30 April 2015 | Press Release by ISM CR and other groups
The Days of Jerusalem festival is taking place in the city of Pilsen as part of the European Capital of Culture 2015 initiative this year. It will occur between the 19th and 20th of June and its subsequent activities will echo throughout Prague, on the 21st and 23rd of June. In response, civil initiatives engaged in dealing with the issue of occupation of Palestine wrote an open letter to the organizers of Pilsen 2015, requesting that they step down as hosts of this festival.
Journalist and formerly incarcerated dissident, Petr Uhl; former foreign minister and former President of the United Nations General Assembly, Jan Kavan; vice-chairman of the Green Movement, Tomáš Tožička; politician and journalist, Matěj Stropnický; philosopher and political activist, Ivan Bartoš; politician and professor, Šádí Shanaáh; poet and author, Milan Kohout, and many others upheld the call with their signatures, which reads, in part:
“The Days of Jerusalem event is part of a political strategy through which the State of Israel seeks to secure legitimation of its illegal annexation of Jerusalem. This is further supported by the fact that several Israeli government agencies will partake in the festival’s organization. Thus, via the festival Days of Jerusalem, the Czech public is misinformed and deliberately dragged into a highly controversial political game in which your event – Pilsen 2015 – is nothing more than another playing field.”
“…The organizers of Pilsen 2015 have an obligation to the Czech public. The public has the right to be well informed and not be manipulated by one side. Other countries in Europe are aware of this obligation.”
The festival was already criticized last year for its violation of international law
Days of Jerusalem are taking place in the Czech Republic for the third time (previously held in Prague twice). Last year, the Palestinian Embassy brought attention to the festival, in its letter to the mayor of Prague: “The participation of Prague City Hall in this festival, which in its title bears the name of the city of Jerusalem as a unified body, and which is happening under official Israeli patronage, is in contravention of international law and relevant UN resolutions, which call on Israel to withdraw its occupation forces from the territories occupied in 1967. This includes East Jerusalem – the capital city of the State of Palestine. Failing to take this reality into account, does not contribute to the peace process.”
Jan Kavan, former foreign minister and former chairman of the United Nations’ General Assembly, at the time, stated: “Is the current leadership of Prague truly so uneducated, that is it unaware of the colossal difference between East and West Jerusalem? Or is this a targeted provocation towards Palestine and a challenging of the debates surrounding a peaceful resolution to this conflict? Shouldn’t the Ministry of Foreign Affairs notify Prague City Hall on the importance of respecting international law?”
Last year’s Days of Jerusalem in Prague even provoked a reaction from Israeli citizens and residents of Jerusalem, who identified it as propagandistic, celebrating a “unified Jerusalem”, whilst keeping the occupation, racism and population expulsions hidden: “If the festival held the appropriate title ‘Days of Apartheid in Prague’, it would be fairly understandable. This propagandistic event of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a celebration of a ‘unified city of Jerusalem’, which is, in actuality, one of the most segregated and definitely racist cities in the world, today.”
Israeli citizens pointed to the ongoing ethnic cleansing, denial of residence to Palestinian citizens, and almost daily demolitions of Palestinian homes occurring in East Jerusalem. Moreover, in the regular thousands-strong marches of Israelis in occupied East Jerusalem, (with the assistance of the police and without major upheaval in the Israeli public) these crowds chant: “Death to Arabs”, while local Palestinians are forced to find shelter in their homes. (Here, here, and most recently here).
“We are not against culture,” say the conveners of the open letter
“In 2005, Israel commenced a marketing campaign – Brand Israel – intent on bettering its image. It is attempting to promote itself as a young, liberal democracy. A country of modern dance, gay and lesbian friendly spaces and so on – all to distract people from the occupation, population expulsions, demolitions, illegal Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem or the unequal standing of the Palestinian residents of the city,” says Petra Šťastná of ISM.
“We are not against Israeli culture; we are against the exploitation of culture for propagandistic and political purposes – for instance, to sweep under the rug last year’s attack on Gaza, which was declared by the Russell Tribunal as an incitement to genocide” adds Zdeněk Jehlička from the Not in Our Name! Initiative.
The conveners of the letter will continue in their campaign. “We will try to inform the Czech public of the situation in occupied East Jerusalem, as well in the West Bank and Gaza. We are also invested in sending a message to government bodies – the Czech Ministry of Culture is, amongst others, a partner of the festival, and the event has also received the blessing of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These institutions, which represent us, carry a responsibility with regard to international law. If they are unwilling to respect international law, it is the duty of civil society to highlight such policies and demand amendments to them”, reminds Vojtěch Srnka.
The conveners also state that they will attempt to follow the festival because it has announced that it will present the “reality of Jerusalem”. “Whether the festival will cover the reality of 48 years of lasting military occupation remains a question, as the previous events never attempted to incorporate such critical perspectives on Jerusalem”, adds Šťastná.
Czech Republic’s above-average relations with Israel
Czech political representatives have long prided themselves on their above-average relations with Israel (amongst other countries, the Czech Republic only has such relations with Slovakia). For instance, in the 2012 UN vote on Palestine’s bid for semi-statehood, the Czech Republic was the only country in the EU to vote against the resolution. Certain commentators declared the Czech vote is a vote “against the EU”, and added that is may seem as though “the Czech Republic’s loyalty to Israel exceeds that of its loyalty to the EU.”
The first democratically elected president following the fall of the socialist regime, Václav Havel, chose Israel as the destination for his very first foreign visit. Conveners of the open letter, with this opportunity, are bringing attention to a 2010 campaign during which they were urged by Vaclav Havel to maintain understated positions towards Israel – for any “condemnation” (or criticism) could threaten the “peace process.” However, five years upon Havel’s uttering of these words, that process is totally dead.
From the point of the current stance of Czech foreign policy, activists highlight the fact that the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a warning to companies trading with illegal Israeli settlements. The Czech Republic joined around 20 other countries of the EU in issuing this warning. “But that is not enough, the EU is currently debating labeling products from settlements and many other groups call for a ban on the import of products from the settlements altogether,” states Jehlička. Simultaneously, Czech citizens criticize Czech foreign policy and the joint meetings between Israeli and Czech government officials, which will occur in Prague at the end of this year or in the beginning of 2016. For the sake of “balance”, the meeting will be followed by a joint meeting of the Czech and Palestinian government officials – however in this case, no longer on the ministerial level.
As reported by the Czech journalist Břetislav Tureček (Mother of all lobbies, Lidové noviny, 28. February 2015, p. 15), lobbyists from AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee; a US right wing lobbying organization) “will simultaneously come to Prague, and not only to the President’s office, but also to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” (…) “AIPAC has a substantial influence on the US foreign policy, and so it is good to maintain relations with them,” an employee of the MFA explained. The Czech president Miloš Zeman was the only president present at AIPAC’s anniversary conference (besides Netanyahu, he was the only statesman). To the question concerning the above-average relations between the Czech Republic and Israel, the Czech president responded in an interview: “We must ask ourselves a simple question: How can we benefit Israel, and not ask, how can Israel benefit us.”
The official Czech support for Days of Jerusalem was expressed at the joint meeting of the Czech and Israeli governments in November 2014: “The Governments welcome (…) support for projects of extraordinary value such as the Days of Jerusalem in Pilsen project as a part of the European Capital of Culture 2015 initiative.”
Czech conveners of the open letter call upon Europeans and other citizens of conscience to pressure the organizers to step down from hosting the festival. Supporters can write to the organizers, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the European Commission – which grants the hosting of the European capital culture.
Contacts for media:
Original open letter in Czech:
Press Release in Czech: