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Why We Can Walk Without Fear in Prague

He’s the most visible Jew in Prague. And yet, Rabbi Manis Barash, a bearded, black-hatted Hasid who’s been the Chabad rabbi here for 20 years, has never experienced an anti-Semitic incident.

By contrast, his Chabad colleague, Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, the most visible Jew in Malmo, Sweden, has been called the most persecuted Jew in Europe.

While Barash feels welcome as he walks the streets of Prague, Kesselman has endured repeated physical attacks. That, in fact, is an experience reported frequently by European Jews who dare to appear as visibly Jewish in public places: for instance, by wearing a yarmulke. Jews have been murdered for being Jews in Toulouse, France; Brussels; Paris, and Copenhagen.

How to explain the dramatic difference between the experiences of the Chabad rabbis in Prague and in Malmo?

Martyrs Rememberers: Jews gather in Prague's Pinkas Synagogue on March 8 for the community's annual memorial for 4,000 Czech Jews killed in Birkenau in 1944. Image by Matej Stransky

According to the Anti-Defamation League’s global survey of 100 nations that was published last year, only 13% of citizens in the Czech Republic harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. That is one of the lowest rates in Europe. But at 4%, Sweden scores even lower, indeed the lowest of all. Also scoring lower than the Czech Republic are the Netherlands (5%), the United Kingdom (8%) and Denmark (9%). Yet, in all these low-scoring countries, it’s often dangerous to be visible as a Jew.

One possible explanation is that all these low-scoring countries except the Czech Republic have large immigrant Muslim populations whose attitudes are not accounted for in the European surveys. These Muslim attitudes are better reflected in the surveys of the Middle East and North Africa, from where many of the Muslim immigrants to Europe come, and where anti-Semitic attitudes are at 74%.

But the relative absence of Muslims in the Czech Republic, while a factor, is not sufficient to explain the Jewish experience in the Czech Republic.

Consider the country’s neighbors. As measured by the ADL survey, the prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes in those countries are Poland, 45%; Hungary, 41%, and Ukraine, 38%. These countries also have no significant Muslim populations. But Jews who wear yarmulkes on their streets, or who are otherwise identifiable as Jews, still invite public expressions of anti-Semitism, if not worse.

In contrast, a 2010 survey by the respected Czech Factum Invenio poll found that 68% of Czechs say they like Jews, and 70% see Jewish culture as a positive force in Czech society.

Marcela Zoufala at the Prague Center for Jewish Studies at Charles University cited the 2013 candidacy of Jan Fischer, an openly Jewish candidate for the presidency, as a concrete example of the country’s philo-Semitism. Fischer, who served as an interim prime minister earlier in his career, finished third, winning more than 800,000 votes as an independent.

“Anti-Semitism is not a part of our agenda,” said Jiri Dienstbier, the republic’s minister for human rights and equal opportunities, during an interview in Prague. “Jews are considered Czechs. Jews are absolutely integrated in the country.”

This insistence on integration may have a dark side. The minority that’s least integrated into Czech society are the Roma, an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 out of a total Czech population of 10.5 million. The challenge of integrating this group occupies most of his time, Dienstbier said. He said also that the Czech Republic would not yield to European Union pressure to absorb large numbers of Muslim refugees now fleeing countries in the Middle East. The Czech Republic has rejected the E.U.’s quotas.

“We will accept only such numbers as we are able to integrate,” Dienstbier said.

Strains of xenophobia underscore this hard line on integration in parts of Czech society. There’s a “We Don’t Want Islam in the Czech Republic” movement with organized and well-attended demonstrations.

“Czechs are absolutely intolerant of the Roma and Muslims,” said Ivan Gabal, a sociologist and Christian Democratic parliament member who served as a top aide to the late president Vaclav Havel.

But this same impulse also serves the goal of maintaining a cohesive, homogeneous society in a small and historically beleaguered country. There’s prejudice toward those who are different, but the Jews, small in number and highly assimilated, are not perceived as such.

