By: Lauren Sloan
Even with the horrific scenes of the Holocaust still fresh in many European’s memories, hateful attacks against the Jews continue to take place across the region. Between the fatal shootings in Belgium and the deadly attacks in France, the safety of European Jews seems to be in danger once again.
But the situation in Czech Republic is different, says Rabbi Barash, director of Chabad Maharal Center in Prague.
“This is a place where Jews feel safe—and we’re very lucky.”
International headlines warn of soaring anti-Semitism rates in the Czech Republic. Despite such claims, however, the rabbi says Czech Jews feel an overwhelming sense of acceptance and security within the country’s borders.
Though the Annual Report on Anti-Semitism indicates more than a 200 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents within the past year, numbers of actual offenses remain scarce. Thirty-seven cases including anti-Semitic, letters, messages and verbal attacks were reported in 2014, according to the annual account, an increase from the nine cases in the previous year.
“The numbers are very, very low,” said Tomas Kraus, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic. “In this country, we don’t feel it at all.”
Rabbi Barash agrees. He has lived in Prague for more than twenty years, running his business and raising his seven children without even a passing glare.
“You can go out with the star of David,” Barash said. “You don’t have to hide it.”
The Czechs are tolerant, liberal, and most importantly, atheist, the rabbi explains. With a lack of religious citizens, the country is able to create a more accepting environment and harmonious community. This atheist society is what the rabbi attributes to the Czech Republic’s low number of anti-Semitic offenses.
“Wherever there are more religious church goers” Barash said, “They still have that old-fashion anti-Semitism.” But “the Czechs,” he reassures, “are very liberal people, they are not religious people and they just want to live peacefully.”
The low numbers may also come from the long history of Jewish residents within the country. Prague’s vibrant and well-preserved Jewish Quarter is something the Czechs are actually quite proud of according to the rabbi. With so many generations of assimilation, the rabbi says Jewish blood is present in many Czech families as well.
“The Jews are well established here,” said Pavel Sládek, an assistant professor at the Institute of Near Eastern and African Studies at Charles University in Prague. “They blend in and do not cause trouble, so they are not bothered or the target for hatred or attacks.”
Instead, many believe the intolerance is shifting to other minorities such as the Roma, who are seen as different and therefore become victims to hatred and intolerance.
“I think that the anti-Tsiganism serves as a channel for xenophobia,” Sladek said. “And if the number of anti-Jewish acts is rather low, the level of hatred toward the ‘other’ can be in reality much higher.”
Czech Republic President Milos Zenman’s support for Israel in his speech at Terezin concentration camp and his appearance at AIPAIC could be another contributing factor to the overall low levels of anti-Semitism in the country.
“There is much sympathy for Israel because this is a small nation surrounded by big neighbors fighting for survival, exactly the same as the Czechs,” Kraus said.
Kraus is not alone. Rabbi Barash agrees, stating that the Czech Republic has a long, good history with Israel. He notes the Czech’s great support for the little middle eastern country, and uses Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words when calling the two countries “best friends.”
Despite the tolerance towards Israel and the Jews, numbers in the Czech Republic still point to an increase in intolerant acts. One such explanation according to a recent article from the Jewish Telegraph Agency, can be attributed to the events in Israeli-Palestinian conflict in summer 2014. Reports indicate that incidents of anti-Semitism found online rose from 156 offenses to 191, a 20 percent increase from last year.
“We did a report about 2014, which was released two weeks ago, showing that there is of course an increase, in percentage,” Kraus said. “If you look at that, it would be a disaster,” he warns when looking at the report’s numbers.
With only one physical attack reported in 2014 and five incidents of property damage, the incredibly high statistics are simply because numbers were so low in the first place.
With only 5,000 Jews in Prague, according to the rabbi, the statistics naturally rise and fall dramatically. The skyrocketing increase fails to mirror the safety the Jewish people feel here in the city’s capital.
“Anti-Semitism in this country, even according to statistics, is absolutely lowest all over Europe,” Kraus said.
Anti-Semitism in the Czech Republic is not something Jews are worried about. It is other European countries, and threats from abroad, that worries them, says the rabbi. Not anti-Semitism.
“An anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jew more than the Jew should be hated. That’s what they used to say in the shtetl,” Barash explained.
“But the Czechs,” he said with a smile, “they love us more than we should be loved.”
**My other article from Prague highlights Czech culture, traditional Czech food and famous landmarks in the country’s capital. Read the full story here.