Sympathy for The Devil: On The Sources of The Czech Inclination towards Israel

15. 3. 2017

As far as foreign politics is concerned, the Czech Republic tends to be rather dull and timid. There are only few topics that can put Czech diplomats into motion, one of them being Czech Republic’s keen interest in Israel and its destiny. What are the sources of this Czech specialty?

“They say that countries have no friends, just interests, but this does not apply to our attitude towards Israel,” said one Czech politician to me in a research interview, which I conducted several years ago. In fact, I heard it several times in different modifications. The Czech-Israeli friendship, occasionally ostentatious, became a trademark of the post-Cold War Czech diplomacy.

Is the Czech position unique? Why Czechs and why Israel? And finally—is it going to continue in the future?

Eastern Exception

The Czech case is unique only to some extent. In fact, Czech position is only a special and more extreme example of what one can find in a number of former Eastern Bloc countries.

When newly-democratic countries such as Poland, Hungary or Romania entered the international scene after 1989, the Israelis looked at them with deep skepticism. Had not these societies been known to the Jews as highly anti-Semitic, especially with consideration to their pre-WWII history? Or, at best, these countries were expected to replicate West-European policies, viewed by the Israelis as anti-Israeli.

The opposite proved to be true. Most of the ex-Communist countries were in average pro-American, anti-Russian and quite skeptical when it came to the European Union’s international policies. This kind of Atlantism got its appellation by Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, when he talked about the “New Europe” as opposed to the “Old” one. These were the old days of the heated trans-Atlantic debate before the Iraq war, in which the former Eastern Bloc countries supported the US against France and Germany.

Poland, Czech Republic or even Romania sided with Washington because they disliked the EU foreign policies that seemed to them to be hypocritical, ideological, naive or unreliable. The reason probably was that the Eastern countries earned different lessons in the post- WWII era. While the Western Europe lived peacefully and affluently under American protection, the European East was living a hard history—dictatorship, occupation and ideological brainwashing.

This, perhaps, made the East more sober and more inclined to look at America differently. And certainly it made them inclined not only to trust America more than Europe, but also to “understand” the motivations of the Israeli governments to use military power. “We believe Israel has legitimate security interests,” said a foreign minister during the Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2009.

West Europeans sometimes looked at their Eastern brothers as pro-American, ideologized and ungrateful simpletons and who would grow wiser over the time. Who in Prague or Warsaw would forget Jacques Chirac’s infamous advice to “shut up?”

Besides that, the public mood in the former Eastern Bloc countries tends to be anti-Arab. It is the result of decades of compulsory friendship between the East-European Communist regimes with their “progressive” counterparts in the Middle East. This made the Easterners at least mistrustful, if not xenophobic towards the Arabs. And, last but not least, the former Eastern Bloc countries have no colonialist history. Therefore they do not suffer from “bad conscience” towards the third world countries. There are no large Muslim minorities, anti-Israeli pressure groups or voter blocs in the former Communist Bloc.

Therefore, contrary to Israeli expectations, the arrival of former “anti-Semitic” countries into 1990’s international politics did not mean a rise of anti-Israeli criticism. It brought about a change of the vocabulary of the EU documents and to some extent even shift of the EU’s policies towards Israel.

The Czech Way

Yet, the Czechs have become an exception even within the East-European exception. The Czech Republic has profiled itself by several topics of interest, such as the protection of human rights in countries such as Belarus or Cuba, often in contradiction with heavier weights, such as Spain or France. These fields of interests are certainly the legacy of the communist past in general and Václav Havel’s worldview in particular.

The case of Israel is one part of the picture, although the story of the Czech inclination towards the Jewish state is longer and more complex. At the very bottom we find sympathies for Jews, especially in educated liberal circles. Modern Czech society was not spared from the disease of anti-Semitism, especially at the turn of the 19th up to 20th century. It was primarily motivated by the Czech-German rivalry or economic reasons rather than by Catholic conservatism, as in Poland or Slovakia.

