Israeli Ambassador to Czechia Anna Azari: The interest in Jewish culture here is sometimes quite amazing

“After the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia we always rooted for the Czech hockey team” the Israeli ambassador to Czechia, Anna Azari, says in an interview for Radio Prague International. Azari is a seasoned diplomat with a special interest in Central and Eastern Europe. She was posted to Prague in 2021, to what she calls “the friendliest country for Israel in Europe” and says it is easy for her to feel at home here, despite the fact that Czechs and Israelis are often as different as chalk and cheese.        

Ambassador Azari, before coming to Prague you served as Israeli ambassador to Poland, Russia and Ukraine. You know this region and its peoples well. How do you perceive the war that Russia is now waging on Ukraine?

Anna Azari | Photo: Sylwester Górski,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

“Well, I perceive it as a huge tragedy, which none of us expected to happen after WWII. There were some signs of banalization of the memory of WWII including the Holocaust. Of course, it is horrible what it going on. By the way, the big tragedy is happening in Ukraine, but I believe that what is going on in Russia is going to change it or even destroy it. So it is a tragic feeling. It is very interesting to be here in the Czech Republic - and I visit Poland often as well because I have family there - and I am really proud for you, for the Czechs and the Poles for how you reacted to this crisis, for the help that is given to refugees and to the country itself. I think it is amazing to watch. Once – that was closer to the beginning of the war when big bulks of people were moving through Europe – I took a train to Warsaw and the train station there, and here as well, was full of volunteers helping people. And, of course, God knows when it is going to end.”

We should say that you grew up in Lithuania. Does it help you to understand the region better, people’s mentality, that of politicians, to read between the lines so to speak? Because you know all about the history and culture of this region.

“I am far from knowing all about the history of everybody, but I do think that my Baltic very deep origins, because my family lived in Lithuania for 300 years, is putting me on the one side of the narrative which is very close to the Polish-Baltic one and much less to the Russian one. So it helps to understand, but it is still not understandable –when you see what happened in Mariupol, when you see a residential building collapsing all the history that you know doesn’t help you to deal with that.

What I meant was –did you see the threat of the Russian aggression sooner that the rest of the world?

Majdan 2014 | Photo: Stanislaw Nepochatow,  spoilt.exile,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“No, no I didn’t. In 2014 I happened to be on a short working visit to Kyiv when the Majdan events started, the shooting at demonstrators on Majdan, and my friends in Kyiv told me “Now the Russians will come” and I said “No, they probably won’t.”  And then 2014 happened –the Russian invasion into Crimea and the Donetsk region. And since then, I am not surprised. But it is not the depth of understanding –it is just seeing it happening. When the Americans started warning –I believe it was in December 2021 already- about Russian plans to attack Ukraine, I already believed them.”

You were posted to Czechia in 2021. Was that a coincidence or was that something you had striven for?

“It was not a coincidence. I was deputy director general of the of the foreign ministry’s section for Europe and I kind of chose it. We have a procedure, it was not that appointed myself, but I asked only for Prague. And it is not necessarily because of understanding the history of the region. I actually chose it for two reasons – one turned out to be true, the other not so. The true one was that this is the friendliest country for Israel in Europe – and in that I wasn’t disappointed at all. The second reason was that I assumed that knowing, or partially knowing, several Slavic languages I would easily learn Czech. And that was a mistake, because it is not easy at all for me. I understand more and more, I understand written Czech quite well, when I hear Czech it depends on the pronunciation of the speaker but when I actively try to speak it is CzePolish or something like that.”

But you are not disappointed by life in this country?

“Not at all.”

Czech-Israeli relations go back a long way –to President T.G. Masaryk and Israel’s independence. But after the communist take-over in Czechoslovakia in 1948 bilateral relations cooled and diplomatic relations were broken off entirely in 1967. They were reinstated again by Václav Havel after the fall of communism. To what do you ascribe the fact that –despite these ups and downs -the bond between the two nations is still very strong?

Václav Havel in Israeli | Photo: YouTube

“I don’t think there were ups and downs. I think the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was just doing what Moscow told them to do and the severed relations in 1967 was an order that all the Warsaw Pact countries got (excluding Romania which did not go this way). So, I do not think the break came from within Czech-Israeli relations –it was a dictate from somewhere outside. I believe that Vaclav Havel’s second foreign visit as Czechoslovak president was to Israel. So the relationship was deeply ingrained in the active parts of society. I do not believe that the break-up in 1967 was an internal Czechoslovak decision.”

A year after diplomatic relations were broken off Czechoslovakia was invaded by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops. How was that perceived in Israel? Because I heard that there is a song in Hebrew about Prague and the invasion.

