President Klaus, tear down this statue!

Prague continues to play host to one of the most blatantly offensive anti-Jewish landmarks in Europe.

prague statue jesus 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
prague statue jesus 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Everybody seems to love Prague. Indeed, for the historically-conscious Jewish tourist, few European cities can match the capital of the Czech Republic. With its array of hauntingly beautiful medieval synagogues, its millennium-old ghetto and ancient Jewish cemetery, there is enough to pique the interest of even the most seasoned travelers. A number of fine kosher restaurants dot the city's Old Town, and even with a yarmulke on, it is possible to walk the streets without an overriding sense of fear. How many other places on the Continent can currently make such a claim? It is no wonder, then, that Prague's cobblestone alleyways are packed with visitors from abroad, as the city has rapidly become a highly popular and exquisitely enjoyable destination. And no one appears more aware of Prague's pulling power than the Czech authorities, who are careful to cultivate the city's past with an eye toward attracting still more Jewish and Israeli tourism. In the coming weeks, for example, Prague will be gearing up for a series of events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Judah ben Betzalel Loew, better known as the Maharal of Prague. Under the auspices of Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Prague Mayor Pavel Bem, the local Jewish museum is putting on a major exhibition about the Maharal's life and work, along with a series of other activities and programs aimed at highlighting his contributions to Jewish life and lore. It is a fitting display of respect for one of Jewry's towering spiritual and intellectual giants, and Czech officials deserve nothing but praise in this regard. And yet despite all it has to offer, Prague inexplicably continues to play host to one of the most blatantly offensive anti-Jewish landmarks in all of Europe, and the time has come for this to change. I'm sure I am not the only Jewish visitor to express shock and outrage while walking along the otherwise charming Charles Bridge, which connects the two sides of Prague that straddle the Vlatava River. There, between tables manned by itinerant artists and locals hawking tourist goods, stands a statue of Jesus on the cross encircled by a Hebrew inscription from the book of Isaiah (chapter 6): "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory." As a religious Jew, I immediately recognized this verse. It is a central part of Jewish liturgy and is recited daily in our prayers, as we emulate the heavenly angels who declare God's holiness and attest to His sovereignty. So what is it doing decorating such a statue in the middle of Prague? The answer dates back to 1696, when Czech authorities accused a local Jew, Elias Backoffen, of "debasing the Holy Cross" and ordered him to pay for the purchase of gold-plated Hebrew letters, which were then installed on the statue of Jesus in a deliberate swipe at Jewish sensitivities. The choice of verse was no accident. The authorities wanted to punish the Jews for their alleged insolence by compelling them to apply the verse to Jesus, as though they were acknowledging the Christian belief in the divinity of the Nazarene. The statue, then, is more than just an eyesore. It is a slap in the face to Jewish belief and theology, and a tangible sign of the oppression and lack of freedom that characterized Jewish life throughout much of Europe's shameful history. APPARENTLY, I am not the only one to feel this way. In 2000, after a group of American rabbis protested, the Prague Municipality reportedly agreed to put up a plaque in Czech, Hebrew and English explaining the historical circumstances behind the statue. But on a recent visit to the site, I saw no such plaque. Not surprisingly, others have taken matters into their own hands. In January 2007, the Czech Press Agency reported that an unknown perpetrator had assaulted the statue and removed part of the Hebrew inscription. The report quoted Jan Knezinek, director of Prague's national heritage department, as acknowledging that his office receives regular complaints from tourists about the statue because it offends Jewish religious feelings. Nonetheless, it continues to sit there on the bridge, as crowds stand and gawk at it, taking photos of this well-known local landmark which openly and unashamedly ridicules the foundations of Jewish belief. Sure, some might think this is making a mountain out of a molehill, and that in any event, the statue and its Hebrew lettering are part of history and must be left in place. But I beg to differ. There are some insults which do not recede with the passage of time, and the statue on the Charles Bridge continues to offend. It symbolizes the intolerance and hatred which led to Jews being tossed into ghettos, and sharply undercuts the otherwise welcoming atmosphere which the city projects. Czech authorities would therefore do well to remove the Hebrew lettering from the statue once and for all, if only for the sake of healing this open wound on Jewish-Czech relations. The Jewish community of what was then Czechoslovakia was virtually annihilated by the Germans and their collaborators in World War II, so it is incumbent upon Israel and world Jewry to take the lead and raise their voices in protest and press the Czechs to take action. Basic Jewish self-respect and dignity demand no less. For however keen they might be to celebrate the legacy of their Jews, Czech officials need to realize that they cannot spit in our faces and expect us to ignore it. So to President Klaus, I declare: Tear down this statue!