Saturday, April 20, 2013

Today's Poland and the Jews – Some conflicting signals?

Three recent events underline the complexity of the situation, which seems to have both encouraging and worrisome aspects. Overall assessments will depend, among other things, on what criteria one uses (better or worse than what?)  and what kinds of evidence one emphasizes. Here are some of the positive signs, reported in the Forward, via Norman Geras at Normblog:

Bridge from the past to the future
On the eve of World War II, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, with 3.3 million Jews making up one-tenth of the country's population. More than 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust; thousands more survivors left in the wake of postwar pogroms. Still more departed in the 1960s amid anti-Semitic campaigns by the Communist regime.

[JW: Now there are probably some 10,000-15,000 Jews left in Poland, though estimates vary wildly.]

But with the fall of communism, there has been a revival of Jewish life in Poland and a movement by Jews and non-Jews to reclaim Jewish culture.
That's from a report about a new museum about to open in Warsaw, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising:
Krzysztof Sliwinski, a longtime Catholic activist in Jewish-Polish relations, gazed wide-eyed at the swooping interior of this city's Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Nearly two decades in the making, the more than $100 million institution officially opens to the public this week amid a month of high-profile, state-sponsored events marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

"It's incredible, incredible, incredible how things have changed," Sliwinski told JTA. "I remember commemorations of the ghetto uprising under communism when only a few people showed up. How good it was that we were optimistic."
The rest is here.

On the other hand, not all signs point to unalloyed optimism.  In a recently published interview a well-known historian at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Krzysztof Jasiewicz, caused a stir by asserting, among other things, that the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves, and were just trying to deflect their own guilt onto innocent parties like the Catholic Church and the Polish people; that any anti-semitic pogroms carried out by Poles during and after World War II (if they happened at all) were understandable; and that "It looks like the Jews haven’t learned their lesson and haven’t come to any conclusions yet."
The Jews have a problem because they are convinced they are the chosen people. They feel they are entitled to interpret everything, including Catholic doctrine.... I am convinced that there is no point in dialogue with the Jews, because it doesn’t lead anywhere.
These kinds of views, which would once have been unsurprising in Poland (and a lot of other countries), are no longer mainstream in educated public discourse, and in fact the editor of magazine that published the interview indicated that he and his colleagues were a bit startled by Jasiewicz's statements: "We were very surprised that such extreme views were expressed by a highly educated scientist and researcher."  But as the editor also observed,
We showed that anti-Semitism among scientists doesn’t just belong to the past, but still exists today.
What about the younger generation?  Here are some results from a recent survey of Polish high school students, reported and considered at the intelligent group blog Crossing the Baltic under the heading Are Polish teens anti-semitic?.  Their assessment is ... not really, though it's true that some of the results are "rather shocking" :
The fast approaching 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was marked by an opinion poll conducted by the Homo Homini Institute, surveying the attitudes towards ‘Jewishness’ of a representative sample of 1250 Warsaw high school students. The results have been reported by some of the mainstream media, including Israeli news portals or the British Daily Mail, as proof of deeply rooted anti-Semitic attitudes amongst Polish youth.

It is true some figures are rather shocking – 60% of the polled 17-year-olds declared that they would be unhappy (‘niezadowolony’) if they found out that their boyfriend or girlfriend are Jewish. Only 16% declared they would be happy (‘zadowolony’) about such revelation, with 22% declaring indifference. Almost 45% of those polled would not want to have a Jewish neighbour, and a similar number would resent having a Jewish relative. Journalists also underline the poor knowledge of the history of Polish Jews – the students gravely underrated the number of Jews living in pre-war Warsaw (indicating 17% as opposed to the actual 31%), and 30% of those polled could not correctly indicate the year of the Ghetto Uprising (1943).

Nonetheless, the Homo Homini poll seems to indicate a general lack of knowledge of Polish history among Warsaw students, rather than of the history of Polish Jews in particular. In fact, while 23% of the 17-year-olds erroneously thought that the Ghetto Uprising was victorious, almost 40% thought the same about the ‘Polish’ Warsaw Uprising of 1944. In addition, surprisingly in view of the other results, over half of those polled correctly identified Mordechaj Anielewicz as the leader of the Ghetto Uprising.

The issue of the media alarmism about the prevalence of anti-Semitism could also be questioned. After all the majority of the polled students declared that they would be happy or indifferent if they were to find out one of their family members was Jewish, if they were to have Jewish classmates, or Jewish neighbours. The students also ranked the Ghetto Uprising as the 7th most important event of Warsaw’s history, ahead of the 1989 Round Table Agreement that opened the way to the first free election in Communist Poland.

Read for some of the detailed results of the poll (in Polish). [....]
Glass half-full?  Perhaps, though that's not the only possible interpretation.

It's true that even if one finds the results of this survey a little disquieting, one needs to put all this in perspective.  There are plenty of countries whose Jewish communities have largely or completely disappeared where intense and virulent anti-semitism is widespread and thoroughly mainstream.  (That category includes much of the Arab world, for example.)  And there are some other countries in East/Central Europe and the Balkans where unabashedly anti-semitic tendencies have a visible, though not central, presence in electoral politics.  There is no question that Poland is simply not that kind of country any more.  Anti-semitic elements haven't entirely vanished from the culture, and occasionally they surface in various contexts, but they no longer dominate the picture.  Overall, I would be inclined to emphasize the bright side.  Still, it's not always easy for societies to escape from their history.

—Jeff Weintraub