Despite the Western narrative that suggests Polish anti-Semitism is rampant, Poland is one of the best – if not the best – nations in Europe in which to be Jewish today.
There certainly have been ugly moments in Poland’s history – much as there have been throughout the world. We need only reflect on twentieth century history to see the scale of them. But, in fact, the Jewish community thrived in Poland for 1000 years because, up to becoming imperialised by far more latent anti-Semitic empires, institutionally and societally Poland was well-structured to be pluralist and was known as a welcoming country.
When looking at contemporary Europe – as now currently dominated by the European Union (EU) leviathan – the most obvious point of distinction as to why being Jewish in Poland is a delight versus say, in France or in Belgium, is that Poland is filled with Poles who have successfully co-existed with Jews for centuries in a commonwealth of openness. This is as opposed to most other EU nations, especially from Germany westward, that have welcomed into their borders a culturally suicidal mass migration of Muslims from third world, theocratic states whose foundational tenet is anti-Semitism.
Significantly Poles, unlike their self-indulgent, culturally relativist counterparts in Western Europe, still value Polish culture: accepting and celebrating that this culture is inextricably intertwined with Jewish culture.
It is of course well understood by all Poles that Poland was savaged by oppression and the many attempts to wholly destroy Polish society took place over many of the same time periods that the Jews experienced the worst and most violent anti-Semitism. But in a nation of 40 million it is intellectually dishonest and mathematically fraudulent to suggest the numbers prove that systemic and institutionalised anti-Semitism was a policy of Poles; the suggestion that anti-Semitism was always the rule and never the exception is usually being made by those looking to further a political agenda.
Rather, history points to the fact that for as many violent abominations occurred numerous acts of heroism and compassion went unheralded. There was much shared risk and sacrifice between Poles and Jews over the generations in fighting for the homeland in which they co-habitated.
Just last week an organisation (of which I am proud Board member) called “From the Depths” honoured numerous “Righteous Among The Nations” for risking their lives to save their Jewish neighbours during the Second World War. When Poles witnessed violent anti-Semitism they did not see it as being perpetrated against an amorphous group of enemies referred to as “the Jews” but against “their neighbours.”
In today’s Poland violent anti-Semitic acts are few and far between, with acts of vandalism seen in roughly the same ratios as any other country where there exists class division, poor and uneducated segments of a society, and teenagers. This absence of widespread anti-Semitic acts more commonly seen in other European countries is due to in part to two significant factors.
Poland statistically has the highest literacy of any EU nation of more than 3 million people, with a high level of educated and well socialised citizens (even amongst the lower classes). The Church also helps to reinforce charitable and peace-seeking values; it is not a coincidence that with the Church serving well as a historical repository of Polish values that Poland, of the entire Eastern Bloc, has caught up with the West the most since 1989 in terms of quality and structure of life. Conversely, those places that have been left behind are far greater hotbeds of anti-Semitism.
However, when there are deplorable acts committed it is stunning to see how quickly they are held up as proof of systemic Polish anti-Semitism. An isolated example is the November burning of an effigy of a Hasidic Jew in Wroclaw, committed during a rally of the Nationalist Radical Youth (ONR) – who fall clearly into the poor, uneducated, and teenager demographics. The footage of the isolated event was shown during the infamous Poland and PiS (Poland’s national-conservative political party “Law and Justice”) bashing CNN segment led by Fareed Zakaria.
It is also deplorable to find those self-appointed bridge-builders of Polish-Jewish relations stoking the flames of the Western Polish anti-Semitism narrative. When Michael Schudrich (Chief Rabbi of Poland) said in response to the Wroclaw incident: “Poland has a new government and it appears that anti-Semites like ONR are under the belief that they have support from this new government for such actions” to the Jerusalem Post, he is doing so irresponsibly at best – at worst with a political agenda underpinning such undiplomatic rhetoric. He certainly knows better than most that rampant acts of anti-Semitism did not break out in Poland with regularity after the turnover in government.
Moreover, whenever anti-Semitic acts occurred it is the policy of every political party in Poland to condemn them and prosecute them, which unfortunately cannot be said of places such as Malmo, Sweden.
In recent years, Polish society has begun to evolve past its oppressive Communist years of misery (which affected Jews, Catholics and Protestants alike) and Polish society has embraced its Jewish cultural history in a plethora of ways including in the arts, commemorations and renovations. The much touted POLIN museum, which opened two years ago, is a culmination of decades of deeper engagement with this rich history with a permanent exhibition showcasing the centuries of Polish and Jewish coexistence. There has been recognition, also, of negative history, including the return of citizenship by President Kaczynski (when the PiS party last led the country from 2005-7) to those purged or excommunicated during Soviet rule in the late 1960s.
In most large Polish cities there are now active synagogues, non-sectarian Friday night Sabbaths, lectures, and the wearing of Jewish symbols such as the Star of David has become de rigueur. There are boutique fashion lines touching upon this cultural component of Polish history (such as the award winning “Risk: Made in Warsaw”). Young people, in tracing their family trees, are discovering that the interspersing of communities has shown them to be part Jewish as well – such discoveries often held up as a badge of pride.
The most important factor in gauging a society’s anti-Semitism (and “anti” attitude toward any minority group) will always come down to one simple test: “is it safe to walk down the street without fear of being molested?” In the Poland of today this is a definitive “Yes.” Unfortunately, this is not the sentiment espoused by Jewish communities in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, parts of Germany, or Scandinavia.
Despite some ugly periods, throughout most of Poland’s history Poland was, if not the best place to be a Jew, far from the worst. The many Polish and Jewish ties that bind and codetermined societal successes are proof that the reality is that Polish anti-Semitism, both historically and contemporaneously, is overstated and that the spun narratives are done so for political reasons. As always, I blame the left.
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