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For Jews, Vaclav Havel wasn’t just a friend but a champion of freedom

Memorial candles in Prague for Vaclav Havel, who died this week. Jewish groups and leaders said the former Czech president was a symbol of freedom, Dec. 18, 2011. (David Short via Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Vaclav Havel was a friend of the Jews and of Israel, but prominent Jews who mourned his passing this week said the Czech leader’s greatest legacy was his universal message of freedom.

“Vaclav Havel was one of the few islands of intellectual freedom in the sea of totalitarian rule,” Natan Sharansky told JTA, speaking of the late 1960s and the 1970s, when both he and Havel were struggling against communist rule — Havel in the former Czechoslovakia and Sharansky in the former Soviet Union.

Havel, a dissident playwright and human rights champion, helped lead Prague’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and was a hero in the Cold War struggle for democracy in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. In 1977 he was a co-author of the human rights manifesto Charter 77, which became the catalyst for the Czech dissident cause.

Just weeks after the collapse of communism, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia, on Dec. 29, 1989.

After the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated into two countries in 1993, he was elected president of the Czech Republic and served until 2003.

Sharansky learned of — and said he was not surprised by — Havel’s Jewish connections later in life. But in 1977, when Sharansky was sent to Siberia, what gave him succor was the universalist message of Charter 77.

“He played an important role in keeping the spark alive,” said Sharansky, who is now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “He launched a counter attack which liberated people intellectually, and then physically.”

Havel demonstrated his commitment to Jewish causes by making one of his first foreign trips after becoming Czechoslovak president a three-day visit to Israel in April 1990. He was accompanied by 180 Czech Jews. In 2010 he was one of the founding members of the Friends of Israel group of international political figures.

Havel’s last public appearance was on Dec. 10, when he met with the Dalai Lama and signed an appeal in support of dissidents around the world. He died Sunday at 75, apparently from respiratory ailments.

Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust memorialist and Nobel peace laureate who met frequently with Havel after he became president of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic, said Havel was proud of his nation’s Jewish heritage.

“He spoke a lot of Jewish philosophy and study,” Wiesel said Tuesday in a phone interview with JTA.

The European Jewish Congress called Havel a “great friend of the Jews” who “did much to confront anti-Semitism and teach the lessons of the dark chapter of the Holocaust during his two terms in office.”

The American Jewish Committee in a statement recalled how Havel in 1991 expressed of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism his “metaphysical feeling of shame of the human race, of mankind, of man. I feel that this is his crime, his disgrace.”

A statement from the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities said that Jews had respected Havel as a statesman and a world-renowned writer, and felt close to him “as a friend who had an understanding of human concerns and joys.”

Wiesel said he often wondered how a fellow writer dared enter the political sphere.

“I asked him once, why did he want to become president, you are already a great writer and a great playwright,” Wiesel recalled. “As president you have adversaries, as playwright no one was your enemy.”

Havel responded, according to Wiesel, that he was the only one capable of overseeing the peaceful split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“My nation had to split,” Wiesel recalled Havel as saying. “Only I could do that, to split a nation in peace.”

Sharansky said Havel’s courage as a dissident long outlasted Czechoslovakia’s emergence from communism. It was Havel’s reputation that led Sharansky to convene the 2007 Democracy and Security International Conference in Prague in 2007.

Havel, along with Sharansky and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, was a co-chairman of the conference, although Havel was mostly absent — his illness already had hobbled him. But his message pervaded the proceedings.

“His moral clarity, his courage, his charm, his sense of humor really influenced many people at the conference,” Sharansky said. “His experience was their experience whether they came from Egypt, from Iran, from Iraq, from Sudan.”

Havel and Aznar were co-founders of Friends of Israel, a grouping of European leaders who sought to counter the burgeoning anti-Israel rhetoric on the continent.

That’s where his appreciation for Jews and Israel and his deep commitment to human rights converged, said Josh Block, the group’s U.S. director.

“People who have the experience of fighting intolerance and repression understand how important it is to stand for those countries that stand for democracy and freedom,” Block said.

It was a stance that the pro-Israel community appreciated, said Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.

“At a time when many European leaders find the opportunity to upbraid Israel, he would stand his ground, seeing Israel as a strong democracy in the place of nations,” he said.

(Ruth Ellen Gruber contributed to this report from Prague.)