In the hostile, pro-Israel Czech Republic, a movement for Palestine is gaining momentum
Last December, the Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala showed his support to Israel in its ongoing war in Gaza by participating in a pro-Israel rally held in Prague. Despite the cold and damp weather, hundreds of people gathered to join the rally, and the mood was sombre.
A dominating silent eerie engulfed all. But the vibe changed when the premier was invited to say a few words on stage. All eyes focused on their ally who returned a week from Tel Aviv after meeting his Israeli counterpart.
They eagerly wanted to know what he was about to say. To their comfort, he said exactly what they wanted to hear: “I have told PM Netanyahu my country will be the voice of Israel in Europe.”
"Despite facing a hostile media and indifferent society towards the Palestinian cause, in a state that considers the Israeli word as absolute truth, Ridvanova did not give up on spreading awareness for Palestine"
Fiala kept his promise and supported Israel during the war. The Czech government stood by Israel's side and even suggested moving the Czech embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The country was one of 14 nations that opposed the UN General Assembly's resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
The defence minister supported this stance by suggesting that the country should leave the United Nations. The local media also supported the government's pro-Israel foreign policy during the war, and Palestinian voices were absent from Czech politics and media coverage.
But then something unprecedented happened on January 20: a strong Pro-Palestinian counter-voice emerged on the streets of Prague.
Making sure Gaza isn't ignored in the Czech Republic
Just over a month after Fiala’s address, over a thousand people challenged the Prague-Tel Aviv bonhomie on the streets and demonstrated their support for Palestine, demanded an end to Israeli attacks, and criticised the Czech Republic’s pro-Israel policy saying that the country is participating in an ongoing genocide.
"Palestine, which was once the issue of a few expats, now was a rallying cry of over a thousand people — diverse in backgrounds yet united for a cause"
Prague was black, white and green with Palestinian flags. Czechs wore keffiyeh, danced the Dabke, and raised the flag of South Africa for taking Israel to the International Criminal Court on genocide accusation.
Palestine, which was once the issue of a few expats, now was a rallying cry of over a thousand people — diverse in backgrounds yet united for a cause.
Primarily the scattered voices finally became the start of a momentum in Czech public discourse because of a movement. And one of the voices of it is Jana Ridvanova.
Ridvanova, a Czech national with a Master’s degree in International Relations and Diplomacy, has been the face of pro-Palestinian voices in the Czech Republic for over a decade. She has been at the forefront in the country with her group of allies — Friends for Palestine — since 2008 after the start of Operation Castlead.
“It all started back in 2007 when I signed up for a workshop held by Jewish Voice for Peace in New York in 2007,” she said while speaking to The New Arab.
“It was a watershed moment for me because I knew that silence was not an option. And I have to raise my voice for it through all available mediums. But it was not easy. The Czech society’s indifference was the biggest challenge for me over all the years.”
Lamis Bartusek Khalilova, a Palestinian-Czech national currently a policy consultant in Prague said that the biased coverage of Czech media on the Palestinian conflict is one of the prime reasons for the non-response of the Czech society in the past.
“Czech media sounded like an Israeli spokesperson, it wasn't news, it was PR. Even European diplomats described it as the Czech Republic's position was further right than the Likud itself. It is truly unfathomable,” she said.
Khalilova also highlighted that the Czech government’s policy to disassociate from its Communist past also influences its policies towards Palestine.
“Since Czechoslovakia-PLO relations were amicable in the 70s and 80s, there's this notion that if you're anti-Communist, then you should also be anti-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. It's a very simplistic, immature and uninformed baseless conviction.”
Despite facing a hostile media and indifferent society towards the Palestinian cause, in a state that considers the Israeli word as absolute truth, Ridvanova did not give up on spreading awareness for Palestine. Even though it may have upset some people, she continued to speak out for the cause.
“Under the Friends of Palestine, in 2010, we invited Norman Finkelstein — a scholar and a staunch critic of Israel — to Prague,” the Palestinian activist said.
“There was a whole lot of drama involved, a location registered was cancelled at the 11th hour, things were tense but we managed to do a packed event.”
But the media continued to ignore her. The activism was not acknowledged. In the meantime, she kept inviting scholars and led protest marches on every Israeli strike inside Gaza — all in the bid to keep the Palestine issue relevant in the public discourse despite a pro-Tel Aviv dominant narrative. Things were silently shaking up but to what extent nobody knew.
A glimpse of the change, however, was noticed a week before the Jan 20th protests when hundreds attended a movie screening of a documentary film, Tantura, followed by a question and answer session with historian Ilan Pappe. It was a packed house contrary to all expectations.
On January 20, a few kilometres away exactly from the same spot where Prime Minister Fiala committed to be the voice of Israel in Europe, over a thousand joined in to say: not in their name.
“It was an amazing breakthrough. The turnout was more than we expected. It is a testament to the fact that pro-Palestine momentum has accumulated lately in the Czech Republic,” observed Dr Yasar Abu Ghosh, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology at the Charles University in Prague. He said social media activism was the biggest factor in breaking the impasse.
A quick look at the active pro-Palestinian accounts on Instagram vindicates his observations as it shows that along with the official organisational accounts, the engagement of individual influence accounts with thousands of followers galvanised the momentum.
What makes Ridvanova different from other activists is the fact that she can capture the moment by adapting to the activism that the younger generation relates with, said Ghosh, further adding: “She knows how to create the momentum according to the need of the hour. And of course, her activism is not just limited to social media. She is using social media for the cause on the ground.”
Ridvanova credits the new momentum to the hunger of the new generation to learn and re-learn global issues.
“Up till now my job was to encourage people to question the dominant narrative, and care for the people for the sake of humanity,” she said followed by a silence complimented by her gentle smile. “Finally I can see light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Czech activist is organising another massive protest march on February 18. She believes that it will have more participation than the previous protest.
“Of course, the voice of Palestine in the Czech Republic can be ignored but can’t be put to silence,” she smiled again.
Ebad Ahmed is a freelance journalist, human rights activist, and graduate student based in Prague, Czech Republic
Follow him on X: @ebadahmed