“Antisemitism is Alive and Kicking”
Originally published in Polish in Gazeta Wyborcza, on March 03, 2023
by Sebastian Rejak*, Aleksandra Gliszczyńska-Grabias**
Antisemitism, or a combination of prejudice, stereotypes, hostility, discrimination and persecution, is sometimes called the “oldest hatred”. It is characterized by a unique historical continuity and occurs everywhere. Its essence, as the Israeli historian Robert Wistrich has pointed out, is regarding Jews as despised or hostile “others” and seeing the world in a way that is fuelled by hatred and fear. Vasily Grossman, on the other hand, wrote about antisemitism as “ironic leniency covering aversion”, which can also lead to pogroms; it is “never the goal, it is always only a means, a measure of irremovable contradictions”.
Antisemitism has this incredible ability to adapt and constantly mobilize that makes it still alive in Poland in 2023 – on the eve of the next anniversary of March 1968 and the upcoming 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
It harms not only those against whom it is directly aimed – its destructiveness affects the entire social fabric. Antisemitism usually reinforces other xenophobic attitudes, fuels hostility, and leads to the exclusion of “others”. Reluctance towards Jews spreads to other minority groups; resentment towards other groups sooner or later also affects Jews.
The spectrum of attitudes and manifestations of antisemitism is much wider today than it was several decades ago. In addition to classic antisemitic content and activities, such as religiously motivated hatred, conspiracy theories, economic prejudices and stereotypes, verbal assault, attacks on synagogues or Jewish schools, vandalizing Jewish cemeteries, and even homicides motivated by antisemitism, we are dealing today with the phenomenon of the so-called antizionism. It is hostile to Israel simply because it is a Jewish state. Of course, not all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. However, in practice, the thin red line between criticism of specific decisions of state institutions and hostile and discriminatory rhetoric directed against Jews, regardless of their connection (or lack thereof) to Israel, is very often crossed. In fact, what is called “antizionism” is often antisemitism in disguise.
Against this background, a number of difficult questions arise: where to place the boundaries between freedom of expression and hateful criticism? How to react to equating actions of the Israeli government (even the most controversial ones) with Nazi crimes or the crime of apartheid? How to react to the boycott of Israeli scholars or entrepreneurs? Can we see here a parallel to the pre-war “numerus clausus” [“Jewish quota”] at universities or the antisemitic economic boycott, which was expressed by the slogan “don’t buy from a Jew”?
A relatively new version of antisemitism is the denial of historical truth relating the crime of the Holocaust. Recently, various United Nations agencies have taken steps to stop this form of distorting the past. It is worth noting that also ascribing to Poles the responsibility for the establishment and operation of German Nazi concentration and death camps is one of the forms of Holocaust distortion, as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
In Poland, however, we more often deal with other forms of distorting historical truth. It is about the claim that Poles were only rescuing Jews, while blackmail and other attitudes of hostility or even hatred towards Jews were marginal. Such a narrative is a form of Holocaust distortion.
To be sure, being aware of negative attitudes in no way diminishes the heroism of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. On the contrary, it highlights that heroism.
February 15, 2023 will go down in the history of the British Labor Party as an important date. On that day, its leader Keir Starmer publicly apologized for antisemitism in the ranks of his party. An investigation into antisemitism in the Labor Party by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission found the party guilty of acts of antisemitic harassment and discrimination. The fact that we have witnessed unprecedented public reckonings and apologies from a party that has always prided itself on its commitment to values such as equality and non-discrimination should be food for thought.
Yes, the sources of the antisemitic narrative can now also be found on the left side of the political spectrum. Radical left-wing parties and NGOs, which seem to have a real “Jewish problem”, are at the forefront of this.
They see Jews in every latitude and at every stage of world history as an exploiting class oppressing the masses. Israel is their number one enemy in the international arena. The radical left is far less interested in human rights issues in Cuba, China, North Korea than in Israel. It is these groups that are calling for an economic boycott of Israel, and even of Israeli scholars and Jewish students universities.
A few months ago, world media covered the antisemitic rants of the American artist Kanye West, which, published on his social media, gained millions of viewers. His popularity certainly gave those rants a global audience. This particular case is a good illustration of the power and danger of disseminating antisemitism in the media, including social media. Thanks to the wide accessibility of social media, whose users can be counted in the billions, antisemitic hate speech affects people on an unprecedented scale. The victims? Millions of Jews around the world, but also entire societies with the poison of hatred oozing into their fabric. Social media is used as a political tool for antisemitism, and not only by extreme circles. At the same time, we see that the strategies used so far to counteract antisemitism, which have been used by social media platforms, are inadequate and insufficient.
