Rediscovering the Dream: A Proposal for a “Pivot” in Polish-Israeli Relations

Philip Earl Steele. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Volume 13, Issue 1. March 2019.

The joint US-Polish conference on the Middle East held in Warsaw February 13-14, 2019 did not conclude on a Valentines’ Day note for Poland and Israel. The Polish leadership, along with much of the public, was deeply offended by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comment, as reported by The Jerusalem Post, that “the Poles cooperated with the Nazis” during the Holocaust. Though both Israeli Ambassador Anna Azari and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office swiftly clarified that Netanyahu had not been speaking about the Polish people or the Poles as a whole, and the newspaper edited out the definite article, the damage had been done. On February 17, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that he had canceled his trip to Jerusalem for the Visegrád Group (V4) summit, which was to have begun the next day. Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz was to lead the Polish delegation in his stead. However, Israel Katz, immediately after being appointed Israel’s foreign minister that same day, went on an Israeli radio show and quoted the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who, unaware that he was being recorded, back in 1989 stated that the Poles “suckle antisemitism with their mother’s milk.” The Polish government quickly decided to withdraw from the summit altogether.

Polish-Israeli ties are constantly mired in a quicksand of issues regarding the Holocaust. Indeed, it seems that few official meetings occur without the Holocaust taking center stage. Because Poland and Israel have both been playing to an American audience of late, it was not surprising when in December of last year, the Polish and Israeli ambassadors to the US decided to celebrate their round Independence Day anniversaries together—Poland its 100th since regaining independence, and Israel its seventieth since the creation of the modern Jewish State. What might have surprised some, however, was that the Polish ambassador apparently did not say anything, for instance, about the significant numbers of Jews in the Polish legions that fought for independence a century ago—just as the Israeli ambassador did not say anything about the many “fathers of modern Israel” who hail from Polish lands: from Rabbis Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Samuel Mohilever to David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, to name just an outstanding few.

Rather, it was the Polish government’s opposition to antisemitism that was stressed in Washington, along with common culinary traditions, shared reliance on the US, and remembrance of the Holocaust. I myself was prepared for that—if only because just a few weeks earlier I had attended a conference held at the Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) billed as “Polish-Israeli Relations: Tomorrow and Today.” That Professor Stanisław Krajewski and Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich—permanent fixtures of Poland’s important Catholic-Jewish dialogue—were slated to speak during the first panel set the stage. Thus, even though the Israeli ambassador was also on one of the panels, the discussion focused almost exclusively on Polish-Jewish relations in the past. There was one notable exception during a later panel when Dr. Joanna Dyduch, a scholar from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, addressed the nominal topic of the conference. However, the moderator cut her off and called for “a return to the topic.”

Accounts such as these may seem incredible to the uninitiated but come as no surprise at all to those who follow Polish-Israeli relations.

Back in the early- and mid-1990s, it was reasonable to believe that rigorous examination of how the Holocaust had unfolded in German-occupied Poland and that research to reveal the truth, no matter how complex or chilling, would be cathartic for Polish society and would meaningfully serve the cause of moving both Polish-Jewish and Polish-Israeli relations forward. That has plainly not happened. Nonetheless, the members of the core group of Polish Holocaust scholars are to be commended for their unflinching honesty and meticulous scholarship—all the more so as their work stands in such stark contrast to that of their peers in neighboring countries (the case of Jonas Noreika in Lithuania being an especially notable illustration).

But the reality today is such that there are no longer any solid, empirical reasons for continuing to believe in any such “healing” via the existing modus operandi—certainly not in the current atmosphere. More specifically, it is obvious that Poland’s Holocaust scholars are ill-placed among the “shock troops” of the cause of Polish-Israeli relations. Much of Polish society sees their tenacious insistence on publicizing their findings as pedagogika wstydu [an emotionally charged expression in the current Polish discourse that suggests the teaching of self-contempt], convinced, whether rightly or wrongly, that these scholars totalize their own nation’s guilt and besmirch its good name.

Instead of being cathartic, for many Poles this has proven to be traumatic, and therefore has not contributed to the process of healing. It is often said that contemporary Poland is blighted by trench warfare between those who are accused of blackening the country’s past and those accused of whitewashing it. Some make blanket charges of complicity, while others counter by boasting of Poland’s nearly 7,000 Righteous Among the Nations and dismissing Polish miscreants [szmalcownicy] as individual dregs to be found in every country and in no way representative of society as a whole. Some suggest that the number of rescuers was tens of times higher than 7,000. Indeed, it seems fitting to speak of a “cult of the Righteous” in Poland, in recognition of how strongly it can resemble the cult of the Saints. Such resemblance goes beyond both the issue of homage and the sometimes-similar iconography, as it often seems to involve an analogous “treasury of merits” through which the sanctity of one person serves to expiate the sins of others.

