The Czech Republic’s chief rabbi understands from personal experience just how frightening it is to be a target of hate.
Rabbi Karol Sidon, out for a stroll with his young son last winter, faced a volley of insults and abuse from a large group of skinheads who had started to tail him.
“I was worried because there were quite a lot of them and there were no policemen around,” Sidon said. “I told them if they wanted to fight, that was OK as long as they let my son go.”
Sidon escaped without injury, but the episode illustrates the Jewish community’s wider concern — the threat posed by neo-Nazi hate groups.
Since 1989, at least 13 killings have been deemed to be racially motivated by the Czech government’s human rights commission. Eleven cases involved Gypsies and two involved foreigners from North Africa.
According to the Czech Ministry of Interior, three or four extreme right-wing organizations are registered with the authorities, but there are dozens of groups operating in the country. A number of groups, such as Blood and Honour and the Hammerskins, are known to have links with international extremist organizations.
Official police statistics also show a steady rise over the past few years in the number of racially motivated crimes, such as inciting racial hatred and verbally abusing a nation or race.
But Czech officials and human rights activists are unsure about the gravity of the problem.
“We have statistics which imply that the incidence of racially motivated attacks is growing, yet at the same time we know the police are doing a better job — if only because they could only improve on their performance at the beginning of the 1990s,” said Jan Jarab of the Czech government’s human rights commission.
The manner in which crimes are defined in the Czech courts further complicates the picture. The U.S. State Department’s recent annual report on human rights said the number of attacks in the Czech Republic was probably higher than recorded because the courts did not categorize attacks on Gypsies as racially motivated.
Although the Roma — as the Gypsies are known — have borne the brunt of attacks and abuse, Jews have also been targeted by some of the country’s estimated 5,000 skinheads. The following is a small sample of cases:
November 1998: A 17-year-old skinhead stabs a 22-year-old Jewish soldier in a Prague restaurant.
November 1998: Headstones in a cemetery in the eastern Czech town of Trutnov are sprayed with anti-Jewish graffiti. A plaque marking the site of the town’s former synagogue is also covered in graffiti, as is a monument to Jewish girls used as slave laborers in World War II.
March 1999: A police officer in Ostrov is charged with making racial insults against a group of Roma. In 1998, the same officer received a one-year suspended sentence for wearing a swastika in public.
June 1999: A Prague court prohibits the editor of the right-wing weekly Republika from publishing for 10 years following the publication of two articles containing anti-Semitic and pro-Nazis views.
March 2000: The Federation of Czech Jewish Communities receives an e-mail threatening that skinheads would be coming to its headquarters to beat them up. So far nothing has happened.
April 2000: Police confiscate dozens of CDs promoting neo-Nazism, racism and xenophobia at a market close to the Czech-German border. Two Vietnamese traders are arrested in the second such case within a week.
Other developments in recent weeks have worried human rights activists and caused considerable anxiety among Jewish groups in the country.
Last month, a documentary by German television station ZDF reported that German neo-Nazis had found new room for their activities in the Czech Republic, undergoing paramilitary training at a former army base.
In a fax to the TV station’s Prague office, Czech Ministry of Interior spokesman Milan Kriz confirmed that paramilitary exercises of different extremist groups are taking place in the Czech Republic, but added, “We cannot confirm the presence of individuals or groups from foreign countries.”
One of the Jewish community’s main concerns is the perception that the police and the courts have acted leniently toward skinheads and other extremists who have been accused of racially motivated crime, thereby sending the wrong signal to perpetrators.
“Of course we would like to see the Czech authorities being tougher by introducing and keeping the concept of zero tolerance towards hatred,” said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities.
“I have to stress it is not because of the Jews or any other minorities. It is for the sake of the majority.”
Jarab said he shares these concerns.
A further concern to human rights groups in the Czech Republic is the way extremists appear to be changing tactics by increasingly looking towards a political platform to air their views.
One right-wing group, the National Alliance, which was disbanded recently, says it will set up a political party soon.
The movement gained notoriety recently when its chairman, Vladimir Skoupy, was charged with propagating fascism for allegedly wearing Nazi symbols during a far-right demonstration in February.
Despite this, National Alliance spokesman Michal Podalak claimed the movement was against discrimination.
“We are not a skinhead organization,” he said, “but we don’t judge people on the basis of their looks. So I can’t really say how many skinheads there are in our organization.”
Some believe that the Czech authorities are at last showing signs of taking the issue of racism seriously. Michal Horak of the human rights group HOST welcomed the decision by the Ministry of the Interior to disband the National Alliance.
“The National Alliance is the first case of an officially registered right-wing organization being closed,” Horak said. “I think official structures in this country are beginning to take the necessary steps to resolve the problem.”
A successful conclusion to the issue cannot come quickly enough for Jews and other minority groups in the Czech Republic.
“We are not as threatened as the Romanies of course,” Sidon said. “Unfortunately, skinheads are a feature of this society, and in a sense they represent its opinions and characteristics.”
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.