In 2021, the European Commission presented, for the first time in its history, a multi-annual EU strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life in the EU countries. The strategy provides for the implementation of a series of actions focused on three pillars: preventing all forms of antisemitism and responding to acts of antisemitism, protecting and supporting Jewish life in the member states, and promoting Holocaust research, education and remembrance. The success of the strategy, of course, depends on the commitment and response of the member states. These, however, remain largely limited.
In 2021, authors of a report published by the Tel Aviv University sounded the alarm bell about the dramatic increase in antisemitic sentiments around the world and that we are actually losing the fight against this phenomenon. In 2021, 3,027 antisemitic crimes were recorded in Germany, and their number was the highest in the history of German statistics.
American Jewish Committee recently published a study showing that 89 percent of American Jews believe that antisemitism is a problem in the U.S., and 82 percent say it has intensified over the last five years. 20 percent of respondents admitted that because of antisemitism, they do not feel safe attending events organized by any Jewish institution.
The most important and alarming result of the study is a significant decline in the sense of security, caused by the increase in antisemitic attacks, crimes and violence, and the belief that antisemitism in the United States is becoming an acceptable phenomenon in wider social circles.
A no less alarming situation can be witnessed in Europe. Research by András Kovács and Gyorgy Fischer, published in 2021, shows that both traditional antisemitic motives and manifestations of the so-called of secondary antisemitism in some countries are at dangerously high levels. For example, 37 percent Greek respondents and 31 percent of the Hungarians surveyed said that Jews were partly responsible for the crimes and persecutions they themselves were subjected to. 53 percent of Austrians polled answered that due to the policy of the Israeli authorities, they see a general aversion to Jews grow in them.
According to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), antisemitism is a social and political problem – for 85% of Jews in Poland, 77% in Hungary, and 95% in France. Jews in these countries see antisemitism as a threat, especially online – this is how 92 percent of respondents in Poland see it, 81% in Hungary, and 95% in France.
Is antisemitism in Poland marginal?
Claims about Poles imbibing antisemitism with their mother’s milk evoke associations with racist theories, because they point to the alleged biological basis of a certain attitude or social phenomenon. Such a view should, of course, be regarded as irrational and unacceptable.
Antisemitism, however, is a social problem – resulting not from biology, but from culture. Unfortunately, there are still codes and stereotypes in Polish culture that are characterized by suspicion, aversion, and sometimes even hatred towards Jews. The matter is complicated by the fact that for centuries hostility and contempt for Jews have been part of Christian teaching. The Second Vatican Council brought about a Copernican revolution in this area, but this has not necessarily been translated into changes in the social perception of Jews in Poland.
In this context, we should mention the “Don’t talk like an antisemite” campaign initiated in 2022 by American Jewish Committee Central Europe and Meta. The campaign posts, with over fifty million Facebook and Instagram impressions, drew the attention of Polish internet users to the fact that it is unacceptable to use the word “Jew” as an insult. Unacceptable – because it hurts anyone who is Jewish or who feels solidarity with the Jewish people. “But you’re a Jew”, “you Jew” or the verb “to Jew someone” are unfortunately negative words in colloquial Polish, usually thrown in a situation where money is at stake. At the same time, the Polish language does not know any “synonyms” – there no phrases like “you Scotsman”, “you Bosniak” or “you Vietnamese”. No other word describing nationality or religion carries such intensely negative emotions. This is a huge challenge for the Polish language and for all of us co-creating Polish society.
The perception of people through the prism of their ancestors (even distant ones) is no less a problem. We personally know people who in their childhood heard at school: “you convert”, “nasty Jewess”. The reason? One of the ancestors, three generations earlier, before World War II, converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Why do some neighbors still believe that having a Jewish ancestor who changed his religion eighty years ago is a “stain” on Polishness? This is simply yet another example of racial thinking. That this brings to mind the ideology which in the 1930s resulted in the Nuremberg Laws seems obvious. It is worth adding, though, that in 1964, the communist Ministry of the Interior developed the so-called Jewish list – a list of people who had changed their last names, had converted from Judaism, and those who lived in mixed Jewish-Christian marriages. March 1968 was the dotting of the i’s in this process of pushing Jews out of Poland. Isn’t it terrifying that part of the Polish society shares (probably unconsciously) the beliefs of the then head of the Ministry of the Interior, Mieczysław Moczar – when it comes to looking at Jewish background as a liability in one’s resume?
We often hear in Poland that, compared to the antisemitic physical violence in Western Europe, what we are dealing with in our region is a marginal phenomenon.
