Struggling for Relevance? Academia and Public Debate on Israel/Palestine in the Czech Republic

Jakub Zahora, University of New York in Prague; Jakub Kolacek, Charles University; Tereza Plistilova, Charles University

 

In early February, a group of Czech public figures and intellectuals issued an open letter criticizing the government’s position and policies regarding the Gaza war.[1] Highlighting the disregard for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza and breaches of international law by the Israeli forces, the letter called on the Czech government to actively seek humanitarian relief for Palestinians and a just political solution for Israel/Palestine at large. The document can be read as a culmination of a built-up frustration with Czech foreign policy and mainstream public debate towards the war in the wake of the Hamas attack. While Czechs vocally expressed their sympathy and support for the Israeli victims of the October 7 massacre, the ensuing Israeli onslaught on Gaza and the unprecedented scale of the Palestinian human loss and destruction were repeatedly relativized and belittled.

Several of the letter’s authors and dozens of its signatories (including all three authors of the present piece) were working at Czech universities. As such, this initiative marked one of the most visible manifestations of Czech academia’s growing discontent with the public discourse and policies regarding Israel/Palestine. As we discuss below, the Czech debate as well as the international position are not only highly skewed in the pro-Israeli direction, but they are often characterized by Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, and disregard for the Palestinian plight. This is in contrast with the academic field which has over the last two decades produced nuanced and critical voices capable of both deconstructing the dominant discourse and providing an alternative perspective on Middle East politics. The scholarly expertise, however, has been largely sidelined in media, public discussions, and policy-making.

Drawing on the symbolic watershed of the open letter criticizing the Czech foreign policy, in what follows we ask whether the current crisis and unprecedented disaster in Gaza could mark a possible shift in academics’ attitudes towards their public engagement with the topic of Israel/Palestine. While the events in the region and the intensity of the pro-Israeli leaning of the Czech discourse caught local academics by surprise, over the following months there have been shifts towards a greater willingness to confront the ideologically charged environment. At the same time, it should be added that so far, academics who have voiced critique of Israeli policies have not faced professional repercussions and backlash similar to what we have seen in Germany, the US and other countries, a reality which arguably has facilitated bolder public engagement. More generally, this case prompts broader reflections on the relevance of academic expertise in the public domain and the challenges it faces.

The Czech public and political discourse on Israel and Palestine

The developments following October 7 can only be fully appreciated by attending to the longer history of the Czech political elites’ position towards Israel and Palestine. Historically, Czech(oslovak) policies were significantly shaped by geopolitical influences, aligning with the dominant orientation within Central and Eastern Europe. Prior to 1989, the Czech stance was unequivocally pro-Palestine, determined by the coerced geopolitical partnership with the Soviet Union. In turn, the post-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia adopted a discernible shift towards a pro-Israel leaning, a move that was seen as an integral part of the new pro-Western, Transatlantic orientation. Today, the Czech Republic is considered one of the staunchest supporters of Israel within the European Union[2], a stance consistently showcased in international forums such as the United Nations. The Czech Republic nearly at all times votes in line with Israeli interests, most recently against the humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.[3] Domestic political developments, such as changing left-wing and right-wing governments, have had a minimal impact on the Czech position towards Israel/Palestine.

The unwavering support for Israel extends beyond political elites and permeates the media discourse with implications for public opinion. Despite recent studies revealing a gap between Czech politicians and public attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict[4], the public maintains predominantly uncontested pro-Israeli views compared to other nations. As opposed to Germany, this seems to be rooted not in the legacies of the Holocaust (as Czechs have never fully acknowledged the historical responsibility for partaking in the mass murder of their Jewish and Roma fellow citizens during WWII) but rather in the myth of the shared fate of small besieged nations facing overwhelming adversaries, as well as historically positive attitudes towards the Jewish minority in Czechoslovakia in the interwar period which have been translated into support for the self-proclaimed “Jewish state” after 1989.[5] The resonance of the widespread pro-Israeli discourse may be further explained by the lack of civil society organizations representing Palestinian interests. Initiatives such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement are nearly non-existent and unfamiliar to the wider Czech audience. Topics regularly discussed in Western countries, such as the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, expansion of the illegal settlements in the West Bank, or concerns about the ongoing shift of Israeli politics towards the right, exemplified by the current government’s extreme make-up, remain marginal in Czech public debate and largely unnoticed by Czech political elites. Many Czech politicians are not hesitant to call the mutual relations with Israel “special” and even “strategic.”[6] In the mainstream political discourse, Israel is seen as the island of stability and democracy in an otherwise hostile environment of Arab nations. Former Czech president Miloš Zeman, who held the presidential office from 2010-2023, significantly contributed to this narrative with rhetoric often tainted by anti-Arab and Islamophobic statements[7].

