ISRAELIS HAD to laugh. In the winter of 1968, with statewide student riots fueled by food shortages, wage cuts, and soaring prices, communist Poland blamed the crisis on “international Zionism.”
The statement reflected panic in the face of political crisis at home and strategic fiasco abroad, where Israel’s victory in the previous year’s Six Day War was unbearable for the Eastern Bloc’s regimes.
Eager to divert attention from his economic failures, Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka fingered his country’s minuscule Jewish community as “a fifth column.” Thousands of Polish Jews consequently lost their jobs and nearly half of postwar Poland’s 32,000 Jews soon left the country.
It was part of a broader, Central European pattern.
To Poland’s south, Czechoslovakia executed its Jewish leader, Rudolph Slansky, in 1952, after convicting him and 11 other Jews of being “Zionist agents.” Prague then armed Israel’s strongest enemy, Egypt, and joined every anti-Israeli initiative in international forums.
Further south, the crushing of Hungary’s anti-Soviet uprising in 1956 touched off an era of estrangement, highlighted by the flight of 20,000 Jews, and later symbolized by Hungary’s demand of Israeli tourists to make a payment for the PLO.
Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague all obeyed Moscow’s order in 1967 to sever diplomatic ties with Israel, and then joined the Soviet media’s systematic demonization of the Jewish state.
That was then. Now Central Europe and Israel are strategic allies, as Central Europeans dust off xenophobia and flirt with authoritarianism while their relations with Israel simultaneously thrive and ache.
Central Europe can be loosely mapped as the lands wedged between, and haunted by, the Russian and German nations.
On its fringes, this continental swath reaches the Baltic republics in the north, former Yugoslavia in the south, Romania in the southeast and Austria in the west.
At its heart, however, Central Europe is dominated by Poland, whose population of 38 million is twice the size of the region’s second most populous country, Romania.
Though divided by many languages and ethnicities, the predominantly Catholic region shares the twin traumas of Russian domineering during the Cold War and German molestation before it.
This shared history of life between menacing giants is what made the leaders of Poland, Hungary, and the former Czechoslovakia decide in 1991 to help each other journey from the vanquished East to the seductive West.
Evoking a 1335 trade treaty signed there by the kings of Hungary, Poland and Bohemia, the three countries’ leaders met in the Visegrad Castle overlooking the Danube, where iconic dissidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa joined their Hungarian colleague Jozef Antall in creating the alliance that back then seemed like a political anecdote.
Now comprising Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Visegrad Group is no anecdote.
Economically, its 65 million inhabitants sport a combined gross domestic product of nearly $2 trillion – which is larger than Canada’s; militarily, they regularly hold joint exercises; and politically, they challenge the European Union’s authority, much the way Havel and Walesa defied the Soviet Union’s.
Faced with thousands of Middle Eastern Muslims storming European shores, Central Europeans’ sense of shared menace has replaced last century’s sense of shared promise.
The European Union’s attempt to impose immigration quotas on all its members was rejected by the four governments, as well as Austria, Romania, and the Baltic Republics. And where Central Europe parted ways with Western Europe, it met the Jewish state.
Israel has said and done nothing in the face of the Mediterranean refugee crisis, other than provide food and medical treatment to the Syrian war’s victims. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quietly identifies with Central Europe’s resistance of what its leaders view as conceited and pontificating impositions by Brussels.
Much like today’s Central Europeans, Israeli diplomats have felt for decades that when it comes to the Middle East, Brussels can be naïve, overbearing, and harmful.
Netanyahu feels that the Oslo Accords were inspired by the wishful thinking of European statesmen who, since their 1980 Venice Declaration, claimed that all the Palestinians wanted was a secular and demilitarized democracy, an assumption that the Oslo experiment later exposed as unfounded.
This decade, deploying the same canting mindset, Brussels told Central Europe that it knew better than its inhabitants and their leaders what they should do about their future, in general, and their borders, in particular. The result was a Central European rebellion against Brussels’ minimum quotas for refugee admissions.
Israeli diplomats’ attempts over the years to make Brussels admit that its policies helped legitimize Palestinian autocracy, violence, and fundamentalism have fallen on deaf ears. Not so with Central European statesmen – they listen to this Israeli narrative attentively.
The way they have seen things since 2015, when Germany opened its doors to a million migrants, Central European leaders’ historic task is to block Muslim immigration into their lands.
The fear of the Middle Eastern immigration is rooted in historical traumas that Western Europeans mostly lack. Hungarians, Romanians and Serbs traumatically recall centuries of Ottoman occupation. The Poles take pride in King John Sobieski’s
leadership of the armies that in 1683 defeated the Ottomans at Vienna’s gates.
Besides such memories of direct confrontations with Islam, many Central Europeans do not share the Western European quest to blur their national identities and replace them with a pan-European alternative.
