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Poland and Israel: 30 years after operation ‘Bridge’ it’s time for operation “Building Bridges”

“We agreed with Israeli President Isaac Herzog that it’s time to return to normal relations between Poland and Israel,” Polish President Andrzej Duda wrote on Twitter a few days ago. He informed us that a “first step” had been completed – the Israeli ambassador Yakov Livne presented his official certification.

By Paweł Jędrzejewski, the editor of the Polish Jews Forum.

Unfortunately, in recent years, positive Polish-Israeli and even Polish-Jewish relations have been drastically weakened, perhaps even destroyed. While mistakes were made by both sides, there were two separate, discernible turning points.

The first was the infamous speech delivered by the Israeli ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, in January 2018 during the Auschwitz liberation commemoration. The second was Israel’s reaction in August 2021 to an amendment of the Polish Code of Administrative Procedure, when the then head of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid wrote on Twitter: “Today Poland approved – not for the first time – an immoral and anti-Semitic law,” and demanded the Polish ambassador Marek Magierowski not return to Israel after his vacation. The amendment was designed to address bureaucratic corruption, but Israel interpreted it as the enactment of a law designed to make the recovery of Holocaust victim properties essentially impossible.

And to think that after the fall of communism in Poland, it seemed that Polish-Israeli relations would be effortless and excellent.

When Poland pursued foreign policy under the dictatorship of the USSR, diplomatic relations with Israel were prohibited after the Six-Day War. In fact, in accordance with Moscow’s directives, communist authorities openly supported Arab terrorism. But after 1989, when Poland gained its independence, everything changed radically. And permanently.

Or so it seemed.

What happened at the Warsaw train station after 1968 and what would transpire just a couple decades later is truly a historical paradox. While that train station is where communist authorities forced Polish Jews to permanently emigrate after 1968, about twenty years later – from 1990 to 1992 – it became the same location where trains from Moscow to Paris would stop and hundreds of people would disappear into waiting buses. And after a night at a hotel, they’d depart for Israel from Okęcie airport. They were all Jews leaving the USSR to return to their homeland, protected by Polish anti-terrorist units working in cooperation with Mossad.

The organized “emigration transfers” were all intentional decisions of Operation “Bridge,” a secret protocol which Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki agreed to during his visit to the United States, when Israel and the American Jewish Congress asked the independent Polish state for an “immense favor.”

In the late 1980s, the head of the communist party, Mikhail Gorbachev, gave in to the demands of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to allow Jews to leave the USSR. The final, great exodus had begun. Soviet authorities never agreed to direct transports to Israel. Initially, the transits took place via Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest. However, the Vienna airport soon became far too exposed for such immense actions, far too vulnerable to terrorist attacks. That terrorist threat from Arab organizations shortly forced Hungary’s withdrawal from cooperation with Israel, and ultimately, Romania’s.

In early March 1990, the Israeli embassy sent a note to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “As the number of emigrants increases, the above roads [Bucharest and Budapest] turn out to be insufficient and the Israeli authorities are looking for alternative routes. … The Israeli Embassy is therefore asking the authorities of the Republic of Poland for help.”

Several days later at the Plaza Hotel in New York, during a meeting with activists of the Jewish Congress, then-Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki declared publicly: “Poland will not refrain from humanitarian aid to emigrants from the Soviet Union.” The hall erupted in a standing ovation. The promise made by the Polish prime minister was read as a symbolic break from forced policies carried out over previous decades by communist governments.

Moments like that proved once and for all that the world had changed.

But Prime Minister Mazowiecki’s declaration triggered an immediate reaction from Arab terrorist organizations. Just four days later, a Polish commercial attaché, Bogdan Serkis, and his wife were attacked and seriously wounded. A terrorist group took credit, while the Islamic Military Front publicly threatened further attacks on Polish embassy employees, LOT Airline offices, and Polish NGO locations around the world if Poland refused to revoke its promises to help Jews.

Poland refused to surrender to those threats and ultimately a total of around 42,000 Jews (some sources claim up to 60,000) passed through Warsaw on their way from Russia to Israel.

After years of mutual isolation between Poland and Israel – caused by Moscow’s foreign policy influence and explicit support of Arab nations politically, economically, and militarily – it seemed that Operation “Bridge” would be the first step toward lasting cooperation. Both people and nation-states are linked not only by their histories, but by a similar attitude to statehood itself, resulting from geopolitical threats. Israel is an island of democracy in a sea of hostile Arab regimes. Poland, on the other hand, is profoundly “land-locked” between Russia and Germany. It’s the actual embodiment of the age-old saying, “between a rock and a hard place.”

