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Wjc Delegation’s Visit to Prague May Pave Way for Ties with Israel

November 13, 1989
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Government officials and Jewish leaders here seem to agree that the prospects of Czechoslovakia restoring diplomatic relations with Israel after 22 years will be advanced by the first official visit to Prague this week of Edgar Bronfman, the internationally known industrialist and World Jewish Congress president.

While no immediate results are expected, at least one government official spoke of a possible “positive breakthrough” emerging from Bronfman’s visit.

“I wouldn’t like to give any unrealistic prognosis,” Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry spokesman Lubomir Marsik told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview. “All this depends on the results of Bronfman’s visit.”

WJC spokesman Laurent Moyse agreed. “Relations between Czechoslovakia and Israel will be one of the major points discussed,” he said. “Maybe there could be good news, but it depends. There are a lot of conditions.”

Bronfman arrived here Sunday with a delegation including WJC’s secretary-general, Israel Singer, and its executive director, Elan Steinberg.

Though invited here by the local Jewish community, Bronfman also will have meetings with the country’s top political leaders, including one Monday with Communist Party chief Milos Jakes and Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec.


Foreign Ministry spokesman Marsik said Czechoslovakia wants to improve relations with Israel, and he implied that Prague attaches great importance to the Bronfman visit, as shown by the level of his talks.

“We can admit that this could be a positive breakthrough in mutual relations with Israel,” he said. “This will depend on the contents and results of the visit.

“We hope the visit will bring some improvements in mutual contacts,” he said. “There is of course desire on the part of Czechoslovakia to have greater relations with Israel.”

Czechoslovakia severed diplomatic relations with Israel, as did all of the Communist bloc countries except Romania, after the Six-Day War in 1967. There has been a slight thaw between the countries in recent years, however, on the level of cultural relations.

Prague’s Magic Lantern theater group, for example, has performed in Israel, and a major exhibition on Czechoslovak Jews is going to Jerusalem next year.

Some tourist links also have been established recently. Though limited, there are possibilities for Israeli tourists to come to Czechoslovakia.

Marsik said that initially, Czechoslovakia might be interested in expanding tourist links and commercial contacts with Israel, including the possibility of hiring Israeli construction firms to build new hotels here.

Moyse of the WJC said Czechoslovakia is “also interested in good relations with the United States, and Israel could be a step forward in this direction.”

He said Bronfman also would be meeting with Czechoslovakia’s foreign trade minister.

Bronfman has regularly visited other East European countries with Jewish populations, including the Soviet Union. WJC meetings in Hungary may have been a forerunner of the full relations it re-established with Israel in September.

The Prague Jewish community has only about 1,000 registered members, yet the city is one of the most important sites of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe.


Each year, 700,000 or more tourists come from all over to visit the State Jewish Museum, Europe’s foremost collection of Judaica, which is housed in several ancient synagogues.

But the country’s Jewish community, which numbers 5,000 to 6,000, finds itself in a delicate internal position at this time.

There has been tension within the tiny community recently, centering around accusations, particularly by a group of 25 young Jews, that the current Jewish leadership is too subordinate to the Communist regime and supportive of its hard-line policies.

The dispute came to a head last May, when the group sent a letter to the community’s president, Frantisek Kraus, warning that Jewish life in Czechoslovakia “is in danger of extinction.”

It urged greater possibilities for Hebrew and Jewish education, as well as better access to the archives of the State Jewish Museum.

It criticized Kraus and Bohumil Heller, president of the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in Bohemia and Moravia, for issuing statements supporting the regime’s use of police against anti-government demonstrators.

Kraus and Heller, with whom Bronfman will be meeting, have also been criticized, since taking office in 1985, for issuing statements condemning policies of the Israeli government.

Czechoslovak authorities, highly supportive of the Arabs, have long played the “anti-Zionist” card against the Jewish community, and many Jews today are afraid of doing or saying anything that could label them a “Zionist.”

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