PRAGUE (Jul. 31)
A leading American rabbi is calling on the Czech minister of culture to apologize for writing an “anti-Semitic and outrageous” article in a Czech newspaper on the controversy surrounding a medieval Jewish cemetery in Prague.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, said the article in the daily Pravo under the headline “When They Were Not Jews” painted a stereotyped picture of Jews and threatened the safety of the Prague Jewish community.
Local Jewish representatives also described the article as “rude and offensive” and backed Schneier’s call for an apology.
In the article, Culture Minister Pavel Dostal criticized Orthodox Jews who have protested an insurance company’s construction of an office building over one of Europe’s oldest Jewish burial sites.
He also said that as minister he had “made a mistake” in negotiating with Prague’s Jewish community over the future of the site, which is to be preserved under an agreement reached in March involving the government, the insurance firm and local Jews.
Orthodox groups dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage have focused their attention on the 750-year-old cemetery since it was discovered several years ago.
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 in Prague’s Old Jewish Quarter.
What has most upset Jews at home and abroad is the tone and thrust of the article, which Pravo published July 14.
“A Jewish rabbi came to see me from America,” Dostal wrote in the opening paragraph. “He did not have curly sideburns or a wide hat and he didn’t even arrive in a black cloak. He was a dear and elegant man in a light-colored suit, a cream shirt and a colorfully blended necktie.
“He was a liberal rabbi, and he would not stand out in a photograph like the Orthodox rabbis in black who now and then break in to the private property of the Czech Insurance Company so they can be photographed there and show the world how the shameful Czech government is liquidating the `Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.’”
Dostal also said he had made a basic mistake in not “sharing” with the country’s chief rabbi that he could count on being removed forcibly by Czech police if he protested at the building site.
“On the other hand, such a photograph of an Orthodox rabbi being carried away by a Czech policeman is a propaganda trick which has a reliable effect,” he wrote. “Especially in Jewish newspapers abroad.”
The article drew a sharp response from Schneier, who was involved in talks that led to the March agreement.
“This article goes beyond the bounds of the cemetery dispute. The minister has really crossed the line. The language is outrageous and offensive, especially from a public figure in a democratic government,” Schneier said.
“There are innuendos of an international Jewish conspiracy, and he engages in Orthodox bashing. I have been a reasonable party in this dispute, but I took great offense as an Orthodox rabbi to his tone. It is blatantly anti-Semitic combined with an unmitigated arrogance.”
Schneier also said he is worried about the impact the article would have on local Jews.
“My concern is the safety and well-being of the Prague Jewish community. This kind of article just fuels anti-Semitism.”
Tomas Jelinek, vice chairman of Prague’s Jewish community, said he found the article “rude and offensive” and added that the article was also “full of historical errors.”
He said he supported Schneier’s call for an apology from Dostal.
Dostal told JTA that he was not aware of having offended anybody.
“Anybody who knows me knows that I cannot be an anti-Semite,” Dostal said.
The U.S. Embassy in Prague confirmed that the article was the “subject of conversation” between Ambassador John Shattuck and Dostal at a meeting last week, but it did not disclose further details.
The embassy has played a key role in mediating negotiations over the future of the cemetery.
Those negotiations, which called for the return of 160 remains previously removed from the site, have yet to be resolved fully.
In the meantime, construction work continues.