Vaclav Havel was a friend of the Jews and of Israel, but prominent Jews who mourned his passing last month 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, the universalist message of Charter 77 gave him succor.
“He played an important role in keeping the spark alive,” said Sharansky, now chairman of the executive 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 Dec. 18 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 told JTA.
The European Jewish Congress called Havel a “great friend of the Jews” who “did much to confront antisemitism and teach the lessons of the dark chapter of the Holocaust during his two terms in office.”
The Federation of Czech Jewish Communities said Jews 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.”
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 humour 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 group of European leaders who sought to counter growing anti-Israel rhetoric on the continent.
That’s where Havel’s appreciation for Jews and Israel and his deep commitment to human rights converged.
It was a stance the pro-Israel community appreciated, said Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith 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.