Like Father, Like Son
Israel enjoys a strong relationship with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, two countries that comprise the former Czechoslovakia. To understand the root of this special relationship, let’s go back over 130 years and focus on Thomas Masaryk.
The name Masaryk may ring a bell, as streets in over half a dozen cities across Israel – including a block in Jerusalem’s German Colony – a kibbutz near Haifa, numerous town squares and even a major forest have been named in his memory.
Thomas Masaryk was a renaissance man: a sociologist, philosopher, politician and statesman. He worked tirelessly to help Czechoslovakia gain its independence after World War I and served as the country’s first president.
Masaryk was a strong friend of the Jews. Growing up exposed to many antisemitic influences, he freed himself of bigotry through positive encounters with Jews and through his studies of religion, philosophy and sociology. A classic example of Thomas Masaryk’s compassion and courage was his defense in 1899 of Leopold Hilsner, a Jew accused of ritual murder and condemned to death. Standing practically alone in the face of overwhelming public hostility, Masaryk defended Hilsner and railed against the shameful antisemitic behavior of the masses.
After the 1917 Balfour Declaration gave a major boost to the Zionist movement, and soon after his election as president, Masaryk declared that Czechoslovakia would support a Jewish homeland. Masaryk put his words into action and, in April 1927, was the first head of a democratic state to visit Palestine and meet with members of the Yishuv.
Thomas’ son Jan Masaryk had a different world view than his father, but concerning the Jews and Israel, he and his father were in full agreement. Starting before World War II, Jan lived primarily in London, first as his country’s envoy and then as the government-in-exile’s minister of foreign affairs. He was exposed to many Jews, and those relationships influenced him greatly.
For example, in September 1938, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy signed the catastrophic Munich Agreement, permitting German annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia. Adolf Hitler announced it was his last territorial claim in Europe, and Europe naively celebrated that they averted a major war. The following night, Jan Masaryk visited Chaim Weizmann, who was president of the World Zionist Organization and would later become Israel’s first president.
“I shall never forget," Masaryk recalled, “how tactfully Weizmann and his Jewish friends expressed their condolences. If I did not lose my faith in mankind at that time of my life, I owe it to this evening at the Weizmanns. That night I realized what Jewish wisdom is based on. Jews don´t think in days or months, they think in centuries, in millennia.“
Immediately after the war, Czechoslovakia, under Masaryk’s guidance, allowed thousands of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe to cross its territory on their way to Palestine. In 1947, Czechoslovakia voted in favor of the UN partition resolution recommending the establishment of a Jewish state. In addition, defying a UN embargo, Czechoslovakia provided crucial military support and also trained Israeli pilots, which was critical for Israel’s victory in its War of Independence.
Prime Minister David Ben Gurion didn’t mince words in recognizing the significance of Czechoslovakia’s assistance: “They saved our country. I don’t doubt it. The Czech weapons were the most important help that we got. They saved us, and I doubt very much that we would have survived the first month without them.”
Jan Masaryk eagerly anticipated the establishment of the State of Israel. Unfortunately, he died two weeks after the Communist Party came into power, a mere two months before Israel declared its independence. The Communist government reported that he had committed suicide, but forensic experts later determined that the cause of death was murder – which unfortunately made perfect sense, as Jan Masaryk would not kowtow to the Communist Party, whose interests were anathema to his values and beliefs.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.