Czechia and Israel: Together in the past and future

Israel and the Czech Republic, two young countries with a shared past, are poised to continue their close diplomatic, scientific and business cooperation far into the future.

Czech fast food chain promoting Israeli cuisine on its menu (photo credit: TOMÁŠ JELÍNEK)
Czech fast food chain promoting Israeli cuisine on its menu
(photo credit: TOMÁŠ JELÍNEK)
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between the Czech Republic and the State of Israel.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Communist rule in Czechoslovakia ended. The nonviolent transition of power from the Communist regime to a democratic government was known as the Velvet Revolution.
In December 1989, former dissident Václav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia. Then-deputy prime minister Shimon Peres and then-foreign affairs minister Moshe Arens visited Prague in February 1990, and diplomatic relations between the two countries were re-established in that same month. In April 1990, Havel became the first leader from former Communist Eastern Europe to visit Israel. Czechoslovak Jews, who for decades had not been allowed to visit friends and family in Israel, considered Havel’s visit to Israel miraculous. Holocaust survivors living in Czechoslovakia accompanied their new president on his visit, as the trip coincided with the opening of “Where Cultures Meet,” a major exhibit about the Jews of Czechoslovakia presented in Tel Aviv at Beth Hatefutsot, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora.
The reconnection with Israel stimulated Jewish life in Czechoslovakia, and Czech-Israeli cooperation began to increase. The Czech-Israeli Mutual Chamber of Commerce was founded in February 1996. In 1993, Czechoslovakia divided into the independent countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Havel continued as president of the Czech Republic. His initial visit in 1990 illustrated the importance and the depth of good relations between Czechs and Israelis. An essential part of this equation was the Czech/Czechoslovak Jewish community. Jews had been integrated into Czech society since the 19th century, and they played an important role in introducing the Zionist movement to the Czech public. They also represented an important part of society, which contributed to Czechoslovakia’s development as a free and democratic state. Jewish soldiers were also an important part of Czechoslovak resistance in World War II.
HAVEL, WHO died in 2011, and current President Miloš Zeman, who has continuously supported Israel in the international arena, are part of a remarkable tradition of Czech-Jewish friendship first epitomized by Tomáš Masaryk, the well-known Czech politician, statesman, sociologist and philosopher, founder, and first president of the Czechoslovak Republic of 1918. Masaryk was appalled by the Hilsner Affair, a series of antisemitic trials in 1899 and 1900 following an accusation of blood libel against Leopold Hilsner, a Jewish inhabitant of Polná, a small town in Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He spoke out vigorously against antisemitism in the Czech lands. Later, as the Czechoslovak president, Masaryk became the first head of a modern state to visit Palestine. He was interested in Zionism – and Zionists were interested in Czechoslovakia, which represented a modern multinational state where Jews could declare their Jewish nationality.
“As regards Zionism, I can only express my sympathy with it and with the national movement of the Jewish people in general, since it is of great moral significance. I have observed the Zionist and national movement of the Jews in Europe and in our own country, and have come to understand that it is not a movement of political chauvinism, but one striving for the rebirth of its people,” said Masaryk in 1918. The Munich Agreement in 1938, in which Hitler, with the consent of France, Great Britain, and Italy, swallowed up much of Czechoslovakia, was a difficult lesson for the Yishuv (Jewish community in pre-state Israel), and it is remembered in Israeli political discourse to this day.
Exhibition in Trebic honoring a Czech rescuer of Jewish children (CULTURAL CENTER OF TREBIC)
Masaryk’s commitment to the creation of a Jewish state was followed by the efforts of his successor Edvard Beneš, as well as those of his son, Jan Masaryk, who served as the minister of foreign affairs after World War II. Both Beneš and Masaryk were members of the Czech government-in-exile in Britain during World War II. Beneš, who served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1935 to 1938 and again from 1945 to 1948, condemned the destruction of European Jewry and supported Jewish aspirations for a state in Palestine. In 1948, Czechoslovakian aid to Israel, both in weapons and military training, was vital in its successful fight for independence.
OF COURSE, Czech conduct towards Jews and Israel is not composed exclusively of positive chapters. After the Munich Agreements, and again during the Communist regime, some Czech politicians were openly aligned against Jews and Jewish heritage, carried out anti-Israeli policy, or put Jews into prison “as Zionist spies.” Even after the Velvet Revolution, the restitution of Jewish property went through a complicated process. When the Czech government initiated the international Terezin Declaration during its EU presidency in 2009 to settle property issues that remained open from the Holocaust era, some local Czech politicians did not feel a moral obligation to follow the declaration. Even today, some disputes concerning this issue remain unsettled. Regarding relations between the Czechs and the Jews and Israel, the Masaryk way is the key in seeing the moral right for the rebirth of Judaism in the land of Israel.
To ensure that relations between Israel and the Czech Republic continue to flourish, there must be meaningful content and contact. Though the Jewish community in the Czech Republic has shrunk in size due to the Holocaust and emigration to Israel and Western countries (the country today is home to about 4,000 Jews), Jewish cultural heritage has been perpetuated by many local non-Jewish groups, who maintain synagogues and cemeteries, organize Jewish cultural festivals and participate in Yom HaShoah observances. These groups view the integration of Jewish heritage and culture as part of their moral obligation to Czech history. There are other groups in the general Czech society that promote friendly relations with the State of Israel. As a further indication of close Czech-Israel ties, a local fast-food chain has successfully promoted menus from Israeli Chef Charlie Fadida.
TODAY, COOPERATION between Israel and the Czech Republic is thriving in science, business and technology. Numerous Czech-Israeli projects are currently underway, including examining the use of nanotechnologies in cleaning air or water, the use of artificial intelligence in computer vision, the development of assistive devices for physiotherapy, planning for robotic laparoscopic surgery and conflict-free movement of self-driven vehicles.
In the business world, ŠKODA AUTO, the Czech automobile manufacturer, has established a joint venture in Israel, partnering with top Israeli start-ups to develop hardware and software solutions for use in both the Czech and Israeli markets, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries built a large, modern plant in the Czech Republic for the European market.
As Israeli President Reuven ‘Ruvi’ Rivlin has said, Czechia and Israel are blessed with excellent researchers and scientists, and cooperation comes naturally in many areas. Both countries have inspirational business stories, and Israeli and Czech entrepreneurs can work together to promote their products jointly in other markets.
Israel and the Czech Republic, two young countries with a shared past, are poised to continue their close diplomatic, scientific and business cooperation far into the future.
This article was written in cooperation with Donath Business & Media s.r.o.