The presence of Jews in the Czech Republic traces back to antiquity, with the first Jews most likely arriving in central Europe with Roman legions during the classical period. The very first written document about Prague, a manuscript dated 965-6 CE, was the work of Ibrahim ibn Jacob, a Jewish merchant and diplomat sent as an envoy by the caliph of Cordoba. In 1096, the Jews suffered severe persecution and were forced to undergo baptism at the hands of the Crusaders. Over the course of the following centuries, the fortunes of the local Jewish community alternated between periods of persecution and periods of tolerance and prosperity.
Beginning in the 12th century, Prague became a great center of Jewish learning. It eventually became the home of celebrated Talmudists and great rabbinic scholars, such as the famous rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the “Maharal of Prague,” the most important Talmudist and kabbalist of his time (and, according to a famous legend, also the creator of the Golem).
The Jews experienced a golden age during the reign of Holy Roman Emperors Rudolf II in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The expulsion of Jews from Vienna in 1670 and an exodus from Poland at the time of the Chmelnicki massacres in 1648 and 1649 led to an increase in the Jewish population of Prague. Nevertheless, subsequent rulers oppressed their Jewish subjects. When Bohemia and Moravia came under Austrian Habsburg rule, the situation of the Jews deteriorated, with Empress Maria Theresa ordering their expulsion in 1744. Jews were banished from Prague, but only for a few weeks, as the economic situation forced the empress to lift the ban. At the end of the 18th century, during the reign of Joseph II, conditions improved rapidly. In 1848, the ghetto was abolished, and by 1867, the process of political emancipation was complete.
After becoming equal citizens, Jews were able to integrate into all aspects of public life, and featured prominently in the arts, sciences, commerce, and industry. Famous personalities such as Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler were born on the territory of Bohemia and Moravia during this time. Yet, Czech Jewry was still not totally secure. For example, the killing of a Christian girl near Polná in 1899 led to the infamous Hilsner ritual murder trial, which produced a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment (including riots) in Bohemia and Moravia. This, in turn, accelerated the exodus of Jews from many of the smaller communities to Prague and other large cities, as seen by incidents such as the infamous Hilsner ritual murder trial of 1899.
Much of the Jewish population, particularly the upper class, identified with the dominant German culture, and many of the great Jewish writers from Prague, notably Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, Max Brod, and many others from the so-called “Prague Circle,” wrote in German. Assimilation, emigration, and a low birthrate took a heavy toll on Czech Jewry, which intermarried at a high rate.
In October 1918, following the union of Bohemia, Slovakia and Moravia into the newly independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, the Prague-based Jewish National Council was created as a representative body to the new government, and it successfully worked to have Jews officially recognized as an official and legitimate minority. The Jewish National Council also established a political party, the Jewish Party (in Czech, Židovská strana) that enjoyed the support of Zionists in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia. In the 1931 national elections, the Jewish Party together with the Slovak Jewish Party, led by Bratislava lawyer Julius Reisz, won two seats in the Czechoslovak Parliament.
About 71,000 Czech Jews (85% of the community) were killed in the Shoah. Many of the survivors attempted to rebuild Jewish life, but after the February 1948 coup d'état in which the Communists took over the government, the atmosphere became increasingly inhospitable. It should be noted that in 1945-1947, Czechoslovakia supported the establishment of a Jewish state. After 1948, it helped train Israeli soldiers and airmen and transferred significant quantities of arms and ammunition to Israel.
The Slánský Trial of 1952, in which a number of Communists of Jewish origin were charged with Zionism and other “crimes,” was accompanied by a general deterioration in conditions for the Czechoslovak Jewish community. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and other foreign Jewish organizations were expelled, and many Jews were arrested and imprisoned on spurious charges. Emigration was also tightly restricted. With de-Stalinization, the situation for Jews improved somewhat, but communal life was still subject to stringent control.
The 1989 Velvet Revolution, in which democracy was reinstated, led to a reawakening of Jewish consciousness and opened up many new avenues of Jewish expression. Today, Jews constitute a small portion of Czech society, yet feature prominently in it. Michael Žantovský, a Senator from Prague, served as Ambassador to the United States from 1992 to 1997, Ambassador to Israel from 2004 to 2009, and Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2009 to 2015. Jan Fischer, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, served as Prime Minister from 2009 to 2010 and ran for President in the 2013 presidential elections.