PRAGUE, June 26 (JTA) — The chief rabbi of the Czech Republic has launched a scathing attack on Orthodox Jews from abroad who are protesting plans to build above one of Europe’s oldest Jewish burial sites.
Rabbi Karol Sidon told JTA that the protesters are “not decent people” and said he has received phone calls from Jews threatening him and his family.
The anger is over a compromise reached among the Prague Jewish community, the government and the country’s biggest insurance company that will allow construction of the office complex to continue.
“I am breaking my silence now because I want my statement to be clear now. I want to be heard,” he said.
Sidon attacked the “lies” that prompted worldwide interest in the cemetery in central Prague and condemned the tactics of the Orthodox groups. Those groups have staged a series of protests in New York, London, Brussels and Prague over the construction by site owner Ceska pojistovna, the Czech Republic’s largest insurer.
Since the 750-year-old cemetery was discovered several years ago, Orthodox groups dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage have focused their attention on it.
After the compromise was reached several months ago, Prague’s Jewish community has come under intense pressure from international Jewish organizations.
The compromise, announced by the Czech government in March, involved preserving the site by encasing the remains of several hundred Jews in concrete. The remains of up to another 160 Jews, which had been removed from the cemetery for anthropological research, were also to be returned as soon as possible.
The local Jewish community, which felt that the deal was the best possible offer, reluctantly endorsed the decision.
The issue first hit the international stage last year, when misinformation relayed over the Internet said the burial site was Prague’s famous Old Cemetery, actually located a half-mile away.
The involvement of foreign Jewish groups became particularly heated six months ago, Sidon said, following another misinformation campaign over the Internet — this time “by Jews acting in their own interests,” who spread rumors that the Prague Jewish community owned the site and had sold it to Ceska pojistovna.
The protests by those groups have made the local community’s job considerably harder, Sidon charged.
Earlier this month, Czech police fined a dozen “English-speaking” Jewish protesters for entering the construction site and refusing to leave.
Sidon said the presence of the foreign Jews prevented reburial of the remains.
He said Ceska pojistovna lost its nerve the last time he tried to return the remains, several weeks ago, because of the presence of dozens of foreign Jews who had “somehow heard about our plans.”
Sidon is not alone in his condemnation of the tactics of Jewish groups determined to halt the project.
Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities, has also described the protests as counterproductive.
“In a way, this is like David and Goliath. We Jews are good at fighting Goliath,” he said. “We appreciate” that the foreign protesters “are so interested in our issue and we are aware of the international aspect of all this, but the key player is only us.”
At least one of the groups that has weighed in on the issue, the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, could not disagree more.
The compromise reached by the Prague Jewish community, the government and Ceska pojistovna “was made under pressure,” said Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, an official with the Committee. “It was a mistake.”
Ginsberg, who said he had “no idea” who was responsible for the threatening calls to Sidon, also maintained that the question of how the cemetery should be dealt with is not a matter for the local community to decide.
The Prague community “is not in a position where they know if [the agreement] is halachically acceptable,” Ginsberg told JTA, referring to whether the plans for the cemetery conform to Jewish law.
He said a community rabbi should not decide on an important issue like the fate of this burial site. That is a question that should be given to a rabbinical court, Ginsberg said.
“I cannot understand how the community took this decision on their own,” he added.
Regarding international interest in the matter, Ginsberg said, “We are being bombarded with 40 to 50 faxes a day asking what’s going on with the cemetery.”
If the matter isn’t resolved soon, he added, “We won’t be able to control the hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who are upset about this.”
Meanwhile, Kraus’ counterpart in Slovakia, Fero Alexander, expressed support for the Prague community.
“We do not support these Orthodox Jews who are making these riots in Prague,” Alexander said. “We don’t know exactly what is going on there, but we do know that these demonstrators are not people you can settle with.”
The Czech government, too, has taken a hard line with the foreign protesters. Culture Minister Pavel Dostal said last Friday he does not intend to meet the demands of foreign Jewish groups that construction at the site be halted.
(JTA correspondent Richard Allen Greene in London contributed to this report.)