Refusing to admit that the students it was clubbing and arresting in winter 1968 were demanding freedom, Poland’s communist leaders offered a convenient excuse: the protesters who unsettled campuses from Warsaw and Gdansk to Cracow were agitated by “international Zionism.”
Israelis laughed, but the absurd statement was actually part of something larger that was not laughable at all. Central Europe was fiercely anti-Israeli, feeding on a past of Jewish sorrow and a present of political decay.
The past was about what happened to the millions of Jews who had been part of Poland and its neighbors for a thousand years. The present was about a communist-ruled region beset by the previous year’s Six Days War, in which the USSR’s Arab allies were routed, and Soviet-made rams were crushed.
The Soviet order to Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to sever diplomatic ties with Israel, came naturally to the three’s communist establishments.
It had been less than 15 years since Czechoslovakia hanged its Jewish leader, Rudolph Slansky, after charging him and another 13 people, 11 of them Jews, with plotting a “Zionist conspiracy.” Picking up from where the Czechs left off, Poland expelled thousands of Jews in 1968. The Hungarian regime, meanwhile, asked any Israeli tourist seeking a visa to first make a payment for the PLO. All, in the meantime, had their propaganda machines roundly demonize Israel.
However, dissidents down in the field – from literati like Vaclav Havel and proletarians like Lech Walesa to clergy like John Paul II – saw in Israel a paragon of anti-Soviet defiance. And so, once the Soviet Union crumbled Central European leaders paraded to Jerusalem where they established full and vibrant ties with the Jewish state.
That was then. Now the region that yesterday resented Moscow feels harassed by Brussels. It is a dynamic that is steadily making Israel and Central Europe strategic allies.
CENTRAL EUROPEAN leaders sought harmony among them already in 1335, when the kings of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland signed a trade agreement in the castle of Visegrad overlooking the Danube.
That spirit was revived in 1991, when the leaders of Hungary, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia met in the same castle to jointly promote their region’s defection from the crumbling East Bloc to the prospering European Community (later renamed the European Union.) At stake was Central Europe’s resolve to adopt the political and economic freedom which Brussels promised and Moscow forbade.
The following decade that effort was crowned a success, as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – the so-called Visegrad Group – joined the European Union. This decade, however, the four’s agenda has sharply transformed.
As civil wars swept the Arab world, sending thousands of illegal migrants to European shores, Central Europe’s shared sense of promise made way for a shared sense of threat.
Wedged between the Russians and Germans who alternately dominated Central Europe, the feeling of menace has been part of life in the region that is tucked between the Baltics in the north and the Balkans in the south. Now Central Europeans returned to feel they face a common threat, this time by an immigration they didn’t want but which Brussels was determined to impose on them.
This context redefined Israel’s relevance for Central Europe.
JERUSALEM has no stance concerning Europe’s immigration dilemma, other than that it shares its humanitarian concern, and thus offers food and medical treatment to the Syrian war’s victims. Israelis do, however, have a stance concerning the utopianism that feeds Europe’s immigration policy. They think it can be reckless.
Like the Central Europeans, Israelis also feel that Brussels can be naïve, patronizing, and overbearing.
Israelis feel that their failed peace deal with Yasser Arafat was inspired by the wishful thinking of the European statesmen who, following their Venice Declaration of 1980, repeatedly promised Israel that a Palestinian state will be democratic, secular and de-militarized. When Israel signed the Oslo Accords, it was largely thanks to this ongoing European preaching.
Since then, however, Israelis learned that Brussels’ promises were unfounded. Twenty-two years after the Palestinian Authority’s establishment, autocracy is the political norm, violence is a cultural ideal, and fundamentalism is a daily battle cry.
Even so, Brussels admits none of this and continues to insist the Palestinians want peace, and that its absence is Israel’s fault.
Wearing the same straight face and sporting the same aloof mindset, Brussels is now telling Central Europeans that it knows better than them what they should do about their future in general, and their borders in particular.
It was disastrous advice for Israel, and would likely have been the same for Central Europe, had its leaders not been alert and assertive enough to resist the immigration quotas that Brussels thought it would impose on them.
This is the context in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Visegrad Group’s leaders in Budapest last week that “Europe has to decide if it wants to live and thrive, or if it wants to shrivel and disappear.”
Considering the Middle East’s new, dramatic impact on Europe, the EU’s response to it, and Israel’s role in developing and supplying Central Europe’s security forces – Central Europe now has common cause with Israel. In fact, the Visegrad Group is set to become a pivot of Israeli diplomacy – as a counterweight to a domineering EU, a sober critic of its post-national nihilism, and a source of ironic thoughts for both anti-Semite and Jew.