PRAGUE, June 21 (JTA) Prague’s Jewish community is bracing itself for a fresh wave of protests by international Jewish groups determined to halt construction above one of Europe’s oldest Jewish burial sites.
In a sign of the wide international attention the issue is getting, hundreds of Jewish protesters demonstrated outside the Czech Consulate in New York on Monday to demand that the burial site not be desecrated.
The protest came as Jewish leaders in the Czech capital prepared to sign a binding agreement with the owners of the site setting out the terms under which the construction work will proceed.
The Czech insurance company Ceska pojistovna owned the 750-year-old site on Vladislavova Street. Since the cemetery was discovered several years ago, it has become the focus of attention of Orthodox groups dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage.
The issue first hit the international stage last year, when misinformation was relayed over the Internet that the burial site was Prague’s famous Old Cemetery, which lies half a mile away.
The issue boiled over late last year when the Czech Ministry of Culture backed a plan that involved lowering the burial site by several feet and building offices over it.
In March, however, following meetings with local and international Jewish representatives and the insurance company, the Czech government announced that construction could proceed as long as the remains of several hundred Jews were left.
The plan also called for the return of an estimated 160 skeletons previously removed from the area for anthropological research.
The decision was endorsed, albeit reluctantly, by the local Jewish community, which felt that the deal was the best possible offer.
A new construction agreement is expected to be signed in the next few days, according to Ceska pojistovna.
The new measures were expected to allow Jewish representatives to monitor work as it progresses.
Tempers have at times become frayed, as international groups have campaigned to take the matter out of the hands of the Prague community.
Only last week, Czech police fined a dozen “English-speaking” Jewish protesters for entering the construction site and refusing to leave.
Matters were made worse by the fact that the remains, which were removed from the site last year for research purposes, have yet to be returned as promised.
Ceska pojistovna maintains that “technical problems” relating to the condition of the burial area explains the delay. Company officials added that they should be able to rebury the remains by September.
The issue has also seen clashes between leading Jewish figures in the Czech Republic and Britain.
Earlier this month, Rabbi Abraham Pinter of the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe claimed that for historical and political reasons, the Prague Jewish community is “not in a position to withstand any degree of local pressure” to settle the issue quickly.
“They also do not have the religious knowledge required to decide complex religious questions of this nature,” he stated in a press release.
His comments provoked a sharp response from Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities.
“How did you come to that conclusion?” Kraus wrote to Pinter. “Do you have any experience with us in that sense?”
Kraus also expressed concern that recent demonstrations in Prague and other cities might tarnish the image of the Prague Jewish community.
He voiced appreciation for the international support of the Orthodox community in saving the cemetery, but added: “We feel, however, that further public actions” are “counter-productive and useless. So far, the general public has been on our side. We can easily lose that support.”
Leading Prague Jews have attempted to downplay the extent to which relations with foreign Jewish groups have deteriorated.
The chairman of Prague’s Jewish community, Jiri Danicek, told JTA: “If someone has an opinion, they have a right to express it. It is not necessary for everyone to feel thrilled by our decisions.
“We are trying to find an answer which will reflect the interests of everybody. Our goal is to ensure that all cultural and religious rules are kept wherever it is possible.”
Few believe that the protests will stop once the new agreement is published.
But several leading figures in the United States expressed hope that the friction of recent weeks between Prague and the wider Jewish community, which has seen both sides accuse the other of failing to communicate, will not develop into a more serious rift.
“First and foremost, this should not evolve into a battle of Jew versus Jew,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier of the North American Boards of Rabbis, who was involved in the early stages of negotiations between the Czech state, the insurance company and local Jewish leaders.
“The Jewish community in Prague have been wonderful advocates of the Jewish people worldwide. Having lived through the Holocaust and Communism and rebuilt Jewish life in the Czech Republic, it behooves us to recognize their authority. The community has earned the right to be the guardians of the cemetery.”
Michael Lewan, chairman of the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, said he was pleased that the issue was reaching “some closure.”
“This has been an unpleasant time for all parties concerned,” he added. “I am particularly concerned for the Jewish community in Prague, who have found themselves in a difficult situation with others, particularly with members of the international Jewish community.”
Lewan also said he was concerned with certain aspects of the agreement, notably the way it allows construction work underneath the grave site and the length of time it has taken to return remains to the site.
But, he added, “As things stand, it would ultimately be my intention to support the decision of the local Jewish community.”
The U.S. Embassy in Prague, which has drawn praise from all parties for its role as a mediator throughout the affair, refused to comment on the protests that have dogged the issue over the past few months.
“Our position hasn’t changed,” said spokeswoman Victoria Middleton. “We welcomed the compromise agreement in March and hope for the most appropriate implementation of that.”