When he was in Israel, Robert Rehak, then-Czech Republic cultural attaché to the Jewish state, practiced soccer diplomacy.
Specifically, he organized a model Euro Cup competition for Arab and Jewish school children.
“I invited Arab and Jewish children to one soccer field … and we divided them into soccer teams according to European countries,” Rehak said, “and we gave them T-shirts of the countries [they played for], and we mixed them together … Jew and Arab played on the same team.”
So how did it work out?
“They were a little bit confused,” he recalled, “but when the game started, they started to cooperate and play, and they played very well. In a few minutes it was not important if you were from the Arab or Jewish religion, but it was important if you passed the ball and kicked the goal.”
That, according to the 39-year-old teacher, scholar and now diplomat, is an example of what cultural diplomacy can do to resolve the differences among nations, even nations whose differences seem insurmountable.
“I think such experiences are something that will remain with them for the rest of their lives,” said Rehak, who for the past year has been cultural attaché to the Czech Embassy in Washington.
“I was cultural attache in Israel [from 2005-2009) and I’m now cultural attache here in the United States and I see that culture is actually something that opens the door for the people,” Rehak said. “If you tried to convince somebody in a political meeting that he should change, he wouldn’t probably change. If you do a very nice cultural [event] together with somebody as a joint project — concert, music, exhibition, theater — the people are getting close together; they get to know each other and it’s a connection with people that’s growing for years afterward. I see cultural diplomacy actually as something that should be stressed much more.”
Sadly, he doesn’t think there’s enough cultural diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians today.
“In Israel, I feel there is not enough programs that would try to make the situation better in one or two generations from now. They are just trying to solve the problems, which are now, like how we stop the terrorists from attacking, but there is no long-term vision.”
Rehak came to Pittsburgh Sunday as a guest of Classrooms Without Borders (CWB). He spoke at the Ellis School in Shadyside about the nearly 1,000-year-old relationship between Czechs and Jews.
Fifty-seven people people, including the honorary consul of the Czech Republic in Pittsburgh, teachers and students slated to take CWB trips this year to Berlin and Prague and community residents — Czech and Jewish — were on hand.
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According to Rehak, the earliest mention of Jews in the land that would become the Czech Republic was actually made by a Jew.
In 970, Ibrahim Ibn Yaqub, a merchant traveling with a mission from the King of Spain, reached the country, and he kept a diary of his experiences.
In fact, Ibn Yaqub made the first written mention of the city of Prague, writing in Arabic.
“He wrote, ‘it’s a city built from stone with many nations,’ ” Rehak said.
While anti-Semitism exists in the Czech Republic, Rehak said, it was never as overt as in other central or eastern European countries.
Quite to the contrary, according to Rehak, a scholar, fluent in Hebrew, who has made a study of the history of Czech-Jewish relations.
“From the oldest middle age up to today, there is a very unique relationship between Czechs and Jews, and I think this very special relationship started with one Czech king, Ottokar II of Bohemia (1233-1278), who proclaimed Jews as his own property. Would you like to be the property of the king, likes fields and rivers and trees?
“But there is one great advantage: You’re protected by the king,” he continued. “No one can touch the property of the king, so the Jews became the king’s property and the law says if someone harms a Jew he would be punished.”
The king’s protection even extended to synagogues and cemeteries and shielded Jews from blood libel.
“This is why the Jewish community in Prague started to grow,” he said of the status Jews had.
One physical reminder of that growth is the Altneu (Old New) Synagogue in Prague, a gothic house of worship, which was built around 1270 and still used today, both for prayer and as a Czech historic landmark.
The Altneu Synagogue was the seat of Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, one of the most widely known Jewish scholars in Europe (a statue of him stands at Prague’s town hall), who according to legend, created the Golem, the artificial man designed to protect the Jews of the city.
According to Rehak, the Golem legend is considered as much a part of Czech history as Jewish history.
“The legend about the Golem, every child in the Czech Republic knows; everybody knows,” he said.
Pittsburgh played a key role in the birth of Czechoslovakia following World War I. The “Pittsburgh Agreement,” which was signed here on May 31, 1918, by 29 Czechs and Slovaks (including Tomáš G. Masaryk, the first president of the republic), declared the intent of the representatives to create an independent “Czecho-Slovakia,” according to the document, and is often compared to the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Masaryk also included Jews in his first governing cabinet, Rehak said.
Following World War II, Rehak said Czechoslovakia was one of 33 countries that voted for the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan and was the only country to supply large numbers of weapons and airplanes to the fledging State of Israel during the country’s 1948 war for independence. Czechs even trained Israeli pilots inside their own country.
In fact, Rehak together with Petr Gandalovic, Czech ambassador to the United States, opened an exhibition in Philadelphia Monday dedicated to military assistance Czechoslovakia gave to Israel in its early days.
“According Ben Gurion, the first president of Israel, without those weapons and airplanes there would be no chance to win the war,” Rehak said. “It would be great to show the exhibition in such a nice, hospitable and, in Czech and American history, important city as Pittsburgh.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)