THE THREE FACES OF ANTI-SEMITISM IN SLOVAKIA

Anti-Semitism was an organic part of social and political development in Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th century, marked by inter-state conflicts, ethnic and religious tensions, social rebellions, revolutionary and reactionary movements. The significance of this malign phenomenon far exceeded the framework related to Jews as an ethnic or religious community.

Anti-Semitism in Central Europe

Jews were one of the two poles of the antagonistic relationship. They were the constant pole, while at the opposite side there were many different actors, often in a contradictory manner, opposing  each other on many other issues.  Yet they shared hostility against those whom they considered to be the ultimate cause of their own problems, which they often failed to solve themselves. Right and left, Nazis, fascists and communists, churches and laymen, believers and atheists – disputes between representatives of these groups and streams in ideological, political and confessional area were profound.  However, many of them agreed on one matter: Jews should not have the same space as everyone else, and should be prevented from gaining it. The culmination of this approach was the extermination of European Jewry that was prepared, organized and carried out by Nazi Germany with the help of local collaborators.

The history of anti-Semitism in Central Europe, however, did not end with the Holocaust. Soviet Stalinism and its local offshoots in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania ensured the survival of the universal enemy’s image inherited from the past, which was then used by the communist regimes in their totalitarian practices and intra-party struggle. As far as the intensity and brutality of anti-Semitic practices is concerned, the activities of the communist regimes could not be compared with the Nazi racial rampage, but they proved sufficient enough to fertilize the soil for the long-term survival of anti-Semitic sentiments.

Anti-Semitism in Slovakia during the democratic transition

With the aforementioned legacy in place, Slovakia – at the time a part of the common Czechoslovak state – commenced democratic transformation. Democratization provided space for the activities of political forces of different ideological orientations, including the authentic representatives of domestic anti-Semitism. As a result of the Holocaust and the waves of emigration during the communist regime, local Jews in Slovakia represented in the early 1990s less than one per mille of the total population.  To many Slovaks they were almost an unknown entity.  It was thus difficult to gain support for any political program exclusively by using anti-Semitic slogans. It was not simple enough to reach any greater number of sympathizers. Therefore, the holders of anti-Semitic views and messages needed to get into an environment in which the anti-Jewish sentiments would form a compact block with other ideas and values​​ that addressed the wider range of the public. That is why immediately after the fall of the communist regime they incorporated themselves into the conglomerate of radical-nationalist and separatist forces which promoted the separation ofSlovakiafromCzechoslovakia.

In doing so, they continued the extensive policy tradition of Hlinka’s Slovak Peoples Party (“ľudáks”) during the pre-war period. Although in comparison to the two main enemy targets of the Slovak separatists in the early 1990s – the so called “Pragocentrism”(“Czechoslovakism”, “Czech colonialism”, “federalism”) and the “Hungarian irredentism” (“Budapest”, “Hungarian fifth column”) –  Jews were a less tangible target. The discourse about allegedly excessive Jewish influence on developments in Czechoslovakia and Jews’ hostility to the national aspirations of the Slovaks, along with Jewish efforts to preserve the federal state at all cost was a constituent part of the ideological platform of passionate fighters for Slovakia’s independence. The extreme elements of this agenda included virulent anti-Semitic manifestations and offensive racist verbal attacks, sometimes verging on physical assault on public figures of Jewish origin (either real or perceived). The most well-known case of such attacks that ultimately led to the departure of those assaulted from Slovakia, was the case of Fedor Gál, one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia.  As a result of this, after the breakup of Czechoslovakia, Gál decided to leave Slovakia and move to the Czech Republic.

In January 2013, theSlovakRepublicwill commemorate the 20th anniversary of its independence. Today it is a free society, a democratic state with a functioning market economy, a member of the EU and NATO. The governments replaced each other on the basis of legitimate and incontestable results of democratic elections. The multi-party system forms a large space for supporters and holders of different ideological concepts, participating in free political competition. Independent media provide a platform for public debate on topics related to the development and the state of the society. What place does anti-Semitism have in this democratic mosaic? Does it represent a relevant part of domestic politics today, or is it rather a phenomenon that belongs irrevocably to the past?