A ‘return to normality’?

Lasting cooperation? Linked histories? It’s turned out to be a fantasy. If only because of how vastly different Polish-Israeli relations look today. A “return to normality?” That depends on the definition of “return” and “normality.” Name one Israeli politician who remembers Operation “Bridge.” Who’s still willing to praise the “immense favor” that Poland accomplished for Israel?

Because it was precisely the attitude of Poland towards Israel at that time – freed from the communist ideology and administrative tyranny – that expressed the sentiments of the Polish state toward the Jewish people, where for almost 800 years they found the most promising place to live, develop, and flourish. And it was only the birth of German anti-Semitism, streamlined and militarized by the Nazis who invaded Polish territories in the name of German genocidal plans, that tragically ended the centuries-old Jewish presence in the Republic of Poland.

And ever since, Israel’s behaved like the proverbial bull in a china shop, especially in its 2018 reactionary and intentionally hysterical response over an amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance. Whether the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli ambassador, prominent Israelis in the media (e.g. a Yair Lapid claiming, “Polish extermination camps” or Tzipi Hotovely, the Israeli deputy Foreign Minister, referring to the words of the Polish Prime Minister as explicitly “anti-Semitic”), and countless others, they all displayed a profound lack of intuition and imagination.

Even in “disagreement,” this is not how you communicate to Poland or about Poland, which by the very virtue of Operation “Bridge” had proved its supportive and cooperative attitude towards the Jewish state almost immediately after gaining independence from the USSR. Aggressive rhetoric over cordial diplomatic action? All to satisfy the expectations of their own extremist nationalists?

What’s the purpose of that slander? And what’s the cost?

Because while international relations are one thing, the second issue – far more serious and insurmountable in my opinion – are the perpetual injuries the fragile Polish-Jewish relations have suffered recently in purely human terms. As a result of Israeli individual ill will, the Poles who hold prejudices against Jews and look for justification for their attitudes have repeatedly received volumes of evidence confirming their positions. Furthermore, the majority of people who’ve maintained a neutral, objective, or even sympathetic attitude toward Israel and Jews, have had a large bucket of freezing water poured over their heads the last few years. They feel cheated, they’ve been “woken up.”

The behavior of recent Israeli politicans in public – another example being Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz with his famous defaming, “Poles sucked anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk…” – has permanently changed the atmosphere of Polish-Israeli relations. It’s unfortunate and exceptionally foolish. Because Israel has real enemies in Europe. So why put a friend like Poland on that list?

This self-destructive process must be stopped. Unfair, generalized, and counterproductive accusations of anti-Semitism in Poland and an obsession with “negative” examples throughout Polish-Jewish history – and especially exaggerated claims about present day hatred via social media – are an endless poison “well.” If you claim it’s always existed, it’ll never go away.

What next?

Israel should focus on the future, especially its future relations with Poland. If these relations are to exist at all, the attitudes must change immediately – especially among the new generation who have no memory of the 20th century. For the young people on Israeli educational trips to Poland, temporarily suspended by Israel over nothing but headlines and rhetoric, they’re being taught to perpetuate the negative stereotypes of Poles.

And nothing good can come of that.

We must always strongly emphasize that in the most important matter of all – the Jewish-Arab conflict – the moral right remains and will always remain with Israel. Without a doubt. Israel has the right to live in peace and protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. And this view remains and will always remain dominant in Polish society. The seemingly instinctive and prejudiced aversion towards Israel as a nation and Jews as a people only infects the fringes of left-wing and right-wing groups.

Unfortunately, with Israel’s recent diplomatic realities – obviously nothing to do with its right to exist as a nation-state, but its active relations with Poland – it’s making a profound, unfortunate, and unnecessary error for no moral or ethical reason whatsoever.

All we can do is move forward; all we should do is move forward. We can only hope that current attempts to mend relations will be fruitful and lasting. We’ll remain hopeful. Given these recent self-inflicted difficulties, there is no other way.

Polish-Israeli relations that began in the 20th century are in need of a redefined 21st century “profile,” to borrow some social media vernacular.

In that sense, remembering, reminiscing, and re-emphasizing Operation “Bridge” will always be necessary and essential, if only to resume and continue the process of connecting people, strengthening nations, and “building bridges.”

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