Things have changed, especially after the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, a fulfillment of Czech national aspirations. This country became an island of liberalism and tolerance, at least in the standards of Central Europe of that time. The cultural elite was either indifferent towards Jews or was even philo-Semitic. The change of mood was also caused by the immense influence of Tomáš G. Masaryk. He and his disciples were openly challenging traditional anti-Semitism from the end of 19th century on, and Masaryk’s influence later contributed to the creation of new culture of understanding in Czechoslovakia. The Jews, reciprocally, appreciated the democratic and liberal character of the country that lasted only twenty years, between 1918 and 1938.

The Czech Jewry, in comparison to Poland, was also very different. Czech Jews were dispersed in small groups all over the country (already by Habsburg decrees from 18th century) and therefore much more integrated, culturally, socially and linguistically. Their Polish counterparts were separated and concentrated in cities of their own and also differed from their surrounding by Yiddish language. Besides that, Czech Jews were less numerous and much more affluent. While they belonged mostly to the middle class, in Poland they cope with large amounts of uneducated Jewish paupers.

Some of the most important artists, especially writers, were Jews. Some Czechs therefore looked at Jews as a connatural nation, a small cultured people who somewhat resembled themselves. Needless to say that this idyllic picture of the Czech-Jewish coexistence in by no means complete. However, here we are interested in what was special for the Czech environment.

Godfathers of a State

There were also sympathies for Zionism among some of Czechs, specifically in the Masarykian circles. T. G. Masaryk, who in 1918 became the president of Czechoslovakia, visited in 1927 British Palestine (as the first head of state ever!) and visited also Jewish settlements there. Until today, a surprised Czech tourist will bump into Masaryk Street, Masaryk Square, Masaryk Forest or even Masaryk Café in Israel. His son Jan Masaryk, who later became minister of foreign affairs, was already openly pro-Zionist politician. He allegedly said that “to create a Jewish state is one of the greatest ideas of our time.”

In 1947, Czechoslovakia was among the group of countries who had been charged by the UN to draft a solution for the Palestine problem. Czechoslovaks—under the supervision of Jan Masaryk—supported the plan for division of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab country. This was a solution fully acceptable for the Zionists. In the period between 1945 and 1948, when Israeli independence was declared, it was Czechoslovakia through which the European Jewish refugees were smuggled into the British mandate of Palestine, contrary to the British interests. Again, it was again this country which provided the Jewish underground army with equipment and training. Later on, Czechoslovakia—despite the international embargo—supplied the Zionists with a large number of arms and ammunition.

It was idealism and pro-Zionism that motivated Czechoslovakia, but only to some extent. Prague received large sums of hard currency for its services. And it was also fully in agreement with Moscow and supported by Czechoslovakian Communists, who expected the left-wing Israel to become a natural ally of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. (The Arab countries were pro-Western colonial monarchies at that time.)

This policy failed and was aborted after 1950, amid a new wave of Communist anti-Semitism. Czech arms, however, played a crucial role in the survival of the Jewish state during the Independence war of 1948. The role of “Czech gun” has been almost mythologized in Israel and to some extent in Czech society as well. Czechs—at least some of them—feel some kind of godfatherly emotions towards Israel, a country they helped to bring into existence.

The Communists after 1950 became fiercely anti-Israeli, which only consolidated the position of Israel as a sympathetic country among ordinary Czechs. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the question of Israel became one of the important topics of discontent between Communist progressives and conservatives at the legendary Writer’s Congress. After the occupation of Czechoslovakia, in 1970’s and 1980’s, no one was allowed to utter a good word about Israel in the public.

It is therefore not surprising that President Václav Havel rushed to re-establish diplomatic connection with Jerusalem in 1990, together with Vatican. These two little countries, denigrated by the Communist propaganda, became important symbols of return to normality.

