Havel in Jerusalem

  DECEMBER 1, 2014 Newyorker

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 12.13.41 PMNot long after his unlikely rise from Czech prisoner to Czech President, Václav Havel paid a visit to Moscow. Until that moment, the leaders of Eastern and Central Europe had arrived at the gates of the Kremlin as little more than nerve-racked supplicants. They came to receive instructions and to pay obeisance to the General Secretary. Now Havel was there to see Mikhail Gorbachev, but, with an air of modest self-confidence, he carried a set of demands and an ironic prop. As Michael Žantovský tells the story in his excellent new biography, Havel asked that the Soviet Union remove its troops from Czech territory, and that the two nations sign a statement declaring them equals. Gorbachev, who had already relinquished his imperial holdings, agreed, at which point Havel produced a peace pipe, telling Gorbachev that it had been given to him by the chief of a Native American tribe during a recent trip to the United States. “Mr. President,” Havel said, “it occurred to me right there and then that I should bring this pipe to Moscow and that the two of us should smoke it together.” Žantovský, who was Havel’s press aide at the time, recalls that Gorbachev “looked at the pipe as if it were a hand grenade.” Then the Soviet leader turned to Havel and stammered, “But I . . . don’t smoke.”

Last week, a bust of Havel, who died in 2011, was unveiled at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, in Washington, exactly twenty-five years after Czechoslovakia, in concert with the rest of the Eastern and Central European countries under Moscow’s rule, became free. For decades, this had been beyond imagining. The rupture, seemingly so sudden, had many underlying reasons, not least Gorbachev’s realization that the imperial system was bankrupt, immoral, and without a future. But it was led and shaped by a singular politician—a playwright of the absurd who well understood the comic improbabilities of his life. Havel was a child of the Czech bourgeoisie, a lab assistant, a soldier, a stagehand, a dramatist, a moral philosopher, a dissident, a political prisoner for four years, and, finally, a President for fourteen.

Part of the reason that Havel is so celebrated today is that he radiated a homey brand of intellectual glamour—his passion for the Velvet Underground and for the Plastic People of the Universe, his decision to ride around the Castle on a scooter, his late, smoky nights in pubs and theatre basements. Although he trafficked in footlights and stage makeup, there was nothing false about him. His honesty was so extreme, so theatrically self-exposing, that his aides came to dread it. In April of 1990, less than a year after he became President, Havel visited Jerusalem and spoke at the Hebrew University, where he confessed a “long and intimate affinity” with his countryman Franz Kafka, and the near-certainty that his ascent to the Castle had been illusory and undeserved, and was sure to end in his being found out by the authorities:

I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry. . . . Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. . . . The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am, the stronger my suspicion that there has been some mistake.

Like all politicians, Havel made errors of judgment; what was unusual about him was that he openly acknowledged it. He was also assisted, as he knew, by certain advantages. He was working with a relatively prosperous nation and could look for political inspiration to figures from the pre-Communist past, particularly the great democrat Tomáš Masaryk, who was President in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Nevertheless, Havel must be credited with guiding his country, which had been ruled for so long by Berlin and Moscow, to independence, democracy, and the rule of law. He preferred to seize opportunities rather than to nurse grievances. When Gorbachev asked that there be no retribution against Czech Communists, Havel readily agreed.

Such moral imagination is, globally, in short supply. The day before Havel was honored in Washington, another chapter of cruelty unfolded not far from where he delivered his speech at the Hebrew University. In the Har Nof neighborhood of West Jerusalem, two Palestinians, cousins from East Jerusalem, burst into Kehilat Bnei Torah, a synagogue filled with people at their morning prayers. Yelling “Allahu Akhbar!”—God is great!—the men attacked the worshippers, with cleavers and guns. They seriously injured eight and killed five, including a rabbi named Moshe Twersky, who was a grandson of the late Joseph Soloveitchik, the leader of Modern Orthodoxy; and a young Israeli policeman, a Druze named Zidan Saif. Then came the moral leadership: Mushir al-Masri, a spokesman for Hamas, wrote on his Facebook page, “The new operation is heroic and a natural reaction to Zionist criminality against our people and our holy places. We have the full right to revenge for the blood of our martyrs in all possible means.”

There are many ways to think about such a horror, but one might start with the fact that this was a deliberate massacre of human beings at a moment of devotion—no less an act of bloody-minded fanaticism than the one carried out twenty years ago by an Israeli physician named Baruch Goldstein, when he entered the mosque in the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, and opened fire with a machine gun, killing twenty-nine Muslims at prayer. The Hamas spokesman’s attempt to provide a triumphal “context” is as indecent as the veneration of Goldstein as a martyr by some Israeli fundamentalists.

It is hard to ward off despair when looking at the cast of political players in this drama: the cynical, the racist, the exhausted. For Havel, though, despair was indeed an unforgivable sin. In his first New Year’s address to the Czech people, Havel admitted that the years of oppression had led them to live in a “contaminated moral environment.” Occupation, resentment, terror, and religious hatred have done the same in a place where despair is a constant shadow. Moral leadership, a moral generosity in politics, will not resolve every question—to suppose that it will is a form of sentimentality—but it is an essential part of what is required in Jerusalem and beyond.