These prevailing attitudes underpinned Czech responses to the October 7 events and the Israeli assault on Gaza. The Czech foreign minister’s prompt visit to Israel after the Hamas attack, followed by visits of other key state representatives, and accompanied by statements of uncritical support for the Israeli actions, are both a continuation and demonstration of this special alignment.  From the outset, the political posture adopted by the Czech government was almost fully endorsed and reproduced by the reaction of the public as well as private media. Public voices presented by most mainstream media reacted with a chorus of not just condemnations of Hamas’ attack but also, frequently, endorsements of harsh Israeli response. Media reactions spanned from liberal-Zionist perspectives, emphasizing the threat posed by Hamas to the Israeli’s security and the state’s right to self-defense, to openly racist rhetoric equating all Palestinians with Hamas and evoking Orientalist tropes of murderous Arabs. Concerns over the humanitarian consequences or the overall fate of Palestinians were notably absent,  persisting even after months of the Israeli operation in Gaza, which resulted in massive destruction and drew international condemnation elsewhere.

Czech academia and the question of Israel/Palestine

Like most other Central and Eastern-European countries, Czechia possesses a relatively long history of specialized study of the region (formerly under the rubric of Oriental studies), reaching as far back as the 19th century. Sustained for the reasons of trade, translation, training of diplomatic staff, or out of purely academic interest, this expertise, however, rarely effectively determined or intervened in the official state policy. This is a part of a bigger issue of disconnection between academic knowledge and policy-making in the Czech context, as there is not a sustained tradition of academics being involved in shaping foreign policy.

The October 7 attack and the subsequent war in Gaza thus found Czech academics in a situation in which there has been little to no experience with public and political engagement. Experts in the Middle East have only rarely sought to influence Czech foreign policy towards the conflict (or the region at large) or to utilize their academic capital to intervene in the public discourse. Nor was there demand for their services: neither politicians nor the majority of the media sought a wider variety of expert voices or a nuanced analysis once the new round of violence erupted, relying instead on a rather small number of scholars who for the most part did not deviate from the mainstream discourse. Media space valorized a plethora of non-expert voices, many of whom rarely displayed focused interest (if any at all) in the region before, i.e. journalists, commentators, writers, or public intellectuals of different expertise. In addition, media and public debates featured a small number of known pro-Israel experts and observers who continued legitimizing Israeli actions even in the face of mounting international critique of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza.

The public and media space thus took a particularly articulated ideological shape in which siding with Israel was largely established as a “non-questionable common sense”. As even hints of a critique of the Israeli policy (such as calling a cease-fire) were often attacked and denounced, academics with more complex perspectives whose ideological positions did not align with the dominant discourse faced a rather hostile environment. Under these conditions, expertise and knowledge of the region were deemed largely irrelevant in the mainstream discourse.

Nonetheless, the extremely one-sided Czech foreign policy, and the increasingly grave impact of the Israeli war on Gaza’s population, started to generate critique of both the Czech steps in the international arena and the Israeli campaign. The growing discontent was not limited to academic voices, as it gradually found its way into the public sphere in the form of critical opinions coming from journalists and other public figures.[8] At the same time, it needs to be noted that any organized pro-Palestinian movement remains limited in terms of membership and activation of the public: for example, the biggest demonstration in support of the Palestinians so far attracted no more than five hundred people. Czech scholars contributed to these debates by providing long-term historical context of the conflict and emphasizing different collective memories of the global North and global South.[9] They have also attended to the dynamics of (de)colonization – a prism that remains largely at the margins of Czech debate and is only slowly finding its way into public discourse[10] – showing how it shifts our understanding of power hierarchies and political dynamics in Israel/Palestine.