For a brief moment it seemed, at least in certain circles, that the enigmatic Anglo-Israeli PR guru Jonny Daniels, a newcomer on the Polish scene, might actually propel forward the process of reconciliation. The story of his spectacular ascent to the status of Jewish confidant and darling of senior government and Church circles has yet to be thoroughly explored, nor has the key to what lay behind his meteoric rise been satisfactorily identified. I would argue that Daniels succeeded for a time because Poland’s preeminent Holocaust scholars and their supporters, in appearing to expect abject confession (or at least societal recognition) of sin, offer no real absolution—no emotionally satisfactory closure for those who seek it. Try though he might, neither can Professor Jan Żaryn, an important right-wing historian and member of the senate (who called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and is known for his often-hostile utterances about Jews), offer absolution. That is so despite the fact that both his parents were recognized by Yad Vashem for their efforts to rescue the lives of Irena and Lazar Engelberg.

In Daniels’ case, however, it was an Israeli offering absolution. That was the magic ingredient—the “sweet spot,” as diplomats sometimes put it. Daniels, speaking as an Israeli power-broker and wearing a kippah, said what many Poles wanted to hear—namely, that when looking at their wartime record, they had nothing at all to be ashamed of, and that there was no such thing as Polish antisemitism. In at least one interview, he even appeared to regurgitate the antisemitic charge circulating in nationalist circles about Poland’s good name having been sullied by Jews. Daniels also developed a warm relationship with Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, the director of Radio Maryja who has long been compared to the notorious antisemitic radio broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin in America back in the 1930s. He insisted that under his tutelage, Father Rydzyk had become a friend of Israel and the Jewish people. To that end, Daniels went on air and, gushing, told listeners how proud he was to be part of the “Radio Maryja Family,” referring to Father Rydzyk’s media empire.

The sense of absolution that resulted from Daniels’ efforts is what prompted then-Finance Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to declare in September 2017 that Yad Vashem “should give one large tree for the Righteous Among the Nations to the whole Polish people.” By no means incidentally, he said this while speaking at the alternative awards ceremony for the Righteous (which appropriates the traditional role of Yad Vashem) created and officiated by Daniels—namely, the Antonina and Jan Żabińscy Award, commemorating the couple whose work saving Jews was made famous by The Zookeeper’s Wife (released as a book in 2007 and a film in 2017). Notably, the daughter of the heroes of that story, Teresa Żabińska-Zawadzki, decided to have nothing to do with the event, convinced it was to be more of a pro-government “political rally” than a ceremony honoring the heroism of those who had risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. She later lamented that although the leader of PiS had mentioned antisemitism in Western countries at the ceremony, he failed to condemn its manifestations in Poland. A short time later, in November 2017, in cooperation with Daniels, Father Rydzyk held a grandiose ceremony consecrating the new Redemptorist Chapel of Memory in Toruń, dedicated to Polish rescuers. Among the dignitaries who took part in that event were then-Prime Minister Beata Szydło and Finance Minister Morawiecki. Several Israeli politicians flew in for the occasion, including Israel’s then-Minister of Communication Ayoub Kara, MK Yehiel Bar, and Rabbi Dov Lipman, who described it in glowing terms.

In January 2018, with the PiS (Law and Justice Party) government now headed by Prime Minister Morawiecki, the controversial amendment was passed to the act that had established the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN)—Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation. Feeling flush with absolution, PiS deemed accusations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust a criminal offense, only to have the effort boomerang, catapulting the underside of Poland’s war record into the headlines worldwide and across countless social media sites, thereby inflicting real damage to Poland’s reputation.

