Czech-Israeli relations "flourishing" since the fall of communism

The first records of a Jewish presence in the Czech lands date back to the tenth century. The contribution that the Jewish population living here made to Czech life and culture in subsequent centuries is widely acknowledged. But what of the Czech contribution to the Jewish state of Israel?

Czechoslovak military support for Israel in defiance of a UN embargo is considered to have been crucial to its survival when it was first trying to establish itself in the face of much Arab hostility in the late 1940s.

Michael Zantovsky, the present Czech ambassador to Israel, was back visiting Prague last week. He says many Israelis have not forgotten Czechoslovakia's role in the foundation of Israel, and that this has been instrumental in ensuring that the Czech Republic has enjoyed cordial relations with the Jewish state since the collapse of communism.

"Many Israelis still remember the role that Czechoslovakia played during the war of independence in 1948 with its supplies of arms and aeroplanes. On the other hand there was a break in the relationship between 1967 and 1990 after the communist government of Czechoslovakia severed relations between the two countries. But in the last 14 years I think we can say that the relationship has developed and flourished anew."

Considering the long history of Jews living in this part of Europe, one would also presume that there are many people of Czech origin now residing in Israel.

Palestinian protest against the politics of Israel in Gaza and Rafah, photo: CTK
"Alas, there are not too many - for obvious reasons. Out of the half a million Jews who lived in Czechoslovakia before the holocaust only about 10 -15 percent survived the war, and some of them came to Israel to start a new life. And they still live there, as do their children and grandchildren. They are very visible in Israeli society, but they are not numerous."

In recent years, Israel has often been criticised by the European Union for its military activities in the Palestinian territories. Mr Zantovsky says he doesn't envisage any major change in the EU's policy towards events in the Middle East, but that new member-states such as the Czech Republic can bring a fresh approach to Europe's dealings with the Jewish state.

"Because of our own history and because of our own experience with the policy of big aggressive powers towards small countries like Czechoslovakia, we may have a greater understanding of some of the Israeli positions. We may bring some perspectives of our own to the common European foreign policy."

There are some who would say that the historical affinity between the Czech Republic and Israel might also be down to the fact that there are certain parallels between the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and the Czechs' treatment of Sudeten Germans after the Second World War. Mr Zantovsky, however, does not feel that this issue plays a major role in how Czechs perceive Israel.

"I don't think that this aspect plays too significant a role. It is sometimes brought up in debates about the right of return in Israel itself, but I don't think it plays too important a role in the perception of Israel among Czech citizens or among people here"