According to Jan Fingerland, a prominent journalist and frequent commentator on Jewish history and life in his country, the invisibility of Czech Jews is both physical and cultural. “It’s hard to find an identifiable Jew here,” he said. And this is key to Czechs’ acceptance of them. If Hasidic Jews who looked like Barash were common on Prague’s streets, his experience might be a less welcoming one.

This deep assimilation goes back generations, pre-dating World War II. According to records from the Jewish Community in Prague, the rate of intermarriage in the 1930s was as high as 40%.

“Many did not know they were Jewish until Hitler came, and he told them they were Jewish,” said Jan Munk, director of the Terezin Memorial and chairman of Prague’s Jewish community.

In 1938, just before World War II, the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia, which constitutes today’s Czech Republic, was 118,320, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 26,000 Jews were able to emigrate before 1941. More than 70,000 from this region were murdered in the Holocaust.

Today there are about 3,000 listed as members of the Federation in Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, with about 1,700 of these in the Prague Jewish Community. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and reflects another way that Jews are invisible here. Membership in the Prague Jewish Community is restricted by Halacha, or traditional Jewish religious law, to those with a Jewish mother or those who undergo an Orthodox conversion. But many Czechs identify as Jews who do not meet this halachic standard. If these individuals with Jewish ancestry are taken into account, the number for the entire Czech Republic could be as high as 20,000, with half of them in Prague, said Thomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic. Kraus stressed that this was his personal speculation. There are no reliable data.

Kraus acknowledged that the community’s outreach activities to this larger population were inadequate. And according to Fingerland, “Most of the members, and generally most of the Czech Jews, are nonbelievers or agnostics and do not care about Halacha whatsoever, including the top representatives.”

But the chief rabbi of Prague, David Peter, dismisses critics who say the Prague Jewish Community must become more open and representative of the larger community that includes non-halachic Jews. “Even if they feel Jewish, they are not Jewish; this is the Halacha,” Peter said. “If they feel they want to be Jewish, they can do something about it. They can convert. Jewish is about doing something.”

Walking While Jewish: Chabad rabbi Manis Barash strolls the streets of Prague's Old Town with no fear of harassment. A Prague resident for more than 20 years, he has never experienced an incident. Image by Matej Stransky

Under a compromise reached in the 1990s, the community did agree to offer “special status” membership to individuals who meet the same criterion as Israel’s Law of Return, which recognizes as Jews those with one Jewish grandparent, the definition used by Hitler. But those admitted under this status have no voting rights in the community and are denied religious recognition. Only about 100 Czechs took up the offer.

Other small, informal communities of Jews exist, including Reform groups. But their numbers are insignificant. And the government recognizes only the Prague Jewish Community for the purpose of compensating it for properties lost as a result of the Holocaust and expropriations under Communism.

In 2011, at the request of Prague Jewish Community, Gabal conducted a survey of Czechs who identify as Jewish both within and outside the official community. Overwhelmingly, respondents said they were more concerned about community needs than religious needs.

“Many members of the community said it should be open to non-Jews to bring it closer to our history and place here than those who saw it strictly as a religious community,” he said.

Peter said this simply showed that “Jewish people here do not know what it means to be Jewish. My biggest challenge is to get them involved, to know how to live a Jewish life.”

The pronounced secularism of Czech Jews, however, is part of their integration into Czech life. A 2010 study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found the Czech Republic to be the most secular, least religious country in the world. The study found that more than three-quarters of the population did not identify with any religion, and only 23.3% claimed Christian identification.

This, too, may offer a clue about the country’s welcoming attitudes toward Jews compared with those of its neighbors. Despite the long decades of state-sponsored atheism they all experienced under Communism, in Hungary, 81% of the population identifies as Christian; in Poland, 94.3%, and in Ukraine, 83.8%.

“We are in a completely different culture,” Czech Cardinal Dominik Duka said during an interview in the Archbishop’s Palace, which overlooks the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral towering over Prague. Asked about the traditional Catholic anti-Semitism that organizations like Radio Maria in neighboring Poland promote, the prelate stressed that nothing like this exists in the Czech Republic. “Jewish culture is an integral part of Czech society,” he said.

