Recently, President Isaac Herzog bestowed the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor upon two world leaders: Czech President Milos Zeman and United States president Joe Biden. According to the official website of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Zeman received his award for his “deep friendship with the Jewish People, his consistent support for Israel on the international stage, and his ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward terrorism and antisemitism.”
Similarly, the White House is proud to display the transcript of the ceremony in which Biden received his award “for his true friendship with the State of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Jewish people” and for “his uncompromising, decades-long commitment to Israel’s security; his contributions to deepening, strengthening, and enhancing the strong and unwavering alliance between Israel and the United States of America; and his struggle against anti-Israeli and antisemitic hatred around the world.” Yet, the future each of these leaders symbolizes for Europe and America are diametrically opposed.
In oversimplifying Central European medieval history, we recall how the Church, the nobility, the peasants, the guilds, and especially minorities such as the Jews, were all used and shaped in relation to each other by ways of the economic, cultural and theological pulls and pushes of the time. The excessive use of violence in determining the route each empire, kingdom and principality aimed to obtain took a heavy toll. Until this very day, displays of death are on public display, whether in the form of holy relics and art works in cathedral shrines or in the graphic showcasing of archaic torture devices and weaponry at tourist attractions.
However, the Czech people have seemed to find a path of common ground, liberal and democratic, yet nonetheless industrious and patriotic. Centuries of internal political strife and warfare, especially between Catholic and Protestant belligerents, and later in defense against modern foreign fascist and communist invaders, have led the local population to strive for moderation, inclusivity and for a degree of secularism in the public domain raising the banner of scientific discovery. The Czech people do so alongside and without belittling a deep-rooted spirituality and recognition of the significance of tradition.
Although there may not be a unique term to describe it, their culture is distinct. To exemplify this conclusion, within a one mile or so radius around Prague’s city center, one can easily locate many government offices, religious monuments, historic landmarks and museums, academic centers of learning, community centers and schools, libraries and many book shops, eateries and taverns, and even adult entertainment of various sorts in the Czech capital. Churches and synagogues stand side by side along shared paths, with universities, shopping malls, public parks and art galleries. A manifestation of coexistence.
For Germany however, which as the Czechs’ bordering neighbor has had a related and intertwined history, a deep discussion continues on its own unique special path, known as Sonderweg. Much theoretical debate exists on how and why certain circumstances led the Germans toward overt authoritarianism and racial discrimination. The regression toward paganism, the deformation of Christian ethics, and the misuse of scientific achievements are all hallmarks of German degeneration into Nazism.
In other words, similar peoples in nearby regions responded in divergent manners to similar conditions. Obviously, there is more to it and contributing variables are too many to count. Yet, it is quite telling that the Nazis desired to use Prague rather than any other urban center for their planned “Museum to an Extinct Race.” They were hoping to use it to continue to propagate poisonous ideas against the Jews. Prague had been home to one of Europe’s larger and oldest Jewish communities until it was destroyed in the Holocaust.
Czech Jewish history
UNFORTUNATELY, THERE is a current commercially macabre use of the images of the fabled Golem and his creator, the Rabbi Loew the Maharal of Prague, as well as of the image and writings of Franz Kafka, not to mention the use of the architecture of the old synagogues for memorials and tourist exhibitions rather than for any truly vibrant Jewish community. Despite all this, the Czech are proud of their resiliency in face of Nazi and Soviet terror, for their contributions to allied forces during World War Two, and for supporting Zionism and Israel since before its inception. In doing so, Czech leaders have shown their desire to align themselves with centrist, productive and realistic partners, and have aimed at obtaining practical goals.
Although some scholars have pointed toward numerous ambiguities regarding the true nature of his private thoughts on, and relationships with Jews, Tomas Masaryk who had gained independence for a Czechoslovak Republic at the end of World War One, and who had become its first president, he had nonetheless enjoyed a reputation as a staunch opponent of antisemitism and as a defender of Jewish political rights.
Similarly, the passing of Vaclav Havel, who served as the last president of Czechoslovakia until its dissolution in 1992 and then as the first president of the Czech Republic, was recognized and lamented by Jewish leaders. For instance, his memory had been cherished by members of the World Jewish Congress since “his commitment to reinvigorating Jewish life, so badly affected by the Holocaust and decades of Communist neglect, was second to none.”
Fortunately, many of Germany’s recent leaders also try to show their support for the Jewish people and for Israel. For that reason, in 2014, German chancellor Angela Merkel was honored with the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor given to her at the time by President Shimon Peres. It is no coincidence that the use of Nazi symbols and propaganda in both the Czech Republic and Germany is limited if not completely banned or even illegal.
Jews in America
This leads us back to contemporary America. We are now witnessing the manners in which the people of the United States are defining and implementing their multiple conflicting understandings of their own special Manifest Destiny. Even after the territorial expansion westward had been complete, the competition of ideas, ideologies and conventions goes on, and has now come to center stage in Washington, DC. Unlike the open and easily navigable Prague, America’s capital has become ever more fenced off and barricaded. Despite the parks, museums and educational centers, the members of the central government institutions located at the heart of one of the most iconic symbols of democracy and capitalism are at a crossroads.
Immigrants to the New World wished to leave behind the costly turmoil of the Old World, from the tyrannies of the Middle Ages, and to explore and process new forms of governance, hopefully beneficial to all. Yet the official, as well as the overlooked unofficial, violent treatment of indigenous peoples, the extended use and acceptance of slave labor, the enactment of immigration quotas limiting the arrival of so-called undesirables – especially Jews, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, these can all be viewed as precursors to the current debates on limiting women’s rights, the ongoing incidents of police brutality and inefficacy, the lack of mental health coverage and the surge in gun violence.
The lack of genuine introspection and the acceptance of latent xenophobia allows for the harboring of deep seeded antiquated Old-World prejudices. More to the point, we must ask, why is Nazism legal in America? Why are the symbols of such misguided and hurtful beliefs not banned as they are in Central Europe?
We may assume that in the future more European leaders, such as Zeman and Merkel, will receive the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor. Will there be more American presidents to be granted the same gratitude for the same reasons? Let us pray that Biden will not be the last.
The writer is a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Center for American Studies at the Faculty of the Humanities, The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.