Hilary Eldridge for Jewish Insider
The Czech ambassador’s simple influence-winning motto: ‘Be interesting’
How the Central European nation’s eccentric emissary is winning hearts (and stomachs) in Washington
In the ornate sitting room of the Czech ambassador’s official residence in Washington, D.C., the walls are covered not in Central European art or other local artifacts, but an eclectic assortment of souvenirs from Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček excursions around the world.
From a crimson-and-gold-upholstered armchair, Kmoníček points to a full crocodile skin hanging on the wall and begins to explain its provenance.
“I was negotiating in Sudan, and I needed to prove I am macho enough,” Kmoníček said casually. (He killed the crocodile with the permission and under the supervision of the locals. “I was definitely not fighting it. And if I did, I would not be sitting here today. I would be in his stomach,” he added with a laugh.)
Kmoníček is a career ambassador who enjoys creature comforts — he cooks elaborate meals for guests, has an extensive personal art collection adorning his walls (and a personal collection of hundreds of bottles of hot sauce in his kitchen) and likes to sit in a meditation room overlooking Rock Creek Park that is inspired by the Dalai Lama, whom he considers a friend.
Other spoils of his love for hunting are present, including the hide of a kangaroo from Australia and the skin of a snake from India. One wall boasts dozens of antique guns and knives, “what I call [the] Republican room,” he explained with a chuckle. He has not gone hunting in the five years he has been in the U.S., where, he jokes, “Congress is my hunting ground.”
The unique assortment of objects reflects Kmoníček’s idiosyncratic tastes, but it also gets at the key thesis of his diplomacy. “If we want to be heard, we must be interesting,” he told Jewish Insider in a recent interview at his residence. “It’s the same challenge all of us who are not big nations with huge armies and big strategic interests face with whatever administration,” Democratic or Republican. That challenge, he explained, existed under former President Donald Trump, and it remains under President Joe Biden.
Sometimes, of course, even an ambassador from a small landlocked Central European country finds himself enmeshed in global geopolitical conflicts. The challenge these days for Kmonicek is not only standing out in Washington but standing up on the international stage for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as his embattled nation faces an onslaught from Russian forces.
Last year, Russia released a list of “unfriendly countries” that included just two names: the U.S. and the Czech Republic, which blamed Russian agents for a 2014 explosion at an ammunition depot in Vrbětice, in the eastern part of the country. The Czech Republic has aligned itself closely with Zelensky in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and it has sent ammunition, fuel and medical supplies to the country.
The Czech Republic has also been at the forefront of advocating for a strong Western response to Putin’s aggression. Kmoníček called Putin’s actions in Ukraine “a danger for all of Europe, and to face it, the key is the absolute unity of all the allies.”
“We were absolutely persuaded that Europe, where it started two world wars just in the last century, finally found the recipe [for] how to solve our differences in a peaceful way. And the result is the European Union,” said Kmoníček. The Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, and in 1999 was one of the first former socialist countries to join NATO. Ukrainians are the largest ethnic minority in the country.
Even when the Czech Republic does not find itself embroiled in a continental land war, Kmoníček, 59, has a lot to offer that will interest diplomats, politicians and members of the public alike. Born and raised in Pardubice, a city of 90,000 some 60 miles east of Prague that is best known for its chemical factory, Kmoníček plays classical guitar and can speak several languages, including Arabic, Russian, some Hebrew and a bit of Tatar (his wife’s native language).
The Hebrew came from a year he spent in Israel in the 1990s, during a “real roller coaster” of self-exploration — he discovered he was Jewish in his mid-20s, and soon after, he went to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem as part of a program for Jewish leaders in the diaspora.
Kmoníček’s mother revealed her Jewish lineage after hiding it from him during the country’s socialist years. During the era in which Kmoníček grew up, a good Jew “celebrates his Christmas and never heard about Hanukkah,” he said. “The Czech Jews usually felt themselves so much part of the political and cultural life of the mainstream that it was not the only identity they had, being Jewish,” Kmoníček explained, and because organized religion was verboten during socialism, many religious traditions were not passed down.
