The first Jewish community in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina arrived in 1492, fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Though they were treated as second-class citizens (like other non-Muslims under Ottoman rule), these early Jewish settlers were afforded significant rights and autonomy, and enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence.
However, the following century saw a spike in anti-Semitic sentiments and behaviors, forcing many Jews to move from their original quarter in Sarajevo. This became an unfortunate trend for Bosnian Jewry and successive centuries saw gradual (and sometimes explosive) increases in anti-Semitism in the region. Tensions began to subside in the 19th century, and in 1839, new civil rights laws dramatically improved the living situation for Jews in the area. This was furthered in 1856 when non-Muslims subjects in the Ottoman Empire were granted full equality. In 1876, Bosnian Jews were elected to the Ottoman Parliament in Istanbul.
The Austro-Hungarian empire took over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, resulting in an influx of Ashkenazi Jews. Such a development saw a mixing of Ashkenazi and Sephardi cultures, as the already established Sephardic community was greatly influenced by the new Ashkenazi communities settling in the area. By the end of the century, the Bosnian Jewish population had greatly increased to about 10,000 people.
World War I saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the incorporation of Bosnia and Herzegovina into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The inter-war years saw the Jewish population continue to gradually increase, and the community thrived. It built a Sephardi synagogue that was considered the largest in the Balkans, hosted a number of different Jewish-related activities, and even established a seminary.
The Holocaust devastated the Bosnian Jewish community, with almost three quarters of the pre-war population murdered by the Nazis, Bosnian collaborators, and the fascist Croatian Ustashe. A small Jewish community was re-established following World War II, but many survivors emigrated to Israel. Jewish life and identity were repressed during the post-WWII communist era.
Bosnian Jews found themselves thrown into the middle of the turmoil as Yugoslavia violently split apart in 1991. Violence in Bosnia was exacerbated by the breakout of civil war, as a number of ethnic factions began fighting one another – though Jews were not targets of such violence. In fact, the Bosnian Jewish community was largely outside of the conflict, and with that in mind, aimed at providing sanctuary and assistance to all Bosnians. La Benevolencija, the Bosnian Jewish community’s humanitarian organization, helped distribute supplies and medical care to those in need, regardless of ethnic or religious identity.
During the siege of Sarajevo by the forces of Republika Srpska, a self-proclaimed Serbian secessionist movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Sarajevan Jewish community helped assist the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the evacuation of thousands of Sarajevan residents – Jews and non-Jews alike. In the aftermath of the war, many Bosnian Jews who had left chose not to return.
Today, the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina enjoys peaceful relations with the broader Bosnian society and is able to freely practice its religion without issue. It also enjoys a relatively open role in Bosnian society and political life, with Sven Alkalaj serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2007 to 2012.