Despite reports, Jews feel safe in the Czech Republic

Orthodox Jews perform in the streets of Prague
Orthodox Jews perform in the streets of Prague

The monuments  to the horrors of the Holocaust across Europe remind people of a time when to be a Jew was death sentence. Today, in the Czech Republic, Rabbi Barash, director of Chabad Maharal Center in Prague, says it’s a different world.

“This is a place where Jews feel safe—and we’re very lucky.”

Though the Annual Report on Anti-Semitism states more than a 200 percent spike in anti-Semitic incidents across Europe within the past year, that number represents an actual increase from nine to 37 reported offenses. Those cases included anti-Semitic letters, messages and verbal attacks.

“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 20 years, running his business and raising his seven children without even a passing glance.

“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, according to the rabbi, atheist. 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, they still have that old-fashioned anti-Semitism,” Barash said. But “the Czechs 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 living in the country. Czechs are proud of Prague’s vibrant and well-preserved Jewish Quarter, the rabbi says. With many generations of assimilation,  Jewish blood is present in many Czech families as well, he says.

“The Jews are well established here,” said Pavel Sládek, an assistant professor at the Institute of Near Eastern and African Studies at Charles University. “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 victims of hatred and intolerance.

“I think that the anti-Tsiganism [anti-Roma] 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 during a May 2015 speech at Terezin concentration camp 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.

Barash agrees, stating that the Czech Republic has a long, good history with Israel. He notes the Czech Republic’s support for the middle eastern country and uses Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words when calling the two countries “best friends.”

Despite the tolerance toward the Jewish community, 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 events that occurred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the summer of 2014. Reports indicate that incidents of anti-Semitism found online rose from 191 offenses to 156, 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 said when looking at the report’s numbers.

With only one physical attack reported in 2014 and five incidents of property damage, the dramatic percentage increase is because numbers were so low in the first place, he said.

With only 5,000 Jews in Prague, according to the rabbi, the statistics naturally rise and fall dramatically.

“Anti-Semitism in this country, even according to statistics, is absolutely lowest all over Europe,” Kraus said. Other European countries and threats from abroad, Barash said, worry them, 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.”