Norm Eisen, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic during the Obama administration, told JI that Kmonicek’s Jewish identity “is part of the mosaic of experiences that he brings to the job,” and said the pair discussed religion together. “Because my American, Czech and Jewish identities were all three such an important part of my ambassadorship and have continued to define work that I do in my post-diplomatic career at [the] Brookings [Institution], Ambassador Kmoníček reflected with me on his own Jewish heritage,” Eisen added.
But the main reason Kmoníček went to Israel was to further his proficiency in Arabic — a language he had picked up almost by accident before the Iron Curtain fell — rather than his “suddenly discovered ethnic roots.”
In the late 1980s, Kmoníček was earning a living as a classical guitarist. He called the gig “the perfect job, one of the very good jobs during the communist times,” because it provided a rare opportunity to travel. He played classical music in particular because it had “no lyrics, no breathless song. If you stick to Johann Sebastian Bach, you are the safe bet,” Kmoníček noted.
He had a degree from the faculty of music, but he wanted to continue his education and study English. At first, he was denied this opportunity because state-affiliated administrators in Czechoslovakia told him a second degree would waste the hard-earned money of the working class. When they eventually relented, “they told me no, solo English you cannot study,” recalled Kmoníček. “I was told that it’s a capitalist language, but I can study it in combination with some progressive language. The progressive language was Arabic.”
When Kmoníček arrived in Israel, he lived first in the Hebrew University dorms on Mt. Scopus, before moving into the center of Jerusalem, where he got to know other Central European Jews who had moved to Israel in the years after communism came to an end. He also met many Czechs who had moved to Israel decades earlier, after the Holocaust.
Today, the Czech Republic is one of the most pro-Israel countries in Europe, a tradition that dates back decades. The first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, visited Mandatory Palestine in 1927 and spent time in Jewish settlements there. Decades later, following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Czech President Vaclav Havel visited Israel on one of his first foreign trips, along with a delegation of more than 100 Czech Jews.
Daniel Meron, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the Czech Republic until last summer, told The Jerusalem Post that “the Czech Republic is probably one of Israel’s best friends in Europe,” noting that “here in Europe, such support is unheard of.”
The country also played a key role in establishing European protocols for the restitution of property stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. The 2009 Terezin Declaration, a nonbinding resolution approved by 47 nations to help correct the economic crimes perpetrated against Jews during the Holocaust, emerged from a conference hosted in Prague by the Czech prime minister.
Every time a new leader is elected in the Czech Republic, Kmoníček fields calls from friends and officials in Israel questioning the new administration’s stance on Israel. “I try to explain [that] because the public mood in Czech Republic is traditionally so much pro-Israeli, that it’s suicide for any politician to go against that sentiment,” he said.
The Czech government has condemned the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. Last year, the country became the second European nation, after Hungary, to open a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem.
“I still consider it as my home ground,” Kmoníček said of Israel, while acknowledging that his Hebrew has not quite held up over the years.
On a recent trip to Israel several months ago, “I found I am still able to survive normally on the street,” stated Kmoníček. But when “I was talking politics with [Israeli Prime Minister] Naftali Bennett, I wouldn’t use Hebrew. I definitely go to English.”
Kmoníček’s work in his country’s foreign service was a second career, when he tired of playing music and being a translator at the same time. Once, he went to a town to play a show at the opening of a new art gallery; the next day, he returned with a delegation from Malaysia as their translator.
“Everybody in the town — it’s a small town — said, ‘Oh, your twin was here yesterday opening a new gallery,’ and I said ‘No, that was not, it’s still me.” But it could not go on like that,” Kmoníček recalled.
