PRAGUE, Feb. 3 (JTA) — A comic dressed like an Orthodox Jew tries to get a deep discount on a chain saw, outwitting a cartoon mascot. The scene is in a commercial from a well-known Czech gardening-equipment company, which is running on all four of the Czech Republic’s television networks. The similarity between the Jew impersonated in the commercial and 1930s caricatures drawn for Nazi magazines was not lost on Arthur Avnon, Israel’s ambassador to the Czech Republic. Outraged by the portrayal of Jews as greedy bargain hunters, Avnon quietly complained on Jan. 18 to the gardening equipment firm, Mountfield. “The commercial describes Jewish people in a way that the worst anti-Semites would describe them, as greedy,” Avnon said. The company’s CEO, Ivan Drbohlav, defended the spot, saying that it showed only the “beautiful cleverness of the Jewish people.” Nonetheless, Drbohlav said, he understood the ambassador’s concerns and would shorten the ad’s run. The ad began running in January, and will be taken off the air Feb. 8, according to a company source. It shows a long-bearded Czech comic wearing a black hat and robes. He rubs his hands together with evident greed and asks the company mascot, “What’s all this trumf stuff about?” He’s referring to a slot on the company’s carnival-like wheel of fortune, which provides discounts to shoppers. A cartoon mascot spins the wheel, and the Jew wins discount after discount. When the mascot complains about the Jew’s success, his response comes in stereotyped, pseudo-1930s Czech-Jewish slang. Leaving the store with his greatly discounted chainsaw, the Jewish bargain-hunter tells the mascot that his discount is “no big deal.” Then he sticks his tongue out to the audience, implying that he’s duped the mascot and snagged a great deal. In a phone interview, Drbohlav said the Jewish character was presented positively. He’s “obviously the symbol of a person who behaves like a good businessman,” he said, adding that he had long admired the Jewish people and had studied their history and culture. After meeting with Avnon, Drbohlav conceded that the ad could be misused by “the 5 percent of the population that might have a tendency toward anti-Semitic behavior. But I still say that 95 percent of the Czech population is not like that, and instead sees the Orthodox Jews as highly intelligent and feels the humor of the commercial.” Members of the Jewish community have responded to the ad as well. Leo Pavlat, head of the Jewish Museum in Prague, wrote an op-ed Tuesday in the Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny urging that the ad be withdrawn. Johanka Lomova, spokeswoman for the Forum Against Anti-Semitism in Prague, found the ad clearly anti-Semitic. Jews have been described as “strangers, usurers and conspirators” before, she said, adding that the ad was “dangerous because it legitimizes these stereotypes, making people less tolerant and more lax toward violent attacks.” There were six such attacks against Czech Jews last year and nine incidents of vandalism against Jewish monuments, according to Lomova’s organization. That’s far fewer than in countries such as France, Russia or Germany, Jewish leaders here note. Tomas Kraus, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities, said the ad was born of ignorance rather than anti-Semitism. “Nevertheless, I was surprised by the commercial because I thought in the Czech society these stereotypes had faded out,” he said. Auschwitz survivor Oldrich Stransky of Prague was disturbed that the commercial was timed to run at the same time as international ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “In these days, when we remind ourselves of the awful things that have happened and look back at all the suffering, we have to see as well that it is not acceptable for anyone to make fun of it,” he said. The history of the Holocaust was not taught during Czechoslovakia’s Communist era, and such education is still in its infancy, Kraus said. That’s why the general public is so insensitive, he said. Kraus plans to complain about the ad to the Czech Advertising Standards Council, but doesn’t expect the body to react. “About five years ago, Hyundai was running commercials with the same theme — two religious Jews bargaining to get a deal over a car,” he said. “I protested then and the council said the ads were okay.” A well-educated woman in her 20s, who works in media in Prague but asked not to be identified, said she didn’t understand what the fuss was about. “It could been a guy in an Indian costume or a priest,” she said. “I don’t see anything negative about it.” Even a Jewish parliamentarian found the ads harmless. “This is not an act of anti-Semitism,” said Eva Novakova, a Social Democratic member of the Chamber of Deputies. “It’s stressing the quality that is connected with the Jews, the sense for lucrative business.”
Dinah Spritzer is JTA's correspondent in Prague. She has been covering the former Eastern European bloc since 1990 and currently serves as the news editor of The Prague Post. The former Europe editor for Travel Weekly, she also contributes to several other publications, including The Independent on Sunday, Conde Nast Traveler and several guidebooks on the Czech Republic.