“Yes, I was about to mention that. I myself was not in Israel at the time and I can give you the perception of 1968 from Lithuania. From the invasion on, all honourable people in my parents’ milieu were fans of the Czech hockey team. You couldn’t support the Soviet hockey team after the invasion –that was the background in my home. As to the song –that was sung but a singer whom everybody loved and it was called “A dream I dreamt about Prague” –it was about the invasion and that belief that “the sun will still shine on Prague”.

What do Israelis know about Czechia or Czechoslovakia today? What first comes to mind to people in the street when they hear “Czech Republic”?

Prague | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“Probably Prague, because of their tourist visits here. But I am older and for my generation I must say that in schools we used to have military training and we used to get these antique rifles that we called “Czech” in Hebrew because they were from the weapons which were given to us by the Czechs in the war of independence. So I assume that many remember the support of the Czech Republic in our war of independence even 75 years later. Though of course, it is hard to say what a person in the street knows and doesn’t. But the Czechs are perceived as a nation which is pleasant for us. And I would say that for people who are interested in history another thought that might cross their minds, in connection with the Czech Republic, is Munich 1938. Because in Israeli politics Munich 1938 is often used as an example of what could happen if we don’t do this or that.”

What do you think Czechs and Israelis have in common – if anything? Culture, sense of humour…do they understand each others films, books?

“It is hard to answer that. There are many things I can point out in which we are different. For instance Czechs are very punctual, you cannot say that about anyone in the Middle East, including Israel, Czechs are probably more orderly than we are, we are very much into innovation while you are much more into rules. But we have things in common – as relatively small countries that have to fend for themselves. I actually do not think we are small countries in the size of population, but the perception in both countries is the same – of a small country. We are pleasant to each other, but I cannot say we are similar. In human relations it is very easy for me to feel good here because it is easy to relate to people and you have a very human reaction, not a bureaucratic reaction –you are open in human relations. We are too open. As for sense of humour – I am not sure that the Czech sense of humour is the Israeli sense of humour, but both of us have it. As to books, I am not sure how much current Czech literature is being read in Israel. There were generations which read The Good Soldier Svejk…”

And could they relate to it? Did they find it funny at all?

“I found it funny. I still find it funny. I read it once when I was a teenager and now again before coming here and now I have a new way of looking at it, because today I put it in a historical frame-work. It is about WWI and it is quite a revolutionary book with its attitude, questioning everything in life – church, army…but my biggest surprise was České Budějovice. Because the whole book is about trying to get to České Budějovice and somehow I decided it must be a very God-forsaken place and when I came to České Budějovice it was actually very nice.”

I understand that Skoda cars sell well in Israel, is that right?

“They are – at least according to the latest data I have – the best-selling European car in Israel. As an ambassador to Poland I had a Skoda and as a bureaucrat in Israel I had a Skoda which was given to me by the ministry. So, yes, we like Skodas.”

A lot of Israelis travel to Czechia. Is it the same the other way round? I s Israel a popular tourist destination for Czechs?

“Less so. Not because they would not like to see it, but because Israel has turned into an incredibly expensive country. It is actually cheaper for an Israeli to come here for a prolonged weekend than to go to a hotel in our southern city of Eilat for instance. So we do have tourists from the Czech Republic but not in such quantity because Tel Aviv is now considered the most expensive city in the world.

A lot of the rules were broken during Covid, but that was another thing, at some point ,during the second half of the Covid pandemic we had very few countries where we could come without having to go through God knows what and Czechia was among them. So the movement here was restored.”

What do Czechs know about Israel?

Photo: joiseyshowaa,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“I think there is some idealization. Going back to Munich, I don’t know if it is true, but people tell me that in the pub people still discuss what the country should have done after Munich 1938 and Israel is brought as an example. I think Israel is perceived well here. It is a very pleasant experience to tell someone here that you are from Israel –people smile at you. I don’t know whether the average Czech knows that today Israel is one of the technologically most advanced countries in the world, one of the most innovative countries. We are working with certain institutes here to promote it, but I am not sure that everyone necessarily knows.”

You organize events to raise awareness of Israel –for instance, last year there was a celebration of Israeli independence on Střelecký ostrov in Prague, there is a festival of Jewish culture. How big is the interest in these events on the part of Czechs and what do they aim to bring?

