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Between hope and despondency in Poland

Alon Goshen-Gottestein asked some hard questions about Jews and Poland; here are my answers
Prime Minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. (AP/Michael Sohn)
Prime Minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. (AP/Michael Sohn)

I am responding to the disturbing questions about the current Polish situation asked by my friend Alon Goshen-Gottstein. He included on his blog the Statement of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, of which I am the Jewish co-chairman. It is my point of departure, but I am writing here in my own name.

  1. As “concern” leads to “despondency,” we must ask ourselves how helpful has the friendship between Christians and Jews in past decades been. Is it adequate to stem the tide of rising anti-Semitism?

The friendship has been real and genuine. This friendly face of Poland is present and well, and this makes me feel at home in Poland. At the same time, there has always been an ugly face. It is more visible now, more aggressive, the right wing politicians appeal to it, and there is little we can do to stop this trend, and the hate-speech associated with it. It brings electoral support.

Also in the Catholic Church the traditional anti-Jewish attitudes are visible, even though all my Catholic friends, including bishops, say that they are against the current Church teaching. Pope Francis is seen as a leftist aberration. Old-fashioned approach is clearly seen in the sermon of Bishop Jez mentioned in the Statement. For years, traditional anti-Semitism was visible in the programs of the Catholic media network Radio Maryja. This has been toned down, but the mentality has remained. (To them, the devil is now associated with Islam.) The head of the media network, a rather marginal figure 20 years ago, is now de facto a dominant presence in the Polish Catholic Church.

All the achievements of the past 30 years are in danger and the forces defending them insufficiently entrenched. This is true regarding the Christian-Jewish friendship, as well as the Polish liberal democracy, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary. At the same time, the friendship and the experience of democracy remain, and hopefully will get the upper hand in the future. Not in the near future, though.

  1. Are we, professionals at dialogue and people of good-will, a hopeless band of optimists who demonstrate the possibility of friendship, but who nevertheless lack the power to bring about real change?

Things go in the wrong direction, not just in Poland, but in much of Europe. I am afraid that we’ll be sliding down until we hit a wall. What sort of catastrophe is threatening us, I do not know, but too many young people seem to think according to the slogan that one encounters on T-shirts of Polish youth: “Death to the enemies of the fatherland!” No wonder about one third of Europeans believe that it is possible that in the next 10 years war can break out between some EU states. Growing tensions are also felt within each country. Anti-European parties are getting stronger in most countries and their representatives will probably constitute a visible section of the European parliament after the elections. They get support because of massive immigration from the South, strong Islamic presence, economic crisis, increasing income inequalities, ecological challenges and accelerating civilizational changes. In Poland, they also use anti-Semitism.

The Polish far right-wing nationalistic coalition is basing its campaign on “no to EU, no to gays, no to Jews.” Up to now, the far right parties have had no direct representation in elected bodies, even though some politicians with such views are members of the Polish parliament and local parliaments. The ruling right-wing party PiS (Law and Justice) successfully kept far right voters within its electorate. It was flirting with them, but always verbally distanced  itself from anti-Semitism. Now the more extreme nationalistic groups seem to have become more autonomous and anti-Semitism is part of their agenda.

  1. Have things become worse due to the interference of foreign powers (specifically following legislation by US Congress) or are we now seeing the “true” state of affairs in a country that has never engaged in a serious examination of conscience following its own history of persecution of Jews?

Poland has engaged in a serious examination of conscience. The most important Holocaust research is being conducted in Poland. The debate on Poles killing their Jewish neighbors in 1941 was deep and penetrating; nothing even remotely similar has happened in any of the other East European countries. Yet now the government-sponsored backlash is in place: the historians describing shameful facts are attacked as “anti-Polish”; the official propaganda fights the so-called “pedagogy of shame”; Poles are to be presented primarily as rescuers of Jews; more generally, Poles are perceived as innocent victims of evil forces, and the number of Jewish communists is supposed to be one of the examples of the foreign rule.

This policy finds support in the electorate, and far right politicians stretch it further, attacking the ruling right-wing party for “bowing to the Jews.” This trend will continue because there are enough voters who agree and could vote accordingly. This dimension of Poland has always been there but for over 20 years after 1989 it was less visible in public life. I do not think there is one reason why it is getting more influential. Maybe it is like the pendulum going to the left and then to the right and back.

  1. The mixture of politics, religion and memory on the Polish side seems as confusing as the Israeli mix would seem to the outsider. In short, how much light still shines on Jewish-Christian relations in Poland (and other European countries) and at what point do we declare all our efforts to have been successful for individual participants but a failure for the community at large?

Yes, this mixture is confusing, and dirty too. What can we do? Among the reasons for anti-Semitism there are symbolic, historical, and mythical issues, for example the perception of Jews as the symbol of opposition to Christianity, of the Communist power elite, of the power of money, of control behind the scenes. There is, however one real problem, namely the issue of restitution.

The process of restitution of Jewish communal property has been going on for many years and despite problems has returned substantial property to the Jewish community of Poland, as well as to the foundation established by the community together with the World Jewish Restitution Organization. Individual property has been returned to a number of former owners, including those of Jewish origin. This is possible if one can prove in court that it was confiscated after the war in a manner that violated the law of that time. Yet no comprehensive solution has been provided. One of the reasons is the complexity of the issue, for example the murder and forcible transfer of millions, invoked in the Statement.

The pressure for a solution, including the restitution of heirless property, has been exercised by Israeli and American Jewish agencies. It provokes strong reactions among those Polish citizens who can lose but since they are many and very few voters can gain anything, few politicians are looking for a solution. And those who refer to the problem prefer to use this fear to talk about the billions that Jews allegedly want to suck out of Poland.

While the recurring issue of restitution invigorates anti-Semitism, its objective is less and less clear among Jews in Poland. Many say that it is too late, that there is no way to assess the losses, to define the legal status of the properties that belonged to Jews 80 years ago and which since then has been used by others and could have changed owners several times. As a result, just compensation is unattainable. It is also less than clear, they would add, that American or Israeli organizations are the appropriate inheritors of the murdered Jews.

At the same time, the passive acceptance of the results of mass murder also seems wrong. That is why in the Statement the idea of a symbolic solution is invoked. My proposal is as follows. It should be possible for the heirs of all former owners to claim documented property, both communal and individual, as it has been until now. However heirless property should be left alone, albeit with one exception: if anything is known about its former status this fact would be indicated on a plaque or by another symbol. A plaque with the inscription explaining that it used to be a Jewish property would constitute symbolic compensation.

If major players, Israeli, Jewish, and American, agree with the idea of symbolic restitution, it would regain the close relationship that should exist between Poland and Israel and between Poland and the wider Jewish community. What is more, I believe that quite a few Jewish inheritors, who live comfortably elsewhere, would also go for such a solution: the mention of their ancestors in the places where they lived could be more meaningful than mere financial recompense.

I believe that the time has come to put the topic of the symbolic restitution on the agenda.

About the Author
Born in Warsaw, mathematician turned philosopher, full professor at the University of Warsaw, dissident and member of 'Solidarity' under Communism, active in reviving Jewish life in Poland, co-chair of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, co-author of the post-World War II section at POLIN.
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