It is true that beatings of Jews are rare, and antisemitic killings have not been recorded for many years. But let’s just take a closer look at the Polish extreme right – whether neo-Nazi, pan-Slavic or pro-Kremlin. There is no shortage of examples of antisemitism:
from staging Hitler’s cabaret-like pseudo-birthday, through the neo-Nazi music scene, the “Nazi salute” of certain fringe groups, the use of Nazi and racist symbols by some circles of the radical right and soccer hooligans, to the so-called Rodacy-Kamraci [Compatriot-Fellows].
The latter group became famous by organizing a rally in the city of Kalisz on November 11, 2021, during which a copy of the Kalisz Statute was burned (guaranteeing Jews in the 13th-century Wielkopolska [Western Poland], to a limited extent, their own religious judiciary and specifying, among others, sanctions for false accusations against Jews) . A group of participants also chanted “death to Jews!”. There was no reaction from either the local police or the mayor’s representative – the rally lasted several hours. The District Prosecutor’s Office in Sieradz did not find any failure to perform duties by public officials. A similar rally was repeated in 2022, this time in Krakow. Again, no reaction from the authorities. Both the mere organization of such events in public space and the lack of action on the part of the relevant state institutions send a clear signal to society: holding and propagating antisemitic views is tolerated. Preaching hatred against a particular social group, including calling for the killing of its members, is acceptable. Such a message emboldens radical circles, and makes the majority of society insensitive to hatred towards minorities. Someday we will be ashamed of it.
Polish society (as well as many societies of Central and Eastern Europe) has still not properly faced the history of the Holocaust, or rather the issue of different attitudes towards the mass extermination of Jews. Also, the attitude of state institutions (including in legal terms) to this problem and, more broadly, to manifestations of antisemitism requires radical change.
We do not know whether the Polish government is working on a national strategy to combat antisemitism, which it is obliged to do, among others, by the European Commission. We have not received a response to the recommendations of Jewish communities and experts sent in January 2022, e.g. to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior. The response we received from the Ministry of Education and Science shows that in the field of education, a whole range of effective measures are being taken to eliminate the phenomenon of antisemitism, and students of Polish schools gain thorough knowledge of the history of Polish Jews. We are all waiting for the results of this teaching. Interestingly, in Hungary, the government is just now finalizing its work on a national strategy, while the consultation process with the Jewish community is underway.
In autumn 2021, the Polish government confirmed that “Poland recognizes the IHRA’s working legally non-binding definition of antisemitism as an important and self-evident point [of reference] related to counteracting this phenomenon.” This is a very important declaration. However, on the other hand, it still lacks translation into specific actions of competent government authorities. Or at least that information has not made it to the public square. Also at the local government level, the definition is poorly received. Here, a notable exception is the city of Płock, whose mayor, on February 21, announced a declaration on countering antisemitism, of which the aforementioned definition is a part.
Are Polish courts aware of the definition and do they use it in cases of hatred against Jews? Do prosecutors and police officers know that the Polish authorities support the use of the definition? Do superintendents of schools and school principals, teachers of history and civic education know about it? We are not asking these questions as purely rhetorical.
The fight makes sense
Counteracting any form of prejudice, hatred or discrimination is a long-term, complex and extremely demanding process. However, one can point to certain policies or actions without which the fight against antisemitism will be ineffective, inept, and dishonest. Educational programs for young people are needed in which antisemitism does not appear as a theoretical phenomenon, but is illustrated by domestic examples, and where young people learn about its consequences, about how hatred of Jews affects real people. It is indispensable for young people to use textbooks that themselves are free of stereotypical representations of Jews. There is a need for training in identifying antisemitic crimes – mandatory for police officers, prosecutors and judges. Most importantly, however, and what determines the implementation of the above-mentioned elements, it is absolutely necessary to clearly communicate the position of the government regarding zero tolerance for antisemitism. This should be followed not only by bringing to justice those who make their antisemitism public, but also by the inevitability of punishment.
It is the responsibility of governments, civil society and each of us to oppose all manifestations of antisemitism. To quote Marek Edelman: “If you see evil and look the other way or don’t help when you can help, you become co-responsible. Because your looking the other way helps those who do evil. If we look the other way when, on the walls of our cities, the stars of David hang on gallows; when they are accompanied by the inscription “Jude raus”; when the word “Jew” is an insult; when the media tries to slander public figures, attributing to them alleged actions in the interest of international Jewish organizations; when searching for Jewish ancestors is meant to discredit a neighbor or an adversary in a political dispute – we are helping evil. Our action or inaction, on various levels: that of a ministry, city hall, sports club, university, school, bus stop – will have consequences.
*Dr. Sebastian Rejak – director of American Jewish Committee Central Europe;
**Dr. Aleksandra Gliszczyńska-Grabias – assistant professor at the Institute of Legal Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences, member of the Advisory Board of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists
Cover photo: Łukasz Cynalewski / Agencja Wyborcza.pl /