PRAGUE, May 21 (JTA) Czech Jewish leaders are reaching out to the general public by launching an unprecedented campaign for a public hearing into the growth of neo-Nazism in the country.
Representatives of the Prague Jewish Community and the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities released a statement Sunday expressing concern about recent neo-Nazi activities including rock concerts attended by far-right extremists.
Newly-appointed Prague Jewish Community chairman Tomas Jelinek said Jewish leaders wanted to appeal directly to the Czech public for support.
“We want the public to start making it clear that such things do not have a place here,” he said.
The official statement said the communities are disappointed that neo-Nazi activities are being tolerated in a country “in which some 80,000 of our relatives were killed by the Nazi regime” and argued that the Czech parliament, government and courts have failed to appreciate that it is unacceptable to tolerate expressions of Nazism.
Their stance was backed by the Jewish community’s spiritual leader, Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon, who said this is the first time the Jewish communities in the Czech Republic have decided to appeal to the public for support.
“I agree that we must open up the debate to society here because I think there is a growing problem which has to be discussed openly,” Sidon told JTA.
Czech officials have been under mounting pressure to take a hard line on neo-Nazi activities. Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said last month that he would make the issue a top priority after police and his ministry were heavily criticized by Czech Jewish and anti-fascist groups for failing to crack down on extremists.
But Jewish community leaders want to see action rather than just words.
“This statement is the start of a campaign which we expect to continue in the Czech parliament,” Jelinek said. “We already have the support of eight senators for a public hearing into neo-Nazism which we expect will be held in September.”
Jelinek wants legislators to examine current anti-racist laws to establish whether they are strong enough to tackle what government ministers and police have already accepted as a growing problem. He added that any hearings should include police video footage of neo-Nazi concerts so the public realizes how bad the situation is becoming.
Meanwhile, 500 people gathered over the weekend in the former Jewish ghetto of Terezin to pay tribute to tens of thousands of victims of the Nazis.
Speakers at the ceremony included Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, who stressed that Terezin has become a symbol with many meanings.
“It is a symbol of suffering, lies and disappointment, but also of human greatness,” he said.
He also argued that while Terezin is in the history books, it is still very much part of the present.
“If it were to become history, this would mean that the values to which we adhere would be threatened,” Spidla said.
Between 1940 and 1945, more than 200,000 people from across Europe passed through the transit camp of Terezin. A total of 35,000 died there and another 100,000 were killed in concentration camps after being transported from the town.