, who headed the Jewish community of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, expressed surprise that Germany was honoring the professor, stating that “with the best of my will I cannot find words of justification to acknowledge the work of Mr. Greif and of the commission he headed.”

“I express my sincere surprise that the Government of Germany has decided to give such a high recognition to Mr. Greif’s historical revisionism, which will for sure deepen the gap between the Balkan nations and leave a mark on the relations of these same peoples with local Jewish communities, reduced to a truly symbolic number,” he said.

Bosnian Muslim refugees fleeing the village of Potocari in eastern Serbia in 1995.Reuters

Asked if the postponement of the ceremony was due to media reports regarding Greif’s position on Srebrenica, the office of the federal president told Haaretz that “a re-examination is currently being conducted, in coordination with the Federal Foreign Office, regarding the award of the Cross of the Order of Merit to the Israeli historian Gideon Greif.”

Separatist tendencies

In recent years, Serbian leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina have pushed to minimize the severity of the massacre and to deny the findings of international tribunals while also increasing calls for separatism which some worry could further fracture the country along ethnic lines.

Over the past several months, Bosnian Serb officials have boycotted national state-level institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the country’s outgoing international peace overseer decreed amendments to its criminal code on Friday to allow jail terms for the denial of the massacre, a frequently expressed view among nationalist Serbs.

The decree by High Representative Valentin Inzko set jail terms of up to five years for anyone who “publicly condones, denies, grossly trivialises or tries to justify” the genocide or war crimes committed during Bosnia’s 1992-95 conflict.

“The choice to award Prof. Gideon Greif was a huge disappointment in the eyes of genocide survivors and victim families,” Dr. Hikmet Karcic, a genocide scholar based in Sarajevo, told Haaretz in an email.

“At this current moment in our country, when stability and security is threatened,” he said, referring to recent separatist tendencies among Bosnian Serb leaders, “any award to a person who participates in genocide denial can only be viewed as a counter-productive to sustaining peace and stability in Bosnia and the Balkans.”

In a prepared statement, Greif wrote that he was certain that he had devoted “more than 50 years of his life for documenting, researching and teaching the Holocaust, in Israel and abroad” and that he was ” also very proud about the report of the Independent International Comission which he headed.”

“This is an authentic, scientific, responsible, sensitive, honest and historical document , which is based only on facts, only on facts,” the statement read.

“Therefore Prof. Gideon Greif is confident that the German Government will grant to him the Bundesverdienstkreuz, a medal he fully deserves for dedicating his whole life for the research on the Holocaust, educating hundreds of thousands in Israel and abroad and for writing some of the most important books ever written on Auschwitz, pioneer researches which paved the way for a better understanding of the biggest tragedy in the history of the Jewish People,” the statement said.

Hamza Karcic, associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo, recently wrote in Haaretz that “For three months now and counting state-level institutions have been essentially paralyzed by Bosnian Serb officials. They triggered their boycott back in July, when the High Representative – the international peace envoy charged with ensuring the civilian implementation of the peace agreement – passed amendments to the Criminal Code outlawing and penalizing the denial of the genocide committed by Serbs against Bosniak Muslims during the war.”

Germany has been outspoken about the massacre, with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stating last year that “the brutality and scale of the murders of thousands of Muslim boys and men here are without parallel in Europe since the Second World War. It was genocide.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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