Old and Empty: Prague's Old-New Synagogue, built in the 13th Century, reflects the long presence of Jews in the Czech Republic/ Bit services today are often sparsely attended by a Prague Jewish community that is overwhelmingly secular. Image by Matej Stransky

The suppression of religion in the Communist era had an impact on Czech Jews that cannot be underestimated. Following the Holocaust, survivors, already reluctant to talk about their experience or to impart a Jewish identity to their children, became part of a society in which all religion was suppressed.

It was imprudent to identify as a Jew in the Communist bloc, and later with the ascendance of an anti-Israel, anti-Zionist ideology, it was dangerous. The Czech Republic was found to be the most secular, least religious country in the world. And so are its Jews.

Martin Smok, a documentary filmmaker and senior consultant to the Shoah Foundation who was born in 1971, related that when he was about 9 he happened to go through his grandmother’s papers and found her birth certificate written with strange letters. When he asked her about the letters, she told him they were Hebrew.

“We are Jews. Don’t tell anyone. They will come and get you,” he was told.

Smok said that he had been taught in school about the evils of Zionists and about how badly the Jews treat the Palestinians. And now he learned that he was Jewish.

“I cried all night because I knew that Jews were bad, and I didn’t want to be one of them,” he said.

The fall of Communism in 1989 allowed Smok, like many other Czech Jews, to freely embrace his Jewishness. “I have been everything. A Reform Jew, Zionist, quite frum,” he said, using the Yiddish word for traditionally observant. Today, he said, he doesn’t need labels to define him: “I am a Czech Jew, whatever that means.”

Petra Koutska Schwarzova, born in 1987, just before the fall of Communism, works for the Jewish community as a security analyst but is not a member of the Prague Jewish Community and has no interest in joining. She would be eligible to join only as a special status member. She is among those who believe that the Prague Jewish Community should be more open.

“Many young people are repelled by the Jewish Community,” she said, calling it too rigid, too old and too Orthodox.

Schwarzova’s paternal great-grandfather and paternal grandfather were deported to Terezin and Auschwitz. Her grandfather survived. Her paternal grandmother, hidden by a non-Jewish family, was also a Holocaust survivor.

Schwarzova’s maternal grandfather was also Jewish, but not her maternal grandmother.

Asked about the prospects for Jewish communal survival in this situation, Fingerland, who is a halachic Jew but has no interest in joining the Jewish community, pointed hopefully to the Lauder School of Prague as a guide for the future. Although started by the Prague Jewish Community in 1997 — with financial support from the American philanthropist Ronald Lauder — the school is nondenominational and nonreligious. It is a state school with a state curriculum that incorporates Jewish studies and Hebrew. The student body consists of 250 students from kindergarten through high school.

According to a published guide to the Lauder Schools, it is “open to all children of Jewish origin, and all who respect Jewish educational, cultural and ethical traditions and values.” “It’s important to serve the population,” said Teresa Gafna Vanova, the school’s deputy director and teacher of Judaism. Gafna Vanova noted the assimilated and intermarried nature of the Czech Jewish population.

“We teach Jewish studies with the weight of religious precepts, but [accept] that there are many different approaches to Judaism,” she said.

Gafna Vanova, born in 1979, grew up in a Jewish family thinking she was Jewish, only to learn later that she is not Jewish because her mother is not. “My story is a very typical one,” she said. She eventually converted to Judaism in what she referred to as a rather demeaning process, and now considers herself “liberal Orthodox.”

The Lauder School engenders a strong Jewish identity in students who may someday be confronted with their status as non-halachic Jews, Gafna Vanova said. But she defends the school’s open, positive approach to Jewish studies and Jewish identity.

“When one of the rabbis who is not here anymore insisted that the kindergarten should only be for halachic Jews, I said no, because these children have a Jewish parent and they have a Jewish soul, and we have to take care of it,” she said.

Contact Don Snyder at [email protected]


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