Israel: A Symbol of the Groundbreaking 20th Century


The State of Israel, this year's Book World guest of honour, and the book fair's main topic, which is The Groundbreaking 20th Century, have a lot in common thematically. All the important geopolitical events of the past century had a huge and highly specific impact on this land, whose size hardly exceeding that of Moravia. And, on the other side, numerous events taking place in the region had either global implications, or have clearly affected its wider surrounding region.

This year, and the year before, the State of Israel celebrates two jubilees. In 2017 it was the 100th anniversary of the Palestine Mandate, which defined the territory of what was later to become the State of Israel, in one of the parts of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. A territory was thus created to which Jews started returning from their two-thousand-year diaspora. And this year in mid-May, 70 years have passed since the declaration of Israeli independence.

To mark these two symbolic anniversaries, the organiser of the Book World book fair, together with the State of Israel, held a debate on the ambiguity of the Jewish state's history. The invited guests were a political expert from the Mendel University in Brno, who specialises on the Middle East region, Marek Čejka, translator, writer and former longstanding Czech ambassador to Israel Michael Žantovský, and scriptwriter and documentarian with focus on oral history Martin Šmok from the USC Shoah Foundation. Even though all the speakers are well-versed in Israel's history, they often slightly differed in their points of view. The ambiguity of Israel's history can probably best be illustrated by a quote from the Nobel Prize winning author Ámos Oz: "Rather than being a state, Israel is an organised dispute". And indeed, a small dispute arose among the debate's participants in the very question of whether Israel was established on national or religious basis, or, in another words, if the Jewish state 'belonged' primarily to members of the Jewish nation or the Jewish religion. According to the pundits the national aspect was somehow dominant. Nonetheless, it had also been a clash between the progressive left-wing Jewish politicians and the rigid British conservatism that was being applied in the rule of the entrusted territory. The most important thing, however, was the fact that the emerging State of Israel provided the one and only - and also truly safe - refuge to hundreds of thousands of displaced and migrating Jews burdened with the horrible trauma of the holocaust. These events tipped the ratio of the territory's population in favour of the Jewish ethnicity. The Czechs can be proud of playing an active role in the creation of the State of Israel through the former state of Czechoslovakia. This was done both through enabling the transit of some two hundred thousand Jews from the east of Europe to its western states, from which it was easier to reach the Promised Land, and also by being one of the few countries to provide open military support and supply weapons, albeit paid for in the much needed dollars, after Israel declared its independence. Most European states, including the western democracies, did not bring themselves to such undertaking or only supported Israel secretly, sometimes also through our mediation. In any case, Israel stands as an important symbol of the precipitous, groundbreaking and often contradictory 20th century.