“Well, those are different events. What we are trying to do on Střelecký ostrov is to be open to ordinary people and younger people. The event last year lasted for two days, this year it will be one day, but it will last from morning to evening and it caters to different groups – families with children or people who just want to come to a concert in the evening and everything in between. As to interest in Israel and Jewish culture, sometimes it is amazing. You have relatively small places who have organized festivals of Jewish culture for 15 or 20 years. They are very interesting and very pleasant to attend. They tend to be a mix of Jewish-European culture or Czechoslovak culture with Israeli elements and people do come. I went last summer to a place called Holešov which is really ten-thousand-something, and they have been doing this festival for years and years. And it is really nice, it is serious and it is well done. I mean serious content. It is very pleasant.”

In what areas do our two countries cooperate most closely and where do you see untapped potential?

Photo: Nadační fond Neuron

“Well, part of the answer is not going to be too peaceful, because we cooperate very well in security and the arms industry. Already after I arrived here in October of 2021 we signed a very big sales package –the biggest in the history of the Czech Republic as far as I know. This is not a very sexy area of cooperation, but it is a very important one. I think technology, innovation and young people are very important. One of the newest things that have happened was that the NEURON foundation that aims to promote science education in this country decided to launch a project – we had a pilot last year – where ten students usually of higher degrees are going to projects in Israel subsidized by NEURON. This is not something we did, but it is something we enjoy a lot.

"So there is all kinds of cooperation. I think Israeli art is appreciated here. Last year it was a special pleasure, appreciated by all of us at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, when there was a premiere of a wonderful movie of ours called America – (despite the name all but about two minutes of the movie are shot in Israel, it’s more a concept of America than America). The film got a standing ovation of some ten, fifteen minutes, it was quite amazing. I think it is still in the movie theatres here.  So we have cooperation in different fields, including art schools –I would mention the Pilsen art school which helps us with our exhibitions and so on and so on. It is really a pleasure to work here.”

Artificial intelligence as well, maybe?

“AI is of course part of the innovative and scientific world, so yes, we have Czech delegations to every or almost every big international event that we have, whether it is AI or any other branch of modern technology.”

Is there anything Czech – from our traditions, our food – that you want to keep in your life when you return to Israel?

“I think it is too early to say, but one thing we already adopted –the Czech tradition of floating nutshells with lit candles in a bowl of water at Christmas time. We did that with my granddaughter last year and it worked. I usually know what I will take from a country only when I leave, so it is hard to say now. I can’t take with me all those endless parks and castles I visit -although I would like to!  You know the profession of a diplomat is a very interesting one because we are nomadic people and the plus of this (there are plenty of minuses as well) is that you meet and make friends at an age when if you were living a normal life you would not do it. Because you have your set of friends who have gone through life with you from I don’t know when and you rarely bring someone intimately close to you at a later stage in life. And in diplomacy you usually do. I don’t have hoards of people from every country I worked in, but I have very close friends in each of them. With Russia I am in trouble, because most of my real friends – not bureaucrats in the foreign ministry, but real friends, almost all of them are out of the country because they were declared foreign agents or something of the kind. So sometimes I meet them here in Prague because they are those “bad people”.”

Finally, what would you like to achieve before leaving this country –is there something you are particularly striving for?

“You know it is very hard to have ambitions to improve Czech-Israeli relations. It is hard to even imagine how I would do this, because the relations are deeply good and have been for long. So it would be really presumptuous to say “ I am going to improve Czech-Israeli relations”. So it will be better to be less dramatic, and say that my goal is to maintain the wonderful relations that we have. And if I think further ahead, then the main issue for me is to try to talk to the younger generation of Czechs, the ones who don’t remember what happened in 1948 or where T.G. Masaryk went or didn’t go. Even though we try to remind them, we have exhibitions in different places and so on. So the main accent is on the young generation with events such as that on Střelecký ostrov.

"And we also have something that I didn’t invent – that was several ambassadors before me -  there is a program called CEMACH which is the Hebrew word for “rostlina” or “plant”. It is a systematic program of going to schools – to high schools – to talk about Israel. It is not done only by us, by no means, but it is done by us too, by the embassy staff. And it is pleasant. I love to go to these classes. I was warned that Czech students are timid and they will not ask questions. But that didn’t happen. Up until now I really like the dialogue. Maybe because I add a bit of nonsense, I try not to be too stuffy and they are very open. And it is a very pleasant experience.”

Anna Azari is an Israeli diplomat, and the current Ambassador of Israel to the Czech Republic. She has previously served in diplomatic posts in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Moldova, among others.

Born in Vilnius, Lithuania, Azari emigrated to Israel with her family in 1972 where she attended the University of Haifa, earning a bachelor's degree in history and English literature and a master's in political science. She has been with the Israeli Foreign Service since the 1980s, and lived in San Francisco from 1989 to 1992, serving as consul-general of Israel to the Pacific Northwest.