Indeed, the Holocaust has become a kind of tar-baby in Polish-Israeli relations. Another example concerns the Warsaw Ghetto Museum, scheduled to open in 2023. Many observers might conclude that the Poles were compulsively building another museum—only to mire themselves in dispute yet again. One cannot help but recall that Einstein meme popular in social media: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

An escape needs to be sought from this self-defeating pattern, and I admit I have strong doubts that one can be successfully mounted. As Israeli journalist Sam Sokol noted recently, “Israeli leaders have never been shy about arrogating for themselves the title of guardians of Jewish heritage” and, if only in Poland, that guardianship is strictly focused on Holocaust memory. However, though touting the Poles’ ułańska fantazja [panache in thinking outside the box] as a national characteristic is a clear misdiagnosis, over the past few years Polish leaders sometimes have demonstrated that quality in foreign relations, as in the case of “Fort Trump” (the Polish “psy-ops” bid to persuade the current White House to establish a permanent military base in north-eastern Poland) and the intention noted above to convene the Visegrád-4 summit in Israel.

Many people in Poland and Israel are of course quite aware of the tar-baby. In fact, a poll recently conducted by the Polish embassy in Israel found that 65 percent of Israelis are of the view that Polish-Israeli relations should focus more “on the present and the future, including trade relations and support for Israel.” Many do realize that the exchange must be expanded beyond the Holocaust and antisemitism. Nonetheless, the historical turn of mind so pronounced in Poland—amplified even more by the current government’s use of history in state policy—gives little reason to suppose that Polish attention can be directed to the future and/or to the practicalities of relations with Israel.

Polish-Israeli ties seem fated to hinge on history. But perhaps that history can be reframed so as not to rest so predominantly on the Holocaust and—in distant second place—on the shtetl. Perhaps the story of early Zionism in Polish lands offers a partial alternative. Of course, this is a very tall order, as it would mean starting virtually from scratch. For despite the fact that Zionism and the creation of modern Israel, alongside the Holocaust, are the most significant developments in Jewish history for centuries, these issues are little understood in Poland. Some would say that familiarity with Zionist history leaves much to be desired in Israel as well. Be that as it may, here in Poland there is not even the tiniest university section [zakład] devoted to Zionism. Nor does the award-winning POLIN, Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, give meaningful attention to the history of Zionism among the Jews of Polish lands.

Nevertheless, highlighting the story of Jewish national rebirth—what I call “a pivot to Zionism”—could certainly help improve the existing ambiance. Awareness should be raised, both among Poles and Israelis, of Poland’s role as a cradle of Zionism—events, publications, lectures, memorial exhibits, festivals, etc. set in relevant localities and promoted by Polish and Israeli tourist agencies in cooperation, showcasing the fathers of modern Israel who pursued the Zionist dream on the territory of today’s Poland. Efforts of this kind could draw thousands of the quarter million Israelis now visiting Poland annually, more than 75 percent of whom are not coming to Poland on educational trips about the Holocaust. Among those 250,000 Israelis are many who could be persuaded to visit the lovely city of Toruń, home not only of Copernicus but of the nineteenth-century Rabbi Kalischer, famous for his early Zionist work Derishat Tsiyon (1862). The city of Toruń should be encouraged to prepare a promotional campaign, perhaps under the Hebrew-language slogan, “Come to Toruń and rediscover the dream.” Much the same goes for Radom and Białystok, the cities of Rabbi Mohilever, the leader of Hovevei Zion who was a generation younger than Kalischer. After all, these two men forged the religious program that has helped fuel Zionism ever since.

Perhaps the three cities in Poland’s northeast corner—Białystok, Ełk, and Suwałki—could attract history-conscious Israeli tourists with their important stories in the creation of modern Israel: Białystok, again, because of Rabbi Mohilever; Ełk, because it was there that the influential Zionist Ha-Magid, the first Hebrew news weekly, was published under David Gordon; and Suwałki because that was the city in which the very first Hovevei Zion group arose. One furthermore imagines the riverside city of Płock boasting the illustrious but often-forgotten Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow; the Carpathian city of Tarnów billing its son Leon Kellner, whom Theodor Herzl once described as “my closest and most beloved friend”; and the western city of Nysa proudly recalling Emanuel Deutsch, the renowned scholar and Hebraist whose vision of the Jewish people restored in their ancient homeland helped inspire his friend George Eliot to write her famous Zionist novel Daniel Deronda. The list goes on and on and must certainly include the University of Warsaw’s Law Department celebrating its famous alumnus Menachem Begin, a Nobel Laureate—and Kraków’s Jagiellonian University doing more to honor Rabbi Ozjasz Thon, another of Herzl’s close friends and co-operators. David Ben-Gurion’s hometown of Płońsk is already promoting its ties to Israel with a new annual festival. Indeed, Płońsk is lighting the way.