Davids and Goliaths

There is, however, another, and maybe the most important reason for the Czech inclination towards Israel. It is rooted in the basic Czech trauma in our modern history, the Munich agreement. In 1938, Czechoslovakia—vis-a-vis Hitler’s Germany—failed to militarily resist the aggressor, while its allies, namely France and Great Britain, failed to fulfill their obligation to defend it.

This feeling of failure and of betrayal by best friends shapes the Czech political thinking even today. In the above-mentioned research interviews most of the politicians and diplomats asked pointed at the Munich experience, often tacitly. When they spoke about Czech commitments to Israel, they used phrases such as “we must not betray,”“the only democracy” or “a little country surrounded by enemies”—to all Czech ears it sounds very familiar. It clearly refers to the Czech self-perception and our situation in the traumatic year of 1938.

On the one hand, Czechs do not want to play the role of the “perfidious France and Britain.” On the other one, Israelis embodies Czech dream of a country that refused to be a victim. Sometimes it looked as if the Israelis redeemed us Czechs by their steadfastness in 1948 and again in 1967. Unlike us, they fought, and thus realized our own dream, our own phantasy of our own finest hour.

Strange as it may be, pacifistic Czechs find their mirror in Israel rather than in Switzerland. While people in Sweden or in Greece mostly believe that Israel is a “brutal Goliath” oppressing “Palestinian Davids,” for many Czechs it is Israel who is the brave David resisting the Arab/Muslim numerical superiority and hatred.

This projection of Czech traumas into the contemporary Middle East, together with some other cultural and political factors, caused a unique situation in which the Czech Republic on a number of occasions bravely challenged other countries in the international arena on behalf of Israel. Sometimes the Czech were so predictable in their positions that they lost effectiveness. One of Czech foreign ministers was reportedly greeted “Shalom” in Brussels by his counterparts. The most spectacular moment was the Czech “no” to the Palestinian UN bid to become a non-member, i.e. against overwhelming majority of EU countries, who voted “yes” or abstained.

This policy is, of course, based on very asymmetric relation, because Israelis cannot do anything of that kind for the Czechs. Czech diplomats, however, insist that their policy is based purely on values, not reciprocal relation.

Indeed, this policy is very much based on personal and generational experience. It is primarily the generation born in 1940’s, formed by the liberal 60’s, that looks at Israel in this way. President Miloš Zeman (then prime minister), who famously compared Yasser Arafat to Hitler and who insists that “there should be no negotiations with terrorists” is maybe extreme yet typical representative of this phenomenon. In fact, it has its roots in collective psychology rather than in politics or values.

The Future of a Past

This generational conviction is widespread, but certainly not the sole perspective one can find in Czech environment. While there were many leftist Israel sympathizers (such as Prime Minister Vladimír Špidla), there has always been a stream which was anything but pro-Zionist, such as the former Foreign Minister Jan Kavan. Today, this stream is gaining ground more than ever before.

It is strengthened by the change of generations and the arrival of younger people into politics and academia—people who have been formed by different experiences. It is not surprising that it is these people that speak about a “need to revise Havel’s legacy in foreign policy” (current Deputy Foreign Minister Petr Drulák). Somewhat strangely they insist that we should not criticize China for human rights abuses (“Who are we to tell them what to do?”) while at the same demanding bigger pressure on Israel.

In fact, the whole region has been undergoing transformation and change of existing realities. There is a whole new kind of populist political forces in the governments in Slovakia and Hungary, certainly not pro-American or pro-Israel. At the same time, many other, more liberal, streams in Central-Eastern Europe are not so close to current American administrative, while aversion to the European Union has decreased. The return of history to our region in form of unexpected serious challenges, such as Ukrainian crisis and Russian assertiveness, also redefines priorities of our governments.

It is probable that the political elite of Czech Republic will slowly cease to play a role in the EU’s Middle-Eastern policies; however, many Czechs will continue to look at Israel with sympathies. Still, it will remain a private hobby, not a source of governmental position.

Jan Fingerland

A commentator for the Czech public radio (Český rozhlas Plus).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.