More generally, criticism coming from Czech academics and others echoed the global arguments against the Israeli operation. From the early warning that the Hamas attack may invite an Israeli reaction too harsh by any reasonable measures[11], the discontent became more urgent with the mounting material and human cost of the ground Israeli invasion. This prompted questions about the moral and legal justification of this cost in terms of proportionality and unconditional humanitarian obligations[12]. A set of pragmatic concerns has also been articulated, such as harm to the long-term credibility of the Czech foreign policy, the risk of the spread of the war throughout the region with further negative international repercussions, and the likely negative implications of the Israeli destruction of Gaza for the long-term interests of the Israeli state itself.[13] At the same time, the critique offered by Czech academics has also shown restraint in some respects compared to many of their Western European and American counterparts, most notably in refraining from the gravest accusations of Israel committing genocide and apartheid against the Palestinians.

Critical arguments regarding the war in Gaza, pursued by academics as well as a few other commentators, grew at first largely at the margins of the media and public space.[14] In the mainstream media, the critical expert voices remained not only comparatively underrepresented but, perhaps even more significantly, when they were occasionally aired they were not taken up as an impetus for a genuine debate and contestation of the official state positions. Thus, even if critical arguments and dissenting opinions were voiced and broadcasted, most journalists and commentators would not take them seriously into account nor draw on them in their further coverage of the conflict. The critique was not utilized to press the politicians on crucial issues or to question the prevailing partisan opinion giving a blank check to Israel and its policies.

Becoming more vocal

Eventually, this inability to shape or influence the Czech state policies and the one-sided public debate, along with a strong moral appeal, should be seen as a key motivation for issuing the open letter calling for the change of these policies, as well as a reason for many others to sign it. Publishing the letter as a public petition which gathered thousands of signatures meant that the initiative could not be ignored as easily by the media and politicians as the individual voices. This can be exemplified by the reaction of a former diplomat and presidential candidate and currently an MP aligned with the ruling liberal coalition who responded with a proposal (the first of its kind) to organize a delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.[15] A few state officials have also met with the initiators of the letter. Incidentally or not, shortly in the wake of the publishing of the letter the Czech government abandoned some of its most extreme policies, such as the blocking of the EU consensus on demanding a ceasefire and sanctioning extremist Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Significantly, the letter also succeeded in eliciting media reaction and at least partly disrupting the atmosphere of consensus within the public sphere. The majority of responses have been rather polemical and defensive of the pro-Israeli stance and, unsurprisingly, did not stay short of attempts to smear authors and signatories with the slur of antisemitism.[16]

Regardless of its immediate impacts on the public discourse, the letter, together with the other separate statements and interventions in the media, may be seen as a marked shift in the rather apolitical and restrained posture of the Czech academic community focused on the Middle East. It is the first document of its kind in the history of Czech academic research on the region, and, by articulating a normative position on Israel/Palestine and open criticism of the official Czech policy, it poses a novel development in academia’s public engagement, something that would be inconceivable to many in the field before. While the Islamophobic statements that characterized the Czech debate during the so-called “migration crisis” of 2015-16 and the emergence of the Islamic State were criticized by some academics with expertise on the Middle East and Islam, their vocality and public engagement were much less pronounced. Motivated by the perceived gravity of the current events in Gaza and the indignation caused by the ignorance–both within the public debate and the political sphere–of the facts and circumstances viewed by the experts in the field as essential and crucial, a significant part of this community found it inevitable to contest the popular consensus.

The labor of formulating and publishing the letter, and engaging in the public debate after it came out, has already generated new dynamics and positionality for members of the academic community. Arguably, for many of the involved, joining the public debate and voicing their dissenting opinion against the overall consensus in a heated and sometimes openly hostile environment has by itself been an important step towards a new role that they had not previously envisioned in their professional careers. It has led to acquiring new experiences and skills in the public domain, forging new interpersonal relationships and networks of like-minded scholars, and as a result integrating previously disparate debates and areas of expertise. Overall, the events of the last six months can be seen as leading towards enhancing the professional identity which combines academic expertise with public engagement and fostering a new sense of community and identity.

