The Czech Republic and Israel have shared nearly 30 years of strong ties.
Israel sees the Czech Republic as one of its closest friends, and both mutual trade and tourism are strong. Prague already is a big tourist destination for people from Israel, but they are missing out on sights outside the capital. There is room to increase Czech tourism to Israel. Next year, Israel will be hosting the Eurovision song contest, and that will offer people an incentive to visit the country. These were among the main points that Israeli Ambassador to the Czech Republic Daniel Meron made in an interview for Prague Daily Monitor.
One bit of news is that President Miloš Zeman will go on a state visit to Israel at the end of November. “We are looking forward to it; he is a great friend of Israel. He said this is one of the most important visits he will have in the second half of 2018,” Meron said. “President Zeman will be opening a Czech House in Jerusalem, which should be part of the future Czech embassy which we want to see moved to Jerusalem. So we are very excited about this,” he added.
The current close friendship between the two countries began right at the start of the Velvet Revolution, ending what Meron called a dark period that lasted through World War II and almost all of the communist era. “In 1990 Václav Havel became president he stated that friendship with Israel is a cornerstone to his presidency. The new Czechoslovakia will be very close to Israel. Since then that has really been true. And if I jump forward nearly 30 years, the Czech Republic is one of the closest friends of Israel in Europe,” Meron said.
There is a square in Jerusalem named after Havel. Across Israel there are also few places named after First Republic President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. When he was still a law professor in 1899, Masaryk helped to defend a Jewish man who was falsely accused in Bohemia in the Hilsner Affair and later, once Czechoslovakia was independent after 1918, he continued to fight Antisemitism.
While the Jewish community was devastated under the German occupation of Bohemia from 1938 to 1945, being reduced from 90,000 to 10,000 according to Ambassador Meron, there was a brief period of good relations right after the war and up until communist takeover in 1948. “There was a window of time around 1947 to 1948 when [Edvard] Beneš was the president and Jan Masaryk was foreign minister where they were supporters of the idea that Jews will have a homeland in the land of Israel,” Meron said.
There are three main areas where Czechoslovakia helped. First is in arms and ammunition as well as training. “The first pilots in the Israeli Air Force, which today is probably now one of the best air forces in the world, were young men who trained in Czechoslovakia and some of them were Czech,” he said. “This assistance was vital to success of Israel’s independence in 1948. So that is something we will never forget,” he added. The second thing was political support for the creation is Israel, including a favorable vote in the United Nations.
“And the third thing is something that history has forgotten. After the Holocaust … there were many Jewish refugees stuck in Poland. Czechoslovakia allowed them to come through here and go to Italy and from there sail to America or to Israel,” he said.
A good match for trade
Currently, trade between the two countries is boosted by the Czech side having traditional industries and the Israeli side being strong in the digital realm. “We are a good partner for the Czech Republic outside of the European Union bloc. And if you see the increase every year in Czech exports we have one of the largest growths mainly because of Škoda Auto is doing extremely well in Israel,” Meron said. “Czech industry is a very good traditional industry of machinery and now [it] is finding Israel as a good partner because we have a very good digital industry,” he said.
Škoda Auto has recently opened an innovation center in Tel Aviv and has invested in other Israeli companies working in high tech and mobility. “This is something I see is going to expand,” he added.
Another area where Israel is starting to cooperate with the Czech Republic is in the water crisis. Ambassador Meron has met with the Czech Ministry of Agriculture on what can be done about the drought, which is becoming a major issue. “We have done wonders in turning our desert in Israel into a green place, and Czechs are now asking us if we can share with them the latest technologies. That is something for future cooperation … to overcome the water crisis,” he said.
Potential to improve tourism
Prague is a leading tourism destination for Israelis. “There are more than 200,000 Israelis who come here every year, one of the most attractive destinations for Israelis in the world. Basically it is a beautiful city, very friendly people, not expensive and also it has some very interesting Jewish history,” he said.
Ambassador Meron has traveled exensively across the country in the two years he has been posted here. “Now I would like to see the Israelis going out of Prague and visiting Český Krumlov, Kutná Hora, Brno, Karlovy Vary and Plzeň. … There is a potential to increase this tourism,” he said.
There are also a number of Jewish sights outside of Prague. About 100 villages across the Czech Republic used to have Jewish communities up until the mid-1930s, and often only the cemetery survives. An initiative funded partly by the European Union has helped to restore 10 surviving synagogues in the Czech Republic. The 10 Stars, or 10 Hvězd, program gives each synagogue a different focus to explain Jewish life. One, for example, has a restored classroom. “Each of the synagogues is beautiful,” he said.
Fewer Czechs are going to Israel. “We now see 25,000 per year, and we hope that is going to increase,” he said. People will have an opportunity next year when Israel hosts the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv. “Those who come to Eurovision next year in Israel will enjoy the country. We have a great food scene especially for vegetarians and vegans, a very modern country and at the same time a biblical one with archaeological sites. I think it is going to be a great Eurovision,” he said.
He also praised the Czech entry for this past contest, Mikolas Josef, who made it into the finals. “I liked very personally the Czech song. It was different, it was special. I don’t understand why the Czech Republic hasn’t been in the top ten of Eurovision until today because they are a very talented nation in music, classical music, opera. They are terrific,” he said.
Some people find it odd that Israel is included in Eurovision, since they are not a part of the physical concept of Europe, but they have been participating since 1973 and have won four times. Australia also now participates. “We are a very European nation in our culture, in our affiliation. It is an open society. And the Arab countries surrounding us do not accept us into [competitions in] the Middle East. Our music is very Western, as are our culture and our values. We see ourselves as very much European,” he said.