Czech Jews are wondering whether the country’s next president will prove as staunch a friend of the Jewish community as was Vaclav Havel.
Havel, who served two terms as president of the Czech Republic before stepping down on Feb. 2, was warmly regarded by the Jewish community for his readiness to confront anti-Semitism and keep the horrors of the Holocaust firmly in the public consciousness.
Among his achievements was the convening of an international conference in Prague in 1999, titled “The Holocaust Phenomenon,” to examine the lessons to be learned from the past.
Havel also played a behind-the-scenes role in ensuring that all Czech schools study the Holocaust.
Jewish leaders now are facing the future with some uncertainty.
It could take until the fall until a replacement for Havel is chosen. Three potential candidates with Jewish backgrounds already have pulled out of the race for personal reasons.
Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, said it will be very difficult to replace Havel.
“It’s not so much the position as the man,” said Kraus, who says the post of president is largely ceremonial in the Czech Republic.
“We certainly hope that the next president will be aware of Jewish issues in a wider sense,” Kraus continued. “For example, warning against right-wing extremism, as Havel did, is a signal not only for the Jewish community, but for the whole of society.”
Tomas Jelinek, chairman of Prague’s Jewish community and a former employee in Havel’s presidential office, said the former president is unlikely to fade from the scene.
“What’s important is that Havel will remain a public person in Prague and can keep Jewish issues on the agenda,” Jelinek said.
In addition, a number of influential politicians who have strong records of support for the Jewish community remain in office.
Jan Munk, president of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, praised Havel for helping to make anti- Semitism unacceptable in the eyes of the general public.
“If someone has anti-Semitic feelings, he hides it now,” Munk said. “Havel was well understood for his position, and he was always being attacked by anti-Semitic newspapers. I honor him very much for this.”
Arthur Avnon, Israeli ambassador to the Czech Republic, told JTA in a rare interview that Havel had always “struggled for human dignity, democracy and principles for which the free world stands.”
Havel’s attitude toward the Jews showed that he saw them as people “who suffered throughout history, and in Central Europe especially,” Avnon said.
Avnon recalled when he presented his ambassadorial credentials to Havel a year ago.
“He spoke of the deep feelings he has for the Jewish people, the importance that he attaches to the preservation of the Jewish culture,” and “expressed his very deep sympathy for the loss of lives” due to terrorism in Israel, Avnon said.
Havel, he said, had always tried to create dialogue between political or religious leaders to resolve disagreements, not least in the Middle East.
“He spoke with the leaders about the possibility of resolving the conflict, although he was always careful not to intervene or obstruct the processes that were already ongoing,” Avnon said. “He is still among us, but the world is losing a world figure.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.