Russia’s war against Ukraine has deepened Slovakia’s tight ties with Israel, as Bratislava seeks to strengthen its air defense system with the help of the Jewish state.
“Security is the number one issue” in Europe given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger told The Jerusalem Post during his visit to Israel on Monday.
“Providing security and safety to our citizens is the number one topic. And that is why Israel is a great partner to us, because we are procuring a radar system that will replace our old system that we had for decades and will provide a totally new level of protection of our air space,” he said.
Slovakia borders both Ukraine and Poland. It shares the fear of most countries in Europe that should Russia defeat Ukraine. it would set its sights on invading other countries, particularly those that had once been part of the Soviet bloc.
Slovakia buys Israeli radar systems
Slovakia was nervous even before the war and in March 2021 it spent 148 million euros to purchase 17 radar systems from the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) subsidiary, ELTA Systems, LTD. That system will be delivered in February 2024 to replace an obsolete system.
But the delivery of the system and Russia’s war against Ukraine was part of the discussion Heger held with Israeli officials such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and President Isaac Herzog.
The war in Ukraine has “changed the atmosphere in Europe,” Heger explained.
“We understand that the Ukrainians are not just fighting for their own territory and their own values. They are fighting for our values and security, because one thing we know, we don’t want Russia bordering with Slovakia,” he said.
“We understand that the Ukrainians are not just fighting for their own territory and their own values. They are fighting for our values and security, because one thing we know, we don’t want Russia bordering with Slovakia.”Eduard Heger
One can’t rule out that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin would set his sights on Slovakia, he explained, noting that one just had to look at how Putin first went after Crimea and then all of Ukraine, he said.
“We support Ukraine in getting their territorial integrity and that is why it’s so important that the Western world provide them with all necessary aid including the military aid,” he said.
Heger did not comment on Israel’s decision not to provide Ukraine with defensive weapons.
“We discussed in general the war in Ukraine and I gave the European view,” Heger said. This is a war that touches on Slovakian security, the security of Europe and that of the “whole world,” he said.
But security is only one of the pillars of the Slovakian-Israeli relationship which also rests heavily on a joint history, that has made the country one of Israel’s supporters in the European Union and in International arenas.
The Jewish community in Slovakia and the pillars of Israeli-Slovakian relations
The Jewish community in Slovakia is over a thousand years old, with some dating it back to the ninth century.
Among its more celebrated figures is Moses Sofer (1762-1836), known as Hatam Sofer, who headed the well-known Pressburg Yeshiva. The seminary closed in 1941 during World War II and was reopened in Jerusalem in 1950.
“My first stop after I landed in Tel Avi was actually at the Pressburg Yeshiva here in Jerusalem,” Heger said as he reflected on the important role the Slovakian Jewish community had played in his country.
“We want to build on this heritage we have together,” he said.
Most of the 130,000 Jews who live in the territory of what is now Slovakia, were killed during the Holocaust.
Slovakia has worked to acknowledge the country’s Jewish history and to apologize for its actions against the Jews during World War II. This included the September 9, 1941 publication of a series of racial laws that opened the door to the community’s deportation and extermination known as the Jewish Codex.
“In 2021, on the 8th of September, our government approved this declaration of apology for the Jewish Codex,” he said.
This happened on the eve of the 80th anniversary of this “tragic” and “cruel act of the Slovak state” against its own citizens, he said. During the ceremony that was held, a copy of the Codex was given to the Jewish community.
The modern Slovak state, Heger said, has a special relationship with Israel based on the complex past and the geopolitical reality of the modern state that was created in 1993.
There is a path that Slovakia has that “we are walking on” with the Jewish community in Slovakia, with the Jewish nation and now with the state of Israel, he said.
He spoke as he sat in the Slovak Institute on King David Street in Jerusalem, a cultural center which is officially considered to be which his government opened last year as a branch of its Tel Aviv Embassy. A small picture of Hatam Sofer hung on the wall, near him, as he spoke.
Slovakia recognizes that western Jerusalem is part of sovereign Israel, but it has yet to declare that it’s the capital of the country, a move that would put it at odds with the European Union. Such a declaration, he said, could only happen in conjunction with a decision to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem, a move that is under discussion but no decision has been taken.
“Israel is a great partner and a great friend,” and the opening of the institute last year was a testament to that relationship.
The two countries are also working on expanding their economic cooperation, with a focus on innovation, science, education and tourism.
“Israel is a role model that we want to learn from and work with,” he said.
The automotive industry is the backbone of Slovakia’s economy and Israeli innovations could help expand that sector, he said. To help foster innovation his delegation included eleven scientists.
There is a direct flight that goes from Tel Aviv to Bratislava in the eastern part of Slovakia and a second direct route to the western region of the country is due to open in April, he said. He would also like to see a third route open up.
Such flights he said help connect the two countries, Heger explained.
Toward the end of his trip on Monday, he visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. He wrote in the guest book kept by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, that it was "an honor for me to stand here for our country - Slovakia. We thank Israel for the friendship. We have our history with you and we want to build our future on our heritage with you. God bless you."