Three lines of anti-Semitism in Slovakia

 Open anti-Semitism is no longer an effective tool for political or electoral mobilization inSlovakia. It seems that the last, and ultimately failed attempt to transform political anti-Semitism into a relevant social force came in the early1990s. . After Slovakia became an independent country, the efforts of radical separatists to form a new state that would have been a political and ideological successor of the wartime Slovak clerical-fascist state failed.  Hence their hopes that anti-Semitism (whether open or covert) would be once again a part of an official state policy also failed. After 1993, no relevant political party in Slovakia included into its program, orpracticed anything that could be described as open anti-Semitism (except for SNS and PSNS in 2002). Open anti-Semitism remained a domain for extremist entities that are marginal elements; for whom moving further into the open would mean breaking the law.

It is obvious that in Slovakia today, it is impossible for any party to gain electoral success, or even become a relevant political player by using anti-Semitic slogans as their primary programmatic tool. Therefore, ultra-nationalists have to reach for more efficient tools to address wider audiences. This does not mean, of course, that these forces do not fuel anti-Semitic discourse. On the contrary, they do it willingly and their members are particularly active in this area. To them, this is a sort of a common sign by which they recognize each other – like an internal amalgam that keeps them tight together. Even though the mere proclamation of hostility against Jews does not raise many votes for ultra-nationalists, it can attract more loyal members into their ranks.

Anti-Semitism in Slovakia, similarly to anti-Semitism in other European countries, is a separate opinion stream with its own social background, active subscribers and susceptible audience. It has three basic forms.

Firstly, open anti-Semitism that fosters hatred toward Jews as a specific community (ethnic, racial and religious). It is based on anti-Jewish sentiment still alive among certain population groups. It is present mainly in online chats, including readers’ discussions on the mainstream media websites. The notorious Slovak Togertherness, registered as a civic association, and its political offshoot, the ĽS-NS party, are politically close to this kind of anti-Semitism. Even though it is anti-Roma racism that serves as the main mobilization tool for the Slovak Togertherness, the Jewish theme represents an integral part of their ideological agenda.

Secondly, there is a glorification of the Slovak state of 1939–1945, and of its anti-Semitic policy which helped to seal the tragic fate of the vast majority of Slovak Jews. This trend is reflected in the call for the societal rehabilitation of the leading representatives of the former Slovak state, by way of  camouflaging  its active role in the Holocaust of Slovak Jews, and by way of  searching for justifications for the anti-Jewish policy of Tiso’s regime.

And thirdly, anti-Israeli attitudes and anti-Zionism, often representing a sophisticated type of modern anti-Semitism are present. This line is not adomain of right-wing extremist groups only, as anti-Zionism has recently become increasingly prevalent in leftist circles, both radical-anarchist and more moderate groups aiming to project an attractive liberal image.

Let’s take a closer look at all these kinds of contemporary anti-Semitism in Slovakia.

Open anti-Semitism

In Slovakia today, the people of Jewish descent constitute a tiny fraction of the population (according to the latest census in 2011, the total number of Jews is only about 2,000 people).  The proponents of open anti-Semitism thus cannot draw massive support from  direct and targeted hostility toward Jews. According to the representative opinion poll conducted by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in2008 in collaboration with the Cabinet of Social and Biological Communication of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, only 11% of respondents stated that they would not wish to have a Jewish family as a neighbor. It was the lowest level of social distance reported in the survey.  The figures of other studied entities, ethnically or religiously defined, exceeded this level (Roma family – 69%, Muslim family – 32%, Asian family – 22%, Afro-Americans – 21%, immigrants- foreigners – 21%, Ukrainian family – 17%, Hungarian family – 16%).

Therefore the proponents of open anti-Semitism must instead focus on the traditional negative stereotypes about Jews, on conspiracy theories about the world order, on the inclination of some groups to support totalitarian practices, or the resistance to democracy, and the rejection of liberal freedoms and individualism. The extreme right seeks supporters in such an opinion conglomerate. In his study about the research of anti-Semitism, sociologist Michal Vašečka used data from the survey conducted in the late 1990s which showed that 51% of Slovaks think that “Jews rule things in this world”,  26% believe that “Jews are now too influential in our country”, that 21% approve of the idea that “Jewish access to influential posts should be controlled”.  Finally, 15% of respondents think that the “removal of Jews from our country had positive aspects as well.”

