Polish gall

Earlier this week the government in Warsaw canceled at the last minute a visit by an Israeli delegation out of concern that “talks would primarily focus on the issues related to property restitution.” In a tweet Monday by the Polish Foreign Ministry – a country whose legislature is already walking on thin ice with world Jewry because of recent moves to deny the role of its population during the Holocaust – leaders are shying away from yet another aspect of responsibility to actions taken during the World War II. What exactly are they afraid of?

Poland is the only European country to have absolutely no official arrangement to resettle its financial dues to its Jewish populations, save for a 1960 post-Shoah payout to American citizens only, without addressing the remainder of Jews who endured the Holocaust and who ended up throughout the rest of the world, including in Europe.

As it happens, Poland is the country with the highest number of people recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” (6,992, with the Netherlands coming close after- 5,778).” Nobody can take that away from them. However, nearly half of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust were Polish, 90% of their original population. The fact is that this happened as the rest of the Polish people turned their backs on the Jews. This was the best-case scenario, with countless testimonies of residents themselves killing their Jewish neighbors during the war, as in the 1941 horrific massacre of Jedwabne.

I do not blame the non-Jewish Poles for putting themselves first during the Nazi occupation, when they were themselves in survival mode. But anti-Semitism did not begin in 1939. The three-day pogrom of 1918 by Polish forces in today’s Lwów did not begin in 1939, nor did those throughout the Russian Empire the previous century.

Anti-Semitism did not end after the war either. We know that even after the Holocaust, Jewish refugees were murdered by their former Polish neighbors upon returning to reclaim their former homes. The five-year purge of 20,000 Jews from Poland occurred more than two decades afterwards. Try blaming Hitler for that. Fast forward to the last few years, where it’s not uncommon to find comments on social media like, “the Jews and Israel have the liberal lobby in Brussels on a leash,” and “too bad, that not all Jews emigrated in 1968.” A Pew poll conducted last year showed that one in five Poles believe Jews shouldn’t be citizens of their country.

Gilad Segal, an expert in Israeli-European Union relations, believes that much of today’s anti-Semitism in Europe stems from its growing immigrant Muslim population, as well as the hard Left. On Labor Day, for example, socialist demonstrators in Sweden were heard chanting “Crush Zionism,” bringing back age-old anti-Semitic tropes of the Jewish-money-power triangle.

However, the protesters demanding Poland not provide any compensation victims of the war were nationalist supporters of its current government, so it’s clear that neither side of the political spectrum is in the clear of its hatred for the Jews. Either way, as Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, anti-Semitism, like a virus, knows how to mutate itself in order to survive, and it has certainly succeeded in doing so in Europe and beyond.

The role of the Polish people during the war’s atrocities aside, do Jews not have the same right to their assets as people of other ethnicities? Is it so far-fetched that the survivors or families of survivors of the Nazi horrors would lay claim to property that is legally theirs?

Many critics of Israel’s current government would say that the cooperation between Jerusalem and the governments on the far-right in Europe is a recipe for disaster. These are serious claims that must not be taken lightly, but they must also be considered within the wider problem of anti-Semitism that is certainly not going away, and must also be dealt with by those in power, with whom we won’t agree about everything.

“Those who do not understand the complexities of this reality, and the constraints of ‘realpolitik’ will end up losing on all fronts, including the battle against anti-Semitism. Even [David] Ben-Gurion negotiated with [former German Chancellor] Konrad Adenauer when it wasn’t popular, just a few years after the Holocaust, to save Israel from economic collapse,” Segal tells me. “We must act with sensitivity and determination, with diplomacy and with wisdom, to ensure the State of Israel’s national interests. We must not turn our backs to friends, but at the same time, must set red lines when it comes to anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial,” he insists.

More than seven decades after the Holocaust, the Polish government would do right to make a serious effort to settle the material aspect of modern history’s most gruesome genocide. It’s far too late for the survivors, of whom so few now remain, but at least their families may find some solace knowing they live in a world that at times attempts to right one of many, many historical wrongs.

About the Author
Talia is Senior Fellow & Head of International Press at The Israel Project, an educational organization dedicated to informing the media and public conversation about Israel and the Middle East. She was a PR officer in the IDF’s Liaison & Foreign Relations Division and has worked for several Israeli and Jewish NGOs, as well as the Jerusalem Post. She holds an MA in Conflict Resolution from TAU. She made aliyah from New Zealand in 2003.