Philip Earl Steele

Time for a Polish-Israeli pivot from Holocaust to Zionism

Focus should shift to a history that spawned luminaries of modern Jewish nationhood that include David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin
Polish residents of Plonsk, along with numerous dignitaries, gather in honor of Israel's 70th anniversary of independence, April 15, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Limmud FSU)
Polish residents of Plonsk, along with numerous dignitaries, gather in honor of Israel's 70th anniversary of independence, April 15, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Limmud FSU)

There’s a better way to do Polish-Israeli relations — and it’s not to “look to the future.” Poles and Israelis (and in that order, I stress) are much too consumed, in the main, by their respective pasts for that to ever work. Rather, a pivot has to be carried out from near-exclusive focus on the Holocaust to another area of the shared past. And no – I’m not thinking of festivals commemorating the shtetl. Sadly, that story contains a spoiler alert that can’t be ignored. We all know how that world vanished.

But there’s something else.

And it’s huge.

Alongside the Holocaust, it’s no less than the other of the two most significant events to have happened in Jewish history for many long centuries: Zionism and the creation of modern Israel. After all, so many of the founding architects of the Jewish state envisioned and labored for a return to the land of Israel from here, in Polish lands.

What I am suggesting, then, is a pivot to Zionism. Events, lectures, festivals and more, set in the many relevant locales around Poland, showcasing the fathers of modern Israel who pursued the Zionist dream in today’s Poland. That would necessarily include the 19th-century rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer from Toruń and the generation-younger rabbi Samuel Mohilever from Radom and Bialystok, as those men forged the religious program that has helped fuel Zionism ever since.

David Ben-Gurion’s hometown of Plońsk is already promoting its ties to Israel with a new annual festival. Indeed, Plońsk is lighting the way.

And thus one pictures the three cities up in Poland’s northeast corner – Bialystok, Elk, and Suwalki – each similarly highlighting their own important connections to the creation of modern Israel. Bialystok because of Rabbi Mohilever, Elk, because it was there, under David Gordon, that the Zionist Ha-Magid was published, the first Hebrew news weekly, Suwalki because it was there that the first Hovevei Zion group arose.

One furthermore imagines Plock boasting the illustrious Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow, and the University of Warsaw’s law Department celebrating its alumnus Menachem Begin.

Above all one hopes for a big annual event commemorating the famous Conference of Hovevei Zion in Katowice in November 1884, the culmination of the first Zionist movement. This could prove the biggest field for both domestic and international cooperation. After all, Rabbi Kalischer’s son was in attendance, and so the city of Toruń, as I happen to know, can be counted on for support. As can Elk, for David Gordon was another important attendee in Katowice. Rabbi Mohilever was of course the co-chairman, so Bialystok is a shoe-in. Events of this kind could draw thousands of the quarter million Israelis now visiting Poland annually, more than three-quarters of whom are not coming to Poland on educational trips about the Holocaust.

Importantly, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now encouraging such local efforts at fostering international ties with grants of up to 2 million zlotys.

The pivot to Zionism I am proposing opens the way to new, positive realms of Polish-Israeli cooperation. And to do so, infrastructure must also be established. For strangely enough, here in Poland there is not the tiniest university unit devoted to the study of Zionism. I picture the creation in Plońsk of a David Ben-Gurion Center on the Zionist Movement – in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, naturally. And the establishment of a Rabbi Samuel Mohilever Institute of Zionism and Modern Israel at the University in Bialystok. The founding of a museum in Katowice devoted to the history of Hovevei Zion is another obvious step to take.

What must be understood is that Jewry is a markedly truncated entity in Polish culture. Its scope is all but completely reduced to the strained relations before WWII and to the Holocaust (with a hiccup in the expulsions of 1968). As opposed to wide swathes of American society where Protestantism is strong, the Polish conception of “Żydostwo” (Jewry) does not include the Israelites of the Old Testament, and hence the rhythms of exile and return are simply not felt here. Indeed, Marcionism, which rejects the Hebrew Bible and the God of Israel (and is nominally a heresy), would seem to be alive and well in Polish Catholicism. When in the US a few years ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave President Obama the Book of Esther, and the message was clear to Americans across 50 states: modern Persia, too, is threatening the Jews with annihilation. Nobody in Poland, however, seemed to understand the gift’s meaning. Thus, any attempt in Poland to make understandable the modern Jewish presence in the land of Israel can begin no sooner than in the 19th century with the range of Zionist activities pursued on Polish lands.

Of course no supplanting of the Holocaust is imagined. Rather, foundations must be poured for a desperately needed extension for the current relationship structure. That so much of the above applies to many of Poland’s neighbors, as well, further commends the pivot outlined here. And that pivot looms as all the more doable in Polish-Israeli relations, as today’s political climate – though ever fraught – is at the same time more conducive than it well could be, given the two strongly national governments and the growing mutual recognition that the present formula (snafu) offers no traction. A surer footing for Polish-Israeli relations can be found.

The pivot to a joint commemoration of Zionism can offer Israel unique bonds with several EU member countries. And this is a salient policy of the Netanyahu government. Moreover, the pivot to Zionism offers a way to help Israel’s partners in Central-Eastern Europe more broadly to better understand the nature of Israeli statehood both beyond the traumas they suffer related to World War II, and beyond the biased news accounts of the threats to Israel’s security. Potentially, it can move them to an understanding of Jewish nationalism as something altogether kindred, as something that leavened also during their own repeated periods of captivity and dispersal, and sprang forth in their many struggles to reassert themselves in their own lands.

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: