A special conference was held last month in Brussels, convened by the President of the European Commission Romano Prodi and co-organised by the World Jewish Congress in response to evidence of rising anti-Semitic prejudice across the European continent. To find out more about the situation in the Czech Republic, traditionally known for its low level of anti-Semitism, I spoke to two representatives of the Jewish community in the country, the head of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, Tomas Kraus, and the director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, Leo Pavlat.
I first asked Tomas Kraus whether there was such a thing as a "Czech anti-Semitism".
"Well, there is a modern Czech anti-Semitism which maybe has some special features. Of course, this would be a lecture for a longer time - I cannot describe it in a few words as it is a very complex issue. It is a traditional anti-Semitism in all its traditional shapes. Maybe the volume of each shape is a little different than we know it from other parts of Europe. I cannot say that we are facing something which would be less anti-Semitic than in other parts of Europe because the irrationality and the sense of collective guilt is always the same. But at the same time we know that there is a tradition of tolerance within the Czech society which plays a certain role and which also is one of the key elements in the current events, in the current shapes of anti-Semitism. So therefore we can witness something which is motivated primarily by so-called anti-Zionism which is unfortunately spread around the left-wing scene but also we have to face traditional anti-Semitism from the right - I can mention here maybe some desecrations of Jewish cemeteries or some verbal attacks, etc. But of course if we compare it with other parts of Europe, it's not that frequent. But, it is still here."
The head of the Jewish Museum in Prague, Leo Pavlat, says that, historically, the forms of anti-Semitism in this country can be compared to other parts of Europe.
"It is very difficult to describe in a few words. So I would say that in history there were general reasons for anti-Semitism: ideological reasons, then spiritual, economic, social and also psychological reasons of anti-Semitism. This is something that can be compared to any other country. I would say that compared to other countries, Czech anti-Semitism in the modern era, let's say from the 19th century, was not especially strong but you can say and you can find that all the waves of anti-Semitism that went through Europe, that these waves were also present in the territory of Bohemia and Moravia."
Throughout history, anti-Jewish prejudice often ended in violent attacks against their communities. Is there a history of anti-Semitic violence in this country, and how does it compare to other regions of Europe? - a question I put to Leo Pavlat of the Jewish Museum.
"Of course, this country witnessed many pogroms from the 13th century, there were some towns from which Jews were expelled. There were two attempts in history to expel Jews from Prague. There were riots against Jews throughout the Middle Ages, in the 19th century even, at the beginning of the first democratic republic in 1918. But on the other hand, once again, compared to other countries, you could hardly find many violent excesses against Jews."
At present, the Czech Republic is considered to be a country with a low level of anti-Semitic sentiment. I asked Tomas Kraus, the head of the Federation of Jewish Communities to compare the Czech Republic to other post-communist countries about to join the European Union.
"As far as I have the information we are a country which has minimal anti-Semitic incidents. I cannot name all these countries but maybe I should stress than to compare the countries about to join the European Union it would be maybe better to look at Europe as such and here, unfortunately, the situation is much worse in the western part of Europe than in the new EU countries. This is because of maybe the transatlantic relationship which for the new EU countries is a little different than for the old European countries. I think we can see this in the discussion over the conflict in Iraq. So more or less the same roots, which in a very general form we can say may be the same, are a motivation also for the opinion on the conflict in the Middle East."
The current anti-Jewish sentiments reported in some European countries are thought to be - to some extent - a spillover effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How does the Czech public respond to the events in the Middle East? Tomas Kraus.
"Here I have to say that the Israeli-Arab, or Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been in the Czech media always covered if not in an openly pro-Israeli position than at least very well balanced. Maybe it is not in the daily coverage of the events because sometimes it's only repeated what the news agencies bring. But if you would read commentaries in the biggest Czech dailies, they are openly pro-Israel."
Leo Pavlat of the Jewish Museum says, however, that some consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are apparent in this country.
"Unfortunately, this conflict of course has some consequences for Jews in any country of the world, including the Czech Republic. This is a very unfortunate development. For instance, Czech Jewish schools and the Jewish Community of Prague have been guarded as any other Jewish institutions in the world."
Last November as many as 59 percent of respondents in a Eurobarometer poll, listed Israel as a threat to world peace, ahead of countries like Iran, North Korea, the US, Iraq and Afghanistan. Do Czechs share those feelings? Here are the views of Tomas Kraus and Leo Pavlat.
"It's just the opposite here. Here the relationship or feelings towards Israel have a very different shape. Going back to 1967, the Six-day war, if you look at the map, sometimes there are parallels which are being drawn between the geo-political situation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and the Munich Appeasement and Israel in 1967, it means a small country surrounded by big neighbours and fighting back. So, in a way, Israel was viewed here, especially during the Prague Spring, as a hero."
"I would not say that there is an especially anti-Israel atmosphere in this country. I think that many Czechs perceive this conflict according to their experience with the Czech-German conflicts before the war so I think that there is a deep understanding, speaking in terms of the majority of citizens of this country, deep understanding for the stand of Israel. On the other hand, Israel is a democratic country and this country should be - if there is a need - criticised as any other country but I don't find - and I am very happy that I don't find - anti-Semitic stereotypes in articles or public expressions even when criticising Israel."
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