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Prague plans to right historic wrong, correcting monumental Jewish insult

NEW YORK, Oct. 11 (JTA) – On March 8, 2000, the date designated by Pope John Paul II for worldwide reconciliation between Christians and Jews, the city of Prague plans to apologize for anti-Semitism at its largest crucifix. In 1696, a plaque with Hebrew letters was affixed above Jesus’ head at the cross, located near the city’s Charles Bridge. Taken from the Book of Isaiah, the plaque’s inscription translates as “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” a traditional Jewish prayer silently recited three times a day. The derivation of the plaque is unknown. Some Prague tour guides and books suggest that it was placed there to mock a Jewish politician named Elias Backoffen, who refused to bow to the cross. Others say Backoffen had spit at the cross, cursing Christianity. Still others claim that it was placed there to ridicule local Jews who had refused to remove their yarmulkas in the cross’ presence. But its purpose is clear. “It was placed there to promote the superiority of Christianity and to vilify Judaism,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Board of Rabbis. But next March, Prague Mayor Jan Kasl, along with the city’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Sidon, and Leo Pavlat, the director of Prague’s Jewish museum, will affix a new plaque with a new story on the cross. “This new plaque will serve as a reminder of the true horrors of anti-Semitism, and as a symbol of reconciliation in the new millennium,” said Schneier, who as head of the board of rabbis is orchestrating the event. “Because of communism and World War II, only in the last 25 to 30 years has the Jewish community been in a position to address this long source of angst.” Initially the board had suggested that the Hebrew plaque be removed, but this idea was rejected because of the monument’s status as an official landmark, which prohibits any partial removal of the statue under the country’s National Heritage Law. Although it has not yet been determined what the new plaque will say, Kasl, Sidon and Pavlat have agreed that it will say that the placement of the Hebrew prayer was a mistake and apologize to the Jewish community. Kasl agreed to educate the city’s tour guides about the history of the original plaque. “The tour guides will now attribute the original plaque to the horrors of anti-Semitism,” Schneier said. Catholic officials in the Czech Republic are saluting the planned addition of the new plaque and are hoping it will promote a harmonious relationship with the community’s Jewish population. Approximately 1,500 Jews reside in Prague today.