Conclusion

Despite the developments discussed in this article, we do not argue that the Czech public debate and policy orientation have undergone a profound change in the wake of the public letter and the discussions it generated, nor that we should expect such a shift immediately. Nonetheless, what should be noted in this regard is that available data suggest that the Czech public is in fact not as unequivocally supportive of Israeli policies as governmental steps and dominant media framing suggest. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Peace Research Center Prague and Herzl Center for Israel Studies at Charles University, the Czech public shows more nuanced views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although nearly half of the population is often unable to form a strong opinion on this topic.[17] More vocal public engagement of scholars thus might find a less hostile audience than it appears now.

Regardless of the extent to which Czech scholars will influence foreign policy and mainstream media discourse, what might prove crucial in the long run is the honing of skills and attitudes that are necessary preconditions for academia to play a more important role in public debate and deliberation. While it is too early to evaluate if this shift towards public engagement will be permanent, or will have long-term consequences for how academic expertise is wielded and heeded in making crucial foreign policy decisions, it shows that striving for relevance depends not solely on developing scholarly programs per se.

The scale of destruction and human life loss in Gaza, coupled with the inability – or, in many cases, unwillingness – of the international community to stop the Israeli war, makes yet again clear that scholarship on the politics of (not only) the Middle East cannot remain separated from public and policy debates. The brief overview of the Czech debate and academic intervention however reveals that there may be a gap between cultivating academic expertise and mobilizing it in situations in which it may prove influential. While there are ongoing debates concerning how (and if at all) should academia seek to influence policies and public attitudes, this case shows that we need to account for the wider constellations of public, media, and political relationships in coming to terms with the feasibility of such influence in the first place. Disciplinary politics, the matter of funding, and global hierarchies of knowledge production do indeed underpin and channel possibilities of academia’s social and political relevance, but the encounter with particular local conditions needs to be taken into account as well.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] The text of the letter in Czech can be found here: https://www.petice.com/vyzva_ke_zmn_postoje_eske_vlady_ke_krizi_na_blizkem_vychod?fbclid=IwAR0h9qvbwifbHAAsnJWoRl4HiV-ZY5X_I5SlNWtHN-U5s7qtO9C7xuSICQU. There is no English version.

[2] Raphael BenLevi, Amnon Cavari, and Lesley Terris, ‘Global Public Opinion toward Israel: Mapping and Assessing the Determinants of Public Attitudes in 45 Countries’, Israel Affairs 25, no. 6 (2 November 2019): 1006–25, https://doi.org/10.1080/13537121.2019.1670442; Marek Čejka, ‘The Narrative of the Czech-Israeli Strategic Relations in the European Context’, Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, no. 11, 4. (2017): 24-43.

[3] United Nations, ‘EU Overwhelmingly Votes at UN for Humanitarian Ceasefire in Gaza’, United Nations Western Europe, 13 December 2023, https://unric.org/en/eu-overwhelmingly-votes-at-un-for-humanitarian-ceasefire-in-gaza/.

[4] Irena Kalhousová et al., ‘Elite-Public Gaps in Attitudes towards Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: New Evidence from a Survey of Czech Parliamentarians and Citizens’ (Under review, 2024).

[5] Čejka, ‘Marek, Izrael a Českou republiku spojuje mýtus malých ohrožených států’, A2larm, 31 August 2020, https://a2larm.cz/2020/08/izrael-a-ceskou-republiku-spojuje-mytus-malych-ohrozenych-statu/.

[6] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of the Czech Republic, ‘Concept of the Czech Republic’s Foreign Policy’, 2015, https://mzv.gov.cz/file/1574645/Concept_of_the_Czech_Republic_s_Foreign_Policy.pdf.

[7] Freedom House, ‘Why We Shouldn’t Ignore the Czech President’s Latest Gaffe’, Freedom House, 21 October 2015, https://freedomhouse.org/article/why-we-shouldnt-ignore-czech-presidents-latest-gaffe.

[8] Jakub Patočka, ‘Jakub Patočka: Zlomit kruh násilí’, Deník Referendum, 16 October 2023, https://denikreferendum.cz/clanek/35714-zlomit-kruh-nasili; Martin Fendrych, ‘Hamás svým terorem rozpoutal nenávist. Ale Hamás není islám, Hamás není Palestinec’, Aktuálně.cz’, Aktuálně.cz – Víte, co se právě děje, 16 October 2023, https://nazory.aktualne.cz/komentare/hamas-svym-terorem-rozpoutal-nenavist-ale-hamas-neni-islam/r~03fe07ce69b011ee8d680cc47ab5f122/.

