PRAGUE (Aug. 6)
And the Czechs have it. When it comes to which former Eastern Bloc country has shown the most support for Israel in its conflict with Hezbollah, the Czech Republic can now boast two pro-Israeli demonstrations.
One demonstration has been held in Poland, and none in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria.
To be fair, though, additional gestures of support came over the weekend in other former Eastern Bloc nations: Polish Jews held a special prayer service for Israel on Shabbat, and the Romanian Jewish community held a rally at its office.
But it was the Czechs who were willing to take to the streets and make a public show of support for Israel — no small feat in a former Communist country where open protests on foreign policy issues are virtually nonexistent.
The rallies have helped the country’s often-riven Jewish community pull together.
In the first Czech rally, on July 24 just outside central Prague, 200 Czechs led by a Christian evangelical group held a pro-Israel rally that included members of the Jewish community.
On Tisha B’Av on Aug. 3, a three-pronged protest with about 200 participants was spearheaded by the Prague Jewish community in the heart of Old Town, in front of tourists and locals. Jewish-led demonstrations were held in front of the Lebanese and Israeli Embassies as well.
The colorful Old Town rally in front of a church — with Hebrew music, shofar blowing and speeches slamming Hezbollah — was as varied as the estimated 1,500 to 3,000 Jews who live in Prague.
Placards in Czech, English and Hebrew carried statements like “Israel, you are not alone” and “Israel prevents terrorism.”
One sign held by several demonstrators showed drawings of an Israeli soldier protecting a baby carriage and an armed Hezbollah fighter using a baby carriage as a human shield.
Doris Groz Danovicova, 80, went to the demonstration with several fellow survivors from the Terezin concentration camp.
She said she showed up at the community’s behest. Though she considers herself an ally of Israel, she expressed misgivings about television footage showing fleeing, injured and dead Lebanese.
“I am very sorry even for Lebanon, I must confess. I feel sorry for the innocent victims,” Danovicova said.
Elisheva Dina Novakova, an assistant at the Czech Rabbinate, said she wanted to attend the demonstration before her Hebrew class to balance out “all of the newspapers and television stations that are showing only Arab victims.”
Czech media coverage has been more balanced than coverage in England or Germany, but still has a propensity to focus on Arab suffering without providing sufficient context, Novakova said.
Leah Adamova, head of the Jewish community in the Czech city of Liberec, said she turned up with an Israeli flag painted on her face “to show we didn’t forget about them. I lived in Israel, so I know the Czechs are getting a very different view of things than the Israelis, who are really suffering.”
Lucia Kallous, a non-Jewish architect who came to the demonstration with her toddler, said she wanted to assert Israel’s right to defend itself.
“I read in an Internet poll that 64 percent of Czechs support Israel. That’s definitely better than in Western Europe,” she noted.
Czechs are very conscious about living in a country that competes with Poland to have Europe’s most pro-Israeli government.
“We definitely have a pro-Israel orientation, but I think the mainstream is not really for or against a side in this current conflict — more like the typical Czech way, they just want everyone to act reasonably and stop fighting,” said Michael Andel, a 19-year-old with Jewish roots.
Despite favorable sentiments toward Israel, visible outpourings of support in the former Communist countries have been muted in contrast to Western Europe, where thousands of demonstrators have marched to support Israel, balancing thousands of other marchers who have shown their anger, going so far as to carry signs showing swastikas over Israeli flags.
The reasons for the lack of pro-Israel signs in the streets of Eastern Europe aren’t complex: Very few Jews live there, with the exception of Hungary, which has an estimated 100,000 Jews. An Israeli consular official in Hungary attributed the lack of Jewish demonstrations in that nation to “most people being away for the summer holidays.”
In addition, anti-Israel protests are less likely in Eastern Europe, since there are at most a few thousand Muslims in these countries, in contrast to the millions in Western European countries.
Perhaps most importantly, after more than four decades of communism under which public demonstrations were forbidden, civic action is still a relatively rare phenomenon in the former Eastern Bloc.
“Marching is not a Bulgarian tradition. We demonstrate our feelings in other ways,” said Emil Kalo, who heads Shalom, the country’s Jewish umbrella group.
To demonstrate support for Israel, Kalo has made several appearances on the country’s most popular television channel to explain why Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon is a defensive action.
The Romanian Jewish community, meanwhile, held its rally for Israel at its Bucharest offices last Friday.
“The Romanian press has been pretty anti-Israel, and we didn’t think a street demonstration was such a great idea,” said Erwin Simensohn, a community leader. “Besides, most of our members are quite elderly and would not show up to a march.”
Rabbi Meni Kalcheim, an Israeli native working for the Prague Jewish community, noted that the crisis in Israel had united previously feuding streams of Czech Jewry.
At the Tisha B’Av demonstration, leaders of three segments of the community that for years had been involved in a nasty leadership struggle all turned up, including Chabad Rabbi Manis Barash, Czech Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon and Tomas Jelinek, former chairman of the Prague Jewish community.
All seemed at ease cheering for Israel within inches of each another, despite a history among them and their supporters of firings, accusations of theft, lawsuits and even assault.
“One of the things we remember on Tisha B’Av is the fall of the Second Temple, which was caused in part by fighting among Jews. We know that ahavat chinam, unconditional love, will bring about the Third Temple,” Kalcheim said. “So at least for Czechs, what is happening in Israel is helping them take steps toward ahavat chinam.”
Kalcheim, credited with greatly expanding the offerings of the Prague community’s kosher mini-store, says there’s one relationship that has not benefited from the Israeli military operation.
“We buy our condiments and pita bread from a Lebanese store in Prague,” he explained. “They don’t say anything to us now when we go there with our yarmulkes, but you can feel the tension.”