Czechs mark 25 years of renewed Israel ties

Julie Wiener

(JTA) — The 25th anniversary of re-establishing diplomatic relations between the nation now known as the Czech Republic and Israel was marked in Prague.

On Tuesday, former and current Czech, Slovak and Israeli diplomats, Czech Jewish community leaders and several dozen other guests participated in a conference titled “Journey to Israel” held by the Vaclav Havel Library and the Israeli Embassy in the Czech capital.

In April 1990, Havel became the first Czechoslovak president to visit the State of Israel.

“The visit was a fantastic milestone in the relations of our two nations and marked the liberation of this part of Europe from communism,” said Yoel Sher, Israel’s first ambassador to Czechoslovakia after 1989.

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The current Israeli envoy to Prague, Gary Koren, told the conference that a street in Jerusalem will soon be named after Havel in recognition of his legacy.

Czechoslovakia provided significant military aid to the newly formed Jewish state in 1948. But less than two decades later, the country, like other Soviet satellites, severed its ties with Israel in a reaction to the Six-Day War.

Havel’s 1990 trip to Israel was part of a flurry of diplomatic activity that included a visit to the United States in February of that year, as well as visits to Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union.

“At that time, we thought we were top of the world, and we thought we could come up with a solution to the entire Middle Eastern conflict. That’s something we yet need to work on,” said Michael Zantovsky, a former Havel adviser who has penned a biography of the late Czech leader that has been acclaimed.

Havel and his delegation arrived in Israel on two airplanes. One carried some 150 members of Czechoslovakia’s Jewish community, many of them Holocaust survivors who had relatives in Israel. Among them was Michaela Vidlakova.

“As the plane was approaching Tel Aviv, everybody was crying,” Vidlakova, now 79, recalled. “Most of us had never been to Israel before and it was a very emotional and strong experience.”