This article examines Zionists’ politics of belonging in interwar Czechoslovakia. It shows that the Jewish sports and gymnastics organization Maccabi was a vehicle for Zionists’ efforts to construct Jews’ belonging as individuals and as a collective in the new, multinational state. While Jews’ civic equality was formally guaranteed by the Czechoslovak constitution, actual, social and civic equality depended on a broader, public identification of Jews as legitimately belonging in Czechoslovakia. For Zionists, making Jews insiders, individuals that were respected as equal and loyal citizens, was contingent on Jews’ simultaneous belonging to a Jewish national and a Czechoslovak civic collective. Drawing on the ideal of the Zionist “new Jew” and on local traditions for minority nationalism, activists sought to create a symbiosis between Zionism and Czechoslovak patriotism in the 1920s and 30s.
This article explores how perceptions of Jewish power shaped the negotiations between Czechoslovak leaders and Jewish minority representatives at the time of the Paris Peace Conference. In the aftermath of the First World War, Prague-based Zionists embarked on a mission to convince Czechoslovak elites that attacks on Jews were detrimental to the internal stability of the new state and to Czechoslovak interests abroad. As Edvard Beneš, the head of the Czechoslovak delegation in Paris, worked to cultivate an image of the new state as more “Western” and “civilised” than other successor states – a strategy meant to garner international support for Czechoslovak territorial demands and its projected absorption of large minority populations – Jewish activists encouraged his uncertainty with regard to Jews’ influence on Western audiences and statesmen. They did so in order to convince him to accept their demands for special protection clauses for the new country’s Jews. The paper thus shows that the unprecedented victimisation of Jews and the upsurge in antisemitism during and after the war coexisted with a new bold and public Jewish activism. Yet, Jewish leaders did not in the end have the ability to convince Beneš and his colleagues to give in to international Jewish demands for special protection. Instead, they sought to cultivate a strategic alliance between the state’s Czech elite and the Jewish minority which centred on the claim that Czechoslovakia was a particularly welcoming and tolerant place for Jews, an image that would evolve into a significant component of the myth of Czechoslovakia as an island of democracy in Eastern Europe.