Philip Earl Steele

Kumbaya sung as an anti-Zionist tune

The attendees of the Seelisberg Conference. From "Reports and Recommendations of the Emergency Conference on Anti-Semitism", 1947
The attendees of the Seelisberg Conference. From "Reports and Recommendations of the Emergency Conference on Anti-Semitism", 1947

The 19th-century idea of a Jewish return to the Land of Israel has consumed me the past dozen years. What I’ve learned is that it all began as a messianic belief among both Evangelical Christians and Jewish rabbis who sensed the imminent fulfillment of Divine promise. Soon, the idea of a restoration also became compelling outside strictly religious thought, developing new forms – political, social, and nationalist – as circumstances evolved. And in large part as they worsened with widespread pogroms (esp. from the early 1880s) and the failure of the hopes for assimilation in Europe. Hence the first (short-lived) Zionist movement: Hovevei Zion.

When Zionism was reborn as a movement in the final years of the 19th century under Theodor Herzl‘s charismatic leadership, the many strands of Zionist thought were all still present, but what was predominant in the plait was the desire for a transformational “muscularity”, for the bold creation of a national homeland the Jews would manfully defend themselves. The corollary was that such muscularity would win the respect Jews were long denied by the nations, and would eventually spell the end of antisemitism itself.

Regarding the first aim, Zionism has long been a triumph. The State of Israel has ably defended itself again and again over the past decades, as it is doing today against “an Islamic death cult terrorist-army” (David Horovitz).

About the second wish, i.e., the withering away of Jew-hatred… Plainly there are still far too many, in Europe and elsewhere, who in their denial of Israel’s right to self-defense (what other country is so vehemently denied that right?) are actually decrying the very existence of the State of Israel, the bastion of the Jews’ peoplehood. The present conflict has therefore made a mockery of the claims that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, as outrages in Dagestan, across Europe, and in North America have painfully shown.

In Poland, where I live, anti-Zionism is hardly in-your-face or ‘from the river to the sea’ – rather, it’s mainly passive-aggressive and cultivated most conspicuously in milieux that are nominally… philosemitic (sic!). For instance, “Forum Dialogu”, which boasts it “is the oldest Polish non-profit dedicated to fostering Polish/Jewish dialogue” has yet to say anything on either its website or Facebook page about the heinous crimes of October 7, much less to condemn Hamas’ bestial pogrom. The Polish Council of Christians and Jews has pursued inter-religious public prayer and sing-alongs for peace, which only recalls President Obama’s quip from 2015 that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “can’t be reduced to somehow a matter of let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya”. Conversely, on October 10 the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ), to which the Polish Council belongs, published a strident condemnation of Hamas: “Israel experienced a savage terrorist attack on its territory … There can be no justification or legitimization of this horrifying brutality; it is indeed perverse to call this a legitimate fight to end the occupation”. In fact, the Polish Council was obliged to publish on its website the ICCJ’s statement, but left the 343-word text in English. Which puts us right back to passive-aggression.

I’ve written more fully about the troubling tendency of leading Polish philosemitic organizations to exclude Israelis from their conception of Jewry here, but it bears repeating that the much-sung Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN in Warsaw continues to define its educational mission thus: “To safeguard memory and shape the future – that’s the educational mission of POLIN, as well as the mission of the project Jewish Cultural Heritage. These missions stem from the faith that encountering the history of Polish Jews strengthens the historical awareness of Poles, Jews, and Europeans, since it is part of the history of Poland, Europe, and the Jewish Diaspora.”

Well, it’s also part of Israel’s history, and the omission of that fact can only compel one to conclude that the preceding term “Jews” also spurns Israelis.

Why high-profile, otherwise pro-Jewish bodies in Poland play peek-a-boo with Israel has been explained to me in several ways. A leading figure in Forum Dialogue once told me, “Israel adds complications to the discussion [in Poland of things Jewish], what with its socio-political complexity”. Uh, okay… Last year a prominent member of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, in turn, insisted during an email exchange that for the Council to condemn Hamas for firing hundreds of rockets at civilian targets in Israel it “would require the Council to register itself with the Ministry of Internal Affairs as a lobbying entity”. Nor was he being facetious, though of course he was dead wrong, as proven by the powerful denunciation of Hamas issued Oct. 18 this year by the head of the Polish Episcopal Conference (KEP) and Cardinal Grzegorz Ryś, chairman of KEP’s committee for Dialogue with Judaism. This was done, I hardly need clarify, without the KEP first having re-registered itself as a pro-Israel lobby.

* * *

In closing, a telltale footnote. Last year Forum Dialogue and the Polish Council of Christians and Jews commemorated the “International Emergency Conference on Anti-Semitism” held in Seelisberg, Switzerland in the summer of 1947 – precisely, from July 30 to August 5. Thus, the conference commenced shortly after the Exodus 1947 scandal erupted. On July 18 the ship carrying some 4,000 Holocaust survivors was forcibly seized by the British as it approached Haifa, with its passengers sent back on other vessels to war-torn Europe the next day. The matter was everywhere covered in the press, and yet the conference in Seelisberg totally neglected to note it, along with any “solution of the Jewish question”, as was the parlance, that involved what was still Mandate Palestine.

Instead, the conference came up with a list of 10 cringeworthy admonitions for distribution, including “Avoid using the word Jews in the exclusive sense of the enemies of Jesus”. Such were the “emergency” measures devised in the immediate wake of six-million Jews having been murdered in the Nazi-German genocide, and at the very time 4,000 Holocaust survivors from the Exodus 1947 were being sent back ultimately to… camps in Germany. “Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya…”

Nonetheless, Seelisberg is lauded as a positive breakthrough in Christian-Jewish relations, something it most certainly is not. It’s a shameful embarrassment. Above all, it’s a stark reflection of sanctimonious blindness to the Jewish people’s right to a homeland – and all the more so, therefore, to Israel’s right to self-defense.

About the Author
Philip Earl Steele is an American historian based in Poland, specializing in the history of early Zionism. His recent book on Theodor Herzl, published by the Polish Academy of Sciences, is available in Open Access:
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