At the beginning of the1990s, the proponents of conspiracy theories disseminated lists of influential people in Czechoslovakia across the country..  The lists claimed to include “confirmed”  information that these people were Jews who allegedly promoted global influence of  the “Free Mason and Zionist lobby” that was detrimental to Slovakia.  It was unsurprising that the then Czechoslovak President Václav Havelwas placed on the top of the list.  He was followed by pro-reform Czech and Slovak politicians (overwhelmingly non-Jews). From time to time, similar “Jewish” lists containing names of active politicians are circulated on the Internet.  They inspire writers in the extremist press in an effort to portray the entire range of post-communist developments as a struggle between “pro-national” Slovak forces on the one side, and the world of Jewish lobby and its servants on the other side.

The rehabilitation of the wartime Slovak state

The efforts to glorify the period of the wartime Slovak state are embraced by a wider range of actors. This includes not only the most radical ultra-nationalists who are openly committed to the values ​​of the satellite pro-Nazi state (its antidemocratic nature, corporative state system, extreme ethnic nationalism, virulent anti-Semitism), but also some representatives of more moderate forces – some representatives of the Catholic Church, some historians close to Matica slovenská (the Slovak Heritage Trust), and some representatives of various nationalist-oriented groups. Each would wish to rehabilitate some representatives of the then ruling regime, and to smuggle them into the present public discourse as positive heroes, figures whom they consider for some reason to be close to them. To the Roman Catholic Church it is bishop Ján Vojtaššák, to some members of the municipal council of the city of Rajec it is the minister of foreign affairs and interior Ferdinand Ďurčanský, for historians from Matica slovenská it is a number  of other officials of the wartime Slovak state. To many admirers of the “first” Slovak Republic the hero to admire is its “Führer”, Jozef Tiso. Each of the above mentioned people either had a share of responsibility for the anti-Jewish policies or profited from them. President Tiso led the country, which was an accomplice in the Holocaust, deputy of the State Council bishop Vojtaššák took part in the process of “arisation”of  Jewish property (a process of transferring Jewish assets to the hands of non-Jews in accordance with the specially approved law) in favor of his own diocese, while minister Ďurčanský was directly and actively involved in the preparation, adoption and implementation of anti-Jewish laws of the regime. Representatives of the Jewish community constantly point out that the possible rehabilitation (either social or legal) of the aforementioned people (in the case of bishop Vojtaššák a proposal for beatification was tabled) would mean ex-post justification of genocidal anti-Jewish policies. Jews inSlovakiaperceive the effort to glorify the Slovak state as a clear manifestation of disrespect to the victims of murderous racial policy and as a step that would lead to the return of anti-Semitism into the official state policy. Thanks to the firm stance of the leaders of the tiny Jewish community, the attempts to rehabilitate the representatives of the clerical-fascist state have not yet been successful.

Hatred toward Israel

Israel is not in the category of countries that are viewed sympathetically by the public in Slovakia. Decades of fierce communist anti-Israeli propaganda and the superficial reporting about the conflict in the Middle East that is carried out by many Slovak media today influenced the public perception of the Jewish state. According to the Transatlantic Trends survey conducted annually by the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in selected countries of the EU and the U.S., respondents in Slovakia in 2008 attributed 32 points to Israel on the scale of sympathy from 0 to 100 (the result was similar in previous surveys). To compare – India gained 33 points, both China and Turkey 35 points, USA 50 points, Russia 52 points, Spain 57 points, while the European Union received 73 points (Palestine gained fewer points than Israel – 25).

None of the relevant political parties in Slovakia, however, holds an anti-Israeli stance in judging Middle Eastern affairs.  In practical terms, all parties are either moderately pro-Israeli or at least neutral (except for a long time the radical anti-Israeli Communist Party of Slovakia, which is, however, rather marginal today). In voting in the UN, Slovakia´s representatives never adopted an anti-Israel stance and in some cases, they voted in favor of Israel even when other EU member states voted against Israel.

The unique and probably latest observed occurrence of clearly anti-Israeli attitudes encountered on the Slovak political scene, were the positions of the two rival wings of Slovak radical nationalists (the SNS of Anna Malíková–Belousovová and the PSNS of Ján Slota) in 2002 during the so-called Palestinian “second intifada”. In April 2002, PSNS turned to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Slovakia, asking it to call on the “representatives of the Jewish state for an immediate end of military aggression on the sovereign territory of the Palestinian Authority”. It also called on the Conference of Bishops of Slovakia and the Slovak Christians to condemn the “barbaric Israeli attacks on the holy sites of theChurchofNativityinBethlehem”. The SNS did not lag behind the PSNS in its anti-Israeli position. Following the news wires reports about the alleged attack by Israeli soldiers and tanks on the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, where Palestinian militants who committed terrorist attacks against civilians in Israel barricaded themselves (in reality no attack by the Israeli army on the Bethlehem basilica took place, and the news proved to be taken over from unverified reports), the SNS chairperson Anna Malíková said that “the party members can not be silent when the barbarians, whom the Jews clearly became after this step, are destroying and desecrating  the birthplace of Jesus Christ”. The SNS also called for “a harsh punishment of the perpetrators of the Israeli massacres in Jenin, when hundreds were killed, including civilians” (later, no massacre of civilians in Jenin was confirmed).

