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Fischer credited the Lauder Jewish School, which his son attended, for educating the whole family.
Fischer’s father, also a Prague statistician, was forced to collect numerical data on Jewish families for the Nazis.
“When he arrived in Auschwitz he didn’t expect to live, but Mengele found out he was a mathematician and thought he could be of use,” Fischer said.
Although some may not deem Fischer as Jewish by halachah, or Jewish law, he invokes the Holocaust experience as a defining characteristic of those who view themselves as Jews.
“It is a common tragedy,” he said, “and based on it I feel part of this community.”
Even in the relatively liberal-minded Czech Republic, however, being Jewish can be a political disadvantage. When Fischer took over as prime minister, a smattering of comments on blogs referred negatively to his Jewish origins. There were hints, too, that Fischer was part of a secret brotherhood, as one of his advisers also was Jewish.
But Czechs mostly were just curious about their new leader’s religious background. His ethnicity again became a focus of public fixation when when his predecessor, thinking he was off the record during a taped magazine interview, slurred a gay minister and Fischer, linking a penchant for compromise to his Jewishness.
During his tenure as prime minister, Fischer was admired for aggressively pursuing extremist groups that were terrorizing the country’s largest minority, the Roma. As a result of these activities, and partly on account of his religion, Fischer’s son was put under police protection.
Still, asked about anti-Semitism in the Czech Republic, he responds, “This country has so many political problems, but anti-Semitism is not one of them.”
Although Fischer’s influence as president would be limited in a parliamentary democracy and his powers largely ceremonial, the head of state does occasionally remark on foreign policy issues. And that is where Israel comes up again in conversation.
Fischer is bluntly critical of the European Union’s sometimes muddy statements with regard to Israel. Asked if he agreed with the EU’s repeated condemnation of Israeli settlements, he said, “The voice of the European Union is sometimes strong [on this topic]. It is not the opinion of every country. The reality is that the EU hasn’t got any foreign policy. I don’t think the settlements are the greatest issue in the region. Iran is the greatest issue.”
If there is a shadow hanging over Fischer in the eyes of Czech voters, it is not his religion but his former membership in the Communist Party. Fischer says he joined under pressure to keep his job as a public employee and has publicly apologized for the decision.
“I gave in and it is nothing I am proud of,” he said.
Compared to his two larger-than-life predecessors – human rights luminary Vaclav Havel and Euroskeptic Vaclav Klaus – Fischer is distinguished largely by the fact that he is so reserved. Critics have noted his lack of charisma.
Jiri Pehe, a former adviser to Havel and now a well-known political commentator, doesn’t think that’s such a bad thing. Fischer, he says, appeals to the average citizen.
“Czechs are fed up with a presidency where a president has to be highly visible and interfere with party politics, and make speeches on issues like global warming,” Pehe said. “Maybe they want someone ordinary, someone to act as the chief notary, putting a seal on international documents.”
Rabbi Manes Barash, who runs a Chabad synagogue in Prague where Fischer occasionally prays, takes the charisma issue a step further.
“A lot of people who are crooks have charisma,” Barash joked. “Maybe it’s a good thing he doesn’t have charisma.”
On a more serious note, Barash says Fischer might be good for the country, which is among the most atheistic in the world, according to surveys.
“That he is a believer is something very special for the Czech Republic,” Barash said. “Such a secular society, it is missing here.”