In Europe, we have fancied ourselves to be living in a postmodern world where truth is a matter of narratives, where perpetrators of crimes are in fact themselves victims of abuse by the society, where right and wrong are no more than constructs in the eyes of the beholder and where good and evil do not really exist. But after the totalitarian assault by Russia against Ukraine eighteen months ago and this month’s terrorist attack by Hamas against Israeli civilians, many of whom were old people, women and babies, this dispassion is a luxury we can no longer afford.
This wave of aggression, violence and hatred in Ukraine and Israel, in both cases disguised as the defense of an oppressed people and affirmation of the true faith against infidels, is something Europe has not witnessed so far in this century. Proud of its enlightened values and democratic ways, we in our prosperous part of the world have come to believe that we are enlightened enough to encompass and reconcile all differences, all creeds, all ways of life and all ideological persuasions. We tended to ignore the quickly multiplying warning signals from within and without Europe as mere rhetoric, manifestations of free speech, or at worst, as aberrations committed by disturbed individuals expressing legitimate grievances in unhelpful ways.
This perspective, prevailing among the European political establishment, public intellectuals and glitterati, is not uniformly shared by all Europeans. In particular, among the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe with their relatively recent memories of totalitarian communist rule and, before that, of the horrors committed by Nazi Germany, the demons of the past are not ancient history but rather hosts of the undead, ready to rise from their graves at an opportune moment.
The memories, painful and glorious at the same time, of the long history of Jewish communities in Europe, their significant contributions to Europe’s economy, science, education and culture, their untold suffering through discrimination, prejudice, humiliation and pogroms, culminating in the horrors of the bloodlands and black earth of the Holocaust, in which many of Central and Eastern Europeans were also implicated, have at long last metamorphosed into an awareness of shared history, cultural affinity, guilt and solidarity with the people of the Jewish state, to which we Central Europeans were one of the godfathers. In 1947, we knew enough to support the UN-mandated partition of the British Mandate Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state, and assist it in its struggle for survival that followed.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Central and Eastern European states were quick to shed the legacy of decades of official antisemitism thinly disguised as anti-Zionism. They reestablished diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with Israel, severed after the Six Day War in 1967, to mutual benefit. The countries of Central Europe have become one of the favorite destinations of Israeli tourists, coming to revisit and learn about the Jewish past without fear of becoming the targets of snide antisemitic barbs, or worse, terrorist attacks. Czech foreign policy and diplomacy, together with those of some of its neighbors, stalwartly defended and advocated for Israel in the halls of the United Nations and EU institutions.
At the same time, Central and Eastern Europeans were equally quick to recognize, unlike their historically luckier neighbors in the West, the increasing threat of the ever more authoritarian, aggressive and irredentist leanings in Russia under the rule of a former KGB officer. Just like in the 1930s at the time of Hitler’s ascendancy, many Europeans were once again making the mistake of confusing the outlandish claims and crude fabrications of Putin’s regime with mere rhetoric and propaganda. On 24 February, 2022, Europeans suddenly woke up to witness Russia’s assault on Ukraine, just as brutal as and far more bloody than the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
It was not surprising, then, that Central Europeans were among the first to respond to the aggression some of them had been predicting for quite some time. We opened the door to hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees from Ukraine fleeing the embattled country. We provided humanitarian help, medicines and supplies to the Ukrainian towns along the front several thousand kilometers long. We emptied our military stores and provided military assistance to the Ukrainian army at that crucial moment, just like Czechoslovakia did for Israel in the War of Independence in 1948.
The Czech Prime Minister, along with the Prime Minister of Poland and the President of Slovenia were the first foreign officials to visit Kyiv when it was still within range of the attacking Russian armored columns. Along with our American and British allies, we succeeded in alerting the rest of Europe to the existential threat not just to Ukraine but to the international order and the values of freedom in all countries and forge a united front of assistance to Ukraine, international sanctions and moral condemnation to thwart the Russian aggression, a front which has lasted and buttressed the Ukrainian struggle until now.
It is in this context that one needs to understand the wave of revulsion at the Hamas terrorist assault and the outpouring of sympathy and support for Israel that has emanated from Prague and Central Europe in the aftermath of the October 7 attack.
Czech politicians, starting with President Petr Pavel and Prime Minister Petr Fiala were quick and unequivocal in condemning the slaughter of mothers, children and old people as well as in the unqualified recognition of the right of Israel to defend itself and to pursue and punish the perpetrators.
Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský became the first European official to visit Jerusalem and express support for and solidarity with Israel in his meetings with President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen. He empathized with the victims of the terrorist abomination in meeting Adva, the granddaughter of the 85-year old Yaffe Advar of Kibbutz Nir Oz who had been kidnapped by the Hamas terrorists and dragged to Gaza. The Foreign Minister not only helped evacuate dozens of Czech citizens from Israel on his flight back to Prague on a government plane, but helped organize, in coordination with the Czech Air Force, an air bridge between Prague and Ben Gurion Airport, which brought back several hundreds of Czech citizens and provided transport for the Israeli citizens who were left stranded in the Czech Republic and needed to rejoin their families or join the mobilization of the IDF in Israel.
In allying with Israel, we are standing up for the same values of freedom and humanity that have informed our restoration of democracy in 1989, our successful integration in the community of democracies, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, and our principled condemnation of the attack against the international system and the sovereignty and integrity of states guaranteed by the UN Charter waged by Russia against Ukraine. In siding with Israel, we express our total rejection of targeted terrorist attacks against civilians as attacks against humanity itself, which cannot be explained, justified or defended by claims of self-determination, revenge for wrongs, real or imagined, or alleged divine mandate.
Our conflict is not with the Palestinians, who deserve a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness just like any other people. For several decades now, we have supported the Palestinian people with humanitarian and economic aid and recognized their legitimate claims to independence and self-governance.
Unlike other countries, we can safely proclaim that our bilateral assistance has never filtered through to end up in the hands of Hamas terrorists. In spite of all the setbacks and disappointments for the Palestinians, many though not all of their own making, we never gave up hope of seeing Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace. In this, we were much encouraged by the recent changes in the region towards greater understanding and better coexistence, including the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab countries, and hoped they will expand soon to include some of the most important Arab states.
The blow struck by Hamas against the heart of all Jewish people has equally been a blow against those hopes and against the aspirations of the Palestinian people and all people in the region. Those who celebrate Hamas “victory” in the streets of some countries of the Middle East, Europe and America are tragically ignorant of the fact that they are celebrating their own failure, the failure to remain human.