Slovak right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis do not mask and camouflage their resistance against Israel. To them, Israel is the embodiment of the worst evil, a symbol of the global Jewry that seeks to rule over other nations. The Slovak neo-Nazis do not recognize the right of Israel to exist and openly support any actions leading to its physical destruction, by whomever it is undertaken. They perpetually repeat the notorious accusations of the “Zionist crimes inPalestine” and call for retribution.

Anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist discourse on the left

In contrast to right wing radicals,  moderate leftist (“salonfähig”) opponents of Israel are challenging the legitimacy of the Jewish state in a disguised and more sophisticated manner.  Though their rhetoric is different when compared to that of right-wing radicals, it contributes to anti-Israeli discourse just as much asopen calls for the destruction of the Jewish state do. Anti-Zionists on the Slovak left-wing obviously did not call for the destruction of Israel, but their denial of the right of the Jewish state to self-defense (especially in an armed way, even in the face of an acute external military threat), effectively means the exposure of Israel to the real danger of extinction.

To counter or pre-empt possible allegations of anti-Semitism, “moderate” followers of anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist attitudes use such statements as “Criticism of Israeli policy is not anti-Semitism”.  The false character of such an approach, however, is evident in the light of selectivity, which these authors apply in their criticism of Israeli policies. The frequency with which they criticize any – from their perspective – unacceptable Israeli steps towards the Palestinians or Arabs (emphasizing particularly the human rights dimension) is incomparably higher than the frequency of their critical responses (if any) to the crimes committed against the population by repressive regimes in Burma, North Korea, Syria or to blatant human rights violations in Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, in some Arab countries, including the Palestinian Authority. The anti-democratic incidents of  fundamentalist forces, seasoned with genocidal anti-Jewish elements, which have acquired a wide space thanks to the “Arab spring” after the overthrow of the dictatorial regimes, did not attract any attention by the these “moderate” anti-Zionists just as they de facto did not pay any serious attention to the long term activities of Islamist terrorists who killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, mostly Jews.

The fact that Israel, a state that has been facing imminent threats of liquidation since its establishment, is the sole fully democratic state in the Middle East, virtually means nothing to the leftist anti-Zionists who often refer to the values ​​of democracy. Here,democracy is suddenly not as important as in the cases of other states. This can be hardly explained otherwise than as an apriori anti-Jewish bias (what matters for all does not matter for Jews). The aforementioned opinion framework also creates space for the suggestions that the victims of persecution in the past or their descendants (i.e. Jews of Israel) now resort to similar methods against their current opponents (i.e. Arabs of Palestine).  This effectively leads to a direct equation of Israeli policies toward Palestinians with the Nazi Germany’s policy towards Jews. It is essentially a modern and sophisticated version of the “blood libel”. Last but not least, the anti-Israeli rhetoric of “moderate” left-wing anti-Zionists is linked to anti-Americanism and an opposing stance to the transatlantic alliance between Europe and the USA.

Conclusion

In a country like Slovakia, given its tiny Jewish population, the importance of anti-Semitism as a factor that affects the overall developments of the society is incomparable with  its importance in countries where Jews represent a sizeable proportion of the population (such as France or the UK). This does not mean, however, that the issue of anti-Semitism should not be given adequate attention. Quite on the contrary: what Slovakia’s Jews perceive as the primary threat (neo-Nazi attacks, anti-Jewish sentiments on the part of the population, open or covert attempts to revise the history and to return anti-Semitism into the official policy) ought to be a memento for the majority.  It  can lead to the overall deterioration of the atmosphere in the country and to the devaluation of remarkable results achieved by the democratic transition after the fall of the communist regime. The case of Slovakia shows that anti-Semitism is not only a problem related to Jews, but one involving the entire  society.

Grigorij Mesežnikov

Categories English, News, Slovakia | Tags: | Posted on July 20, 2012

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