[9] Pavel Barša, ‘Od židovské demokracie k židovské etnokracii. Izrael, globální Jih a my’, A2larm (blog), 18 November 2023, https://a2larm.cz/2023/11/od-zidovske-demokracie-k-zidovske-etnokracii-izrael-globalni-jih-a-my/.

[10] See, e.g., Ema Hřešanová ‘Comrades and spies. From socialist scholarship to claims of colonial innocence in the Czech Republic’, American Ethnologist, 2023, Vol. 50, No. 3, pp. 419-430.

[11] Jakub Záhora, ‘Brutální Útok Hamásu Je Neomluvitelný. Jaké Odvetné Kroky Izraele Ospravedlňuje?’, Deník N, 10 October 2023, https://denikn.cz/1253840/brutalni-utok-hamasu-je-neomluvitelny-o-tom-neni-sporu-rozbor-si-ale-zaslouzi-i-izraelske-kroky-proti-palestincum/; Zora Hesová, ‘To, jak bude pokračovat válka v Izraeli, se týká náš všech’, A2larm (blog), 16 October 2023, https://a2larm.cz/2023/10/to-jak-bude-pokracovat-valka-v-izraeli-se-tyka-nas-vsech/.

[12] Zora Hesová, ‘„Děláme to znovu?“ Pásmo Gazy a poválečná zodpovědnost Západu’, A2larm (blog), 6 January 2024, https://a2larm.cz/2024/01/delame-to-znovu-pasmo-gazy-a-povalecna-zodpovednost-zapadu/.

[13] Jakub Záhora, ‘Co Izraeli Neprospěje? Bagatelizace Palestinského Utrpení a Bezvýhradná Obhajoba Operací v Gaze’, Deník N, 13 February 2024, https://denikn.cz/1351373/bezvyhradna-obhajoba-operaci-v-gaze-a-bagatelizace-utrpeni-palestincu-v-ceskem-diskurzu-neprospeji-ani-samotnemu-izraeli/?ref=list; Jakub Koláček, ‘Český postoj k válce v Izraeli a Gaze je morálním i politickým selháním’, A2larm (blog), 7 February 2024, https://a2larm.cz/2024/02/cesky-postoj-k-valce-v-izraeli-a-gaze-je-moralnim-i-politickym-selhanim/; Jan Bělíček, ‘Postoj k válce v Gaze podrývá kredibilitu zahraniční politiky Západu, říká analytik Jan Daniel’, A2larm (blog), 10 February 2024, https://a2larm.cz/2024/02/postoj-k-valce-v-gaze-podryva-kredibilitu-zahranicni-politiky-zapadu-rika-analytik-jan-daniel/.

[14] Critical reactions appeared mainly or exclusively on non-mainstream media platforms with limitted leadership such as Deník N or A2larm/A2. The latter, comprising a non-commercial “alternative” platform ordinarily identified with leftist and progressive agenda also devoted perhaps the most effort to provide a balanced coverage of the war with, among other things, a series of six podcasts staging academic experts’ views on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a special issue assessing the war from different angles.

[15] ČTK, ‘Vláda by mohla zorganizovat pomoc potřebným v Gaze’, Pavel Fischer (blog), 9 February 2024, https://www.pavelfischer.cz/17525-vlada-by-mohla-zorganizovat-pomoc-potrebnym-v-gaze/.

[16] Though indirect and shrouded in ambiguous language, these found their way even in the public broadcast media; see Jan Fingerland, ‘O tom otevřeném dopise’, Rozhlas Plus, 11 February 2024, https://plus.rozhlas.cz/jan-fingerland-o-tom-otevrenem-dopise-9172189 .

[17] Peace Research Center Prague and Herzl Center for Israel Studies, ‘Czech Attitudes towards Israel’, prcprague.cz, 10 May 2022, https://www.prcprague.cz/news/2022/5/10/czech-attitudes-towards-israel-new-study.