Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a special joint session of Congress on Tuesday was so successful that many of his critics conceded that he had defied their expectations. Some, however, took issue with the fact that he invoked the memory of the Holocaust toward the end of his address, with Chris Hayes mocking: “It is always Munich, 1939 [sic].” If there is one thing Netanyahu’s speech achieved instantly, it was to ensure that Israel will not be Czechoslovakia.
It is true that Israeli leaders have been obsessed with Munich–as have American leaders. The memory of the failed effort to appease Hitler hung over the West in general, and the White House in particular, as successive administrations faced off against the Soviet Union. For Israel, however, Munich has special resonance, because like Czechoslovakia, Israel is a small democracy surrounded by hostile nations–and like Czechoslovakia, it is often excluded from diplomacy that shapes its fate.
In his masterful biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Conrad Black recalls the scene when the poor Czechoslovakian delegates were brought into the room to be informed of their nation’s fate. “No Czech answer was requested. They were handed a fait accompli. The Czechs wept, and Hubert Masarik said, prophetically and justly: ‘They don’t know what they are doing to us or to themselves.’…These poor, good men were the final players in a macabre and shameful Gothic tragedy.”
As the West has struggled to face the threat of radical Islam–Sunni and Shia–Israel has been determined to avoid Czechoslovakia’s fate. In October 2001, when President George W. Bush called for a Palestinian state just weeks after 9/11, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned: “Don’t repeat the terrible mistakes of 1938, when the enlightened democracies in Europe decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a comfortable, temporary solution…[Israel] will not be Czechoslovakia.”
The Czechs have recognized the link between the two nations from the start. In 1948, Czechoslovakia was one of the few countries that was a reliable source of weapons for the new Israeli army, which faced invasion from all of its neighbors. That friendship was renewed after the Cold War, and the Czech president was on hand at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference on Monday, where he received a special acknowledgment during Netanyahu’s speech there.
In Congress, Netanyahu only alluded to Munich obliquely: “I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Not to sacrifice the future for the present; not to ignore aggression in the hopes of gaining an illusory peace.” He added: “But I can guarantee you this, the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.” That pledge, which received a standing ovation, was the message Netanyahu came to deliver.