An annual event commemorating the famous Conference of Hovevei Zion held in Katowice in November 1884, the culmination of the first Zionist movement, might also be held. This could prove to be an important opportunity for both domestic and international cooperation. After all, Rabbi Kalischer’s son was in attendance, so the city of Toruń can likely be counted on for support, as can Ełk, as David Gordon was another important attendee in Katowice. Rabbi Mohilever was of course the co-chairman, so Białystok is a natural fit. Significantly, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now encouraging such local efforts at fostering international ties by offering grants of up to 2 million złoty (some US $500,000).

To those captivated by the story of Revisionist Zionism and its youth movement, Betar, there is the impressive dormitory building of the Jewish students in Warsaw’s Praga district (which later became police headquarters) at which Vladimir Jabotinsky publicly upbraided Begin at the momentous Betar Conference in September 1938. There is also the elegant apartment building on Koszykowa Street in Warsaw, in which the little-known Irgun representative in Poland, Henryk Strasman (later killed together with thousands of other Polish officers in Kharkov as part of the Katyń murders), and his wife, Alicja, who founded the militant Zionist bi-weekly, Jerozolima Wyzwolona, lived until the outbreak of the war. In Suwałki there is the childhood home of the radical Zionist Abraham “Yair” Stern best known for the underground group, Lechi, which was often referred to as the Stern Group or, pejoratively, the Stern Gang.

Unlike the chilling history of the Holocaust on Polish soil, the story of Zionism is emotionally satisfying for both sides because it is a story of success. This also distinguishes it from the shtetl, as the story of the shtetl contains foreshadowing that cannot be ignored. We know how that world vanished—consumed in the fires of the Shoah. A focus on Zionism, on the other hand, opens the way to new, positive realms of Polish-Israeli cooperation. Besides the many events and commemorations drawing Israelis to places across Poland (one day including groups of Israeli high schoolers otherwise scheduled to visit Holocaust sites), one also envisions future infrastructural developments, such as the creation in Płońsk of a David Ben-Gurion Center on the Zionist Movement—perhaps in cooperation with the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which would seem to be a natural partner—or the establishment of a Rabbi Samuel Mohilever Institute of Zionism and Modern Israel at the University of Białystok. The founding of a museum in Katowice devoted to the history of Hovevei Zion is another obvious step to take. The Polish publisher Dialog recently put out two books on Israel by Professor Anita Shapira in Polish translation. One awaits further Polish translations of dozens of recent works on Israel and Israelis—from the biography Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul by Daniel Gordis to Tom Segev’s new biography of David Ben-Gurion (in fact, soon to appear in Polish thanks to the publisher Czarne).

It is seldom understood how narrowly Jewry is perceived in Poland. Its scope is all but completely reduced to the strained relations in the years immediately preceding World War II and to the Holocaust, with a hiccup in the expulsions of 1968. Differently than in American society where Protestantism is strong, conceptions of Żydostwo [Jewry] in Poland do not conjure the Israelites of the Old Testament—and hence the rhythms of exile and return are not widely felt here. Indeed, Marcionism (nominally a heresy) would seem to be alive and well in Polish Catholicism—though it is no doubt kinder to repeat the lament sometimes heard in Catholic circles that “we Poles know Greek and Roman mythology much better than the Old Testament.” For instance, when Prime Minister Netanyahu gave President Barack Obama the Book of Esther in Washington in 2012, the message resonated with people across all fifty states: Modern Persia, too, is threatening the Jews with annihilation. Hardly anyone 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 earlier than the nineteenth century with the range of Zionist activities pursued on Polish lands.

Because it is often believed that Zionism arose in response to antisemitism, some will say that there is really no pivot at all. We are right back where we started in the soup of poisoned relations.

True, the pogroms that broke out in 1881 were clearly a catalyst for the coalescence of Hovevei Zion. That was the case with the pogroms in Kishiniev as well, which precipitated the Second Aliyah. But antisemitism was certainly not always the impetus for Zionism. Often it related most to the mid-nineteenth century’s emancipation of European Jewry and the ensuing assimilation that came to be seen as a threat to Jewish identity. Sticking just to Zionists, examples of this include Leon Pinsker’s writings in the early 1860s and Moses Hess’ Rome and Jerusalem from 1862, as well as the Zionism advocated well before 1881 by the magazines Ha-Shahar and Ha-Magid and their editors, Peretz Smolenskin and David Gordon, respectively. Above all, the fear was of deracination—not of antisemitism as such. Indeed, the pogroms following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 came as a jarring, unexpected shock throughout the Jewish world.