It was in this context that Netanyahu told the Visegrad Group’s leaders when they hosted him in Budapest in July 2017 that “Europe has to decide if it wants to live and thrive, or if it wants to shrivel and disappear.”
This, then, is the emotional side of the sense of common cause between Central Europe and the Jewish state. But there is also the practical side.
AS GOVERNMENTS from the Baltic to the Balkans modernize their armies and expand their defense spending, Israel emerges as the strategic inversion of what it was for their communist predecessors: during the Cold War, Central Europe helped arm Israel’s enemies. Now Israel is arming Central Europe.
For instance, during this decade Poland has bought $1 billion worth of Haifa-based Elbit’s David’s Sling anti-missile defense systems, according to the Institute for National Security Research; last year Lithuania bought from Elbit’s neighbor, Rafael, 100 million euro worth of Samson missile launchers; and Croatia earlier this year decided to buy from Israel a dozen F-16 fighter jets for an estimated $500 million.
These types of conventional weapon deals reflect widespread anxiety throughout Central Europe in the face of Russia’s imperial resurgence. Then, the terrorism and illegal immigration, which threaten Central Europe regardless of Russia, further bolster Israel’s strategic relevance due to its anti-terror fighting experience, border-protection technologies, and cyberwarfare expertise, all of which Central European governments now crave.
Central Europe, then, where the abuse of the Jews was for centuries a social norm, a political policy and a religious ideal now embraces the Jewish state as a strategic partner. And as if all this was not ironic enough, just when the intensifying relationship reached new peaks, the past’s ghosts emerged.
CENTRAL EUROPE’S ill winds became palpable last fall, when posters portraying Jewish financier George Soros emerged throughout Budapest with the caption: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.”
The placards, which preceded a government referendum concerning the EU’s immigration plan, were part of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s campaign, which depicted Orban, accurately, as an obstacle on the path of an immigrant influx, and Soros, less accurately, as its engine.
Soros did back the EU’s immigration plan, but by no means engineered or even inspired it. Even so, for an ultra-conservative government like Orban’s in a country with an antisemitic legacy like Hungary’s, focusing a nativist campaign on a wealthy Jew remains an effective marketing tactic.
The government also tried, and failed, to close down the Central European University, which Soros funds, evidently picking on the American Jew and native Hungarian, who has openly opposed Orban and Fidezs (Hungarian Civic Alliance), the party with which he has won three consecutive elections.
Orban strongly condemns antisemitism, and during an official visit to Israel this month made sure to visit both Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. Yet, the thinly veiled choice of a Jewish plutocrat as the antichrist of his referendum campaign rang alarm bells throughout the Jewish world.
The quick appearance of virulent antisemitic graffiti on Soros’s posters – which lined entire subway stations – served as a grim reminder that Central Europe’s anti-Jewish centuries, and also the anti-Israeli decades they fed, are far from fully buried.
Then came last winter’s bill in Poland, which made it a crime to blame the Polish state or the Polish nation for “being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” The bill that was later tempered due to Israeli pressure stirred Jews worldwide. One did not need to be a historian to smell its spirit of Holocaust denial, which the Jewish state has been fighting for years.
Yet in Warsaw, as in Budapest, what ultra-nationalists are fighting is not the Jews, but what ordinary folk see as Brussels’ impositions.
That is how Hungary, in June, passed legislation that tightens government supervision of NGOs and criminalizes assistance for asylum seekers, and that is the context in which it passed in 2013 reforms that limited the judiciary’s independence and weakened the constitutional court.
This is also the context in which Poland has just passed new legislation engineered to replace much of its Supreme Court, including its president, with jurists who will presumably steer the court away from its current justices’ perceived liberalism.
This is also the context in which the current Polish government, soon after its election in 2015, changed the law so that its politicians will directly control public television and radio, including the highest-rated nightly TV news.
Such blunt authoritarian advances, proudly labeled by Orban as “illiberal democracy,” have yet to spread from Poland and Hungary to the rest of Central Europe. However, the nativist spirit that fuels them is part of a regional Zeitgeist.
This is what handed anti-immigration Czech President Milos Zaman electoral victory in January, this is what propelled immigration hardliner Sebastian Kurz to Austria’s leadership last year, and this is what handed Slovenia’s anti-immigrant Janez Jansa victory in June’s general election.
Added up, it is as if Central Europe is standing up to Western Europe’s formerly global powers by resurrecting the insularity of their historic rival, the Hapsburg Empire, which once lynch-pinned Central Europe.
From Israel’s narrow viewpoint, the alliance, which a newly assertive Central Europe craves and the weaker European Union that it seeks, offers a future of cooperation that the Jewish state cannot squander; provided Central European leaders never forget that the Israelis they now meet as statesmen, generals and arms makers are the children of the Jews who once roamed their streets.
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