Norman Eisen, an old friend of Obama’s from Harvard Law School, is bolstering the forces of liberalism as ambassador to the Czech Republic
One day last August, a mid-level bureaucrat in the Education Ministry of the Czech Republic hand-delivered a complaint to the American Embassy in Prague. Ladislav Bátora styled himself a latter-day Martin Luther, but the target of his anger wasn’t the Catholic hierarchy but a Jewish American named Norman Eisen. Eisen, the U.S. ambassador, had signed an open letter supporting the first-ever gay pride parade to be held in the Czech capital—and Bátora was angry.
Bátora’s letter, signed by members of a far-right organization that goes by the acronym D.O.S.T., (meaning “enough” in Czech, and whose symbol is a clenched fist hitting a table), claimed that the festival was “organized by groups of homosexuals and lesbians whose demands against the Czech public significantly exceed the framework of mere tolerance.” Citing Ronald Reagan, whose anti-Communism has made him an enduringly popular figure in the Czech Republic, Bátora wrote that Eisen had betrayed the former president’s legacy and threatened to rupture the “good relations between our nations.”
American ambassadors, particularly those in small European countries, aren’t supposed to be in the business of stoking controversy. Not so for President Barack Obama’s appointees. Early last year, a State Department investigation revealed that the former ambassador to Luxembourg, a major Democratic Party fundraiser named Cynthia Stroum, had so demoralized her staff that some career foreign-service officers working under her fled for posts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last month in Belgium, Ambassador Howard Gutman provoked a firestorm in the United States when he intimated that Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe was largely a response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the surface, Eisen and Gutman have much in common: Both are prominent Democratic Party fundraisers, lawyers, and the children of Jewish Holocaust survivors. But their respective controversies could not have been more different: Whereas Gutman’s remarks provided fodder for those who seek to blame Jews for the hatred directed at them, Eisen’s intervention bolstered liberalism in a country that, still seeking its place in the post-Communist era, badly needs it.
The Czech Republic is known for its carefree attitude toward sex and sexuality: It has the highest divorce rate on the continent; it’s a popular destination for British stag parties; nearly half the population identifies as atheist; and it’s a major hub for the production of gay pornography. But these ostensible signifiers of social tolerance belie what is in fact a deeply conservative society.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus, for one, took umbrage at the fact that Eisen, along with 12 other Western ambassadors, voiced support for Prague Pride. The same day that Bátora marched on the U.S. Embassy, Klaus, a founder of the country’s biggest right-of-center political party, issued his own statement, declaring: “I can’t imagine any Czech ambassador daring to interfere by a petition with the internal political discussion in any democratic country in the world.” (Klaus had made his own views on the parade well known the previous week by defending an aide who had referred to gays as “deviant fellow citizens.”)
Eisen, 51, whose mother is a Czechoslovak Holocaust survivor, was now thrust into the center of a political controversy that had been roiling the country for months. Bátora had already been fingered as a man with unpalatable views: A group of Czech senators called for his dismissal from the Education Ministry a week before he delivered his missive to Eisen. The senators had raised concerns about Bátora’s involvement with a now-defunct far-right political party that promoted the expulsion of Czech Roma citizens. Bátora had also praised as “brilliant” a 1925 anti-Semitic book called The Adulteration of the Slavs, which approvingly cites The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Henry Ford’s The International Jew, and the works of German writers who would later go on to become leading figures in the Nazi Party.
Bátora’s presence in the Education Ministry threatened the country’s fragile center-right coalition government. (The most admired Czech in the world, Vaclav Havel, denounced Bátora from his sickbed.) Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, a distinguished Czech political figure and founder of the center-right TOP ’09 party, reportedly called him an “old fascist.” But it was Ambassador Eisen’s provocation that ultimately led to Bátora’s downfall.
The leftist Israeli magazine +972 wants to sound the alarm on a Jewish state it believes is destroying itself