The offer from the Czech Foreign Ministry, which was looking for someone with Middle East language skills, came while he was still in Israel. He started as a desk officer focused on Yemen, eventually rising to become director general for Asia, Africa and America and twice serving as deputy foreign minister. His career has also included stints as ambassador to Australia, India and the United Nations in New York.
“That’s also the place where I found and met my wife, who to make it to sound a little bit like the Middle East peace process, is Uzbeki Muslim. And let me tell you, it was never easy with her family when she showed me to them,” said Kmoníček. “It probably helps that neither of us is religious.”
He asked facetiously, “Do I keep kosher most of the time? No. Do I know I should? Yes. Is my wife ever going to the mosque? No. If she went, probably she would find they’re my friends,” he said. “We have both the Torah and Quran here and they sit peacefully next to each other” —Kmoníček pointed to the two sacred texts, placed conspicuously on the mantle above the fireplace — “and we are joking that probably the most complicated life will be for our children, because they will have to decide what they are religiously.” The couple’s first child is due later this year.
In Washington, Kmoníček continues to draw upon his Middle East experience because of a unique arrangement between the Czech and American governments related to Syria. Since the U.S. embassy in Syria suspended operations a decade ago, the Czech Republic has served as the official representative of U.S. interests in the war-torn country. Any Syrian-American dual citizen who needs something from the Syrian government must go through the Czech embassy. (Other countries play a similar role for the U.S. — Sweden does the same in North Korea, and Switzerland operates similarly in Iran.)
This arrangement comes out of the longstanding Czech-Syrian relationship that dates back to the close connection of Syria’s Baathist regime and Europe’s socialist governments. Kmoníček attended the 2000 funeral of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the father of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I’m a very known face around Damascus,” Kmoníček said. “We never had a colony. They cannot go, ‘OKy, you want to play here your national interest.’ What national interest [do] we have there?”
This role has human rights and strategic implications, and it is especially important for the tens of thousands of Syrian immigrants who live in the U.S. But it also gets to the heart of Kmoníček’s approach to diplomacy — that when you are a relatively peaceful, small country of 10 million people, you need a way to get Washington’s attention.
“Especially in a place like Washington, you have so many countries represented, you have to be somehow interesting, you have to be somehow unique,” said Petr Tůma, a Czech diplomat who previously served as deputy chief of mission in Syria and is currently a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. “When you are from a small country without any major problems, from the U.S. point of view, then nobody cares.”
Tůma has also worked at the Czech embassy in Washington, and said that in his experience, “the envelope is more important than what is inside” when it comes to sharing Czech priorities with American officials.
Kmoníček “is a great storyteller,” added Tůma. “This is something the American public and [our] American counterparts, you really like your stories, and you like the movies. That’s what Ambassador Kmonicek is really great about. He comes with an interesting story.” Kmoníček relishes telling his visitors — the American ones in particular — the many near-unbelievable tales of his time in the diplomatic corps.
“If the American visitor comes here, I want him to see this is not a poor struggling house without a budget, without taste,” Kmoníček reflected. Nor is it “all a dusty museum. It’s nothing supermodern, playing to be Scandinavian. It’s very eclectic.”
To illustrate this point, he offered a sample menu that he might cook at one of his monthly dinners for other ambassadors. Instead of caviar, he offers smoked Amazonian ants; for another dish, he might combine Moroccan and Jamaican cuisine, but cook it in a South African style. He competes annually in the Embassy Chef Challenge, in which he is the only ambassador to go up against the professional chefs employed by foreign embassies in Washington..
This is not to say that Kmoníček shuns the food of his home country. On the contrary, he loves it: Last year during “the famous January troubles,” his diplomatic codeword for the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, he felt an obligation to help provide for members of the Texas and Nebraska National Guards when they were in Washington. The Czech Republic has an official partnership with the two states’ Air National Guards.
He set aside the outlandish culinary creations for which he is known around Washington whipped up a hearty Czech goulash instead. “We feel them as our own,” he said of the Czech descendants serving in the American military, “and they must be fed.”