'The history of our two peoples brings us together in a special bond'

An interview with Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin, President of the State of Israel

Presidents Ruvi Rivlin and Miloš Zeman meeting in Jerusalem in 2018  (photo credit: OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE CZECH REPUBLIC)
Presidents Ruvi Rivlin and Miloš Zeman meeting in Jerusalem in 2018
The Jewish and Czech national self- determination movements at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries inspired and influenced each other. How is the Czech contribution to the creation of Israel perceived today?
To this day, Israelis remember Czechoslovakia’s contribution to their independence with great appreciation. The first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, supported the Zionist movement, and both peoples underwent a national renaissance at the same time. It is true to say that the two movements, Zionism and Czech nationalism, inspired, influenced, and reinforced each other.
Israelis today live on a kibbutz called Kfar Masaryk in the north of the country, walk along Masaryk Boulevard in Tel Aviv and dine at a famous Jerusalem cafe named Masaryk. These are living symbols of the relationship between us and the gratitude of Israelis to Czechoslovakia and the Czechs.
Ben Gurion understood how crucial the military assistance was in ensuring our victory in the 1948 war. Our soldiers fought with Czech rifles, and subsequent generations know how important they were to the war effort. Our air force knows both how crucial the training our first pilots received in your country and the fighter planes that came from Czechoslovakia, which helped us win our War of Independence. Indeed, one of my predecessors as President, Ezer Weizman, trained in Czechoslovakia and commanded the Israeli Air Force in the stunning victory in June 1967.
In 1968, a year after the Israelis liberated our capital of Jerusalem, we closely followed the Czech struggle to liberate Prague, and we regretted your loss of freedom. One of our most famous singers wrote a song called ‘Prague,’ which became a huge hit that was played repeatedly. He wrote about “a song I dreamed of Prague, where the sun will rise once again.”
Of course, our shared roots go far deeper. The Jewish people are an inseparable part of the history of the Czech people, and both Franz Kafka and the Golem of Prague played an important part in our shared culture. We also remember that before the establishment of the Jewish state, Czech Jews were accepted as equals and enjoyed freedom and rights in your country.
This year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations after the fall of communism in Czechia. How do Israelis view current relations with the Czechs?
The establishment of diplomatic relations is indeed a cause for celebration. President Havel established diplomatic ties with Israel just three months after the collapse of the pro-Soviet regime, showing the importance of the relations to both sides. Over those thirty years, we have built and deepened our ties in a wide range of fields – innovation, science, technology, tourism, security, counter-terrorism, academia, culture, and many more – in ways that are good for both countries and good for both peoples.
The history of our two peoples brings us together in a special bond. As peoples who struggled for and won our independence, we share a common perspective on our past and shared view of the future, with a deep commitment to democracy and respect for human rights. I also believe we both see the challenges we face as opportunities to strengthen our country and our people.
In line with these values, we work closely together in international fora, advancing human rights and democracy and fighting against discrimination in the UN and the politicization of international professional organizations.
Czechs who visit Israel feel comfortable because of the warm welcome they receive from Israelis, and the many Israelis who made your country one of our leading tourist destinations before the coronavirus pandemic feel the same. My late wife Nechama and I were received with great warmth when we visited Czechia in 2015. I remember it with great fondness, and we both enjoyed seeing your beautiful country and meeting the wonderful Jewish community. Two years ago, my friend President Zeman and the First Lady visited Jerusalem and inaugurated the Czech House here, an expression of the great friendship between the peoples.
We know that Czechia’s leaders are deeply committed to fighting antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance, as well as the vital task of educating future generations, so that terrible chapter in human history is never repeated. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš visited Jerusalem in more somber circumstances, where together with leaders from around the world, we marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We appreciate his commitment to this important issue. We welcomed the Terezin Declaration in 2009 on measures to right economic wrongs that were part of the Holocaust against the Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution in Europe, and hope our governments make practical progress on this.
The Munich Treaty is one of the most painful parts of modern Czech  statehood, which has a similarly powerful reflection in Israel. Have Czechs and Israelis shared similar political challenges?  
The Munich Treaty was a betrayal of the Czechs, and the Holocaust was a betrayal of the Jewish people. We both learned, in tragic circumstances, that we cannot always rely on the international community to protect us. We must have the capabilities to defend ourselves. I am proud to see that both our countries are strong, independent, and self-sufficient while we maintain our commitment and connection to the international community. As young countries deeply committed to democracy and freedom, both our countries work to protect and nurture our democratic institutions and frameworks. 
Do you think that the current pandemic of Covid-19 gives new opportunities for Israeli- Czech cooperation?
We truly believe that every challenge is an opportunity. That has been our experience over the last 70 years and more, and we have found that challenges accelerate growth, sometimes in unusual ways.
The State of Israel and Czechia are both blessed with excellent researchers and scientists, meaning that cooperation between us in a wide range of fields comes naturally. For example, we are engaged in a unique collaboration between the countries in the field of kidney transplants. Its results and applications could be life-saving and life-changing for people around the world.
The current crisis is a challenge that may lead to further opportunities for partnership, knowledge-sharing, and problem-solving. We should be actively looking to find ways to share research, collaborate on ideas, and introduce each other to new and innovative ways of working. If we are to benefit from this terrible disease, which has changed our lives and claimed too many victims worldwide, it will be by learning the importance of teamwork and cooperation within each country and between countries.
This article was written in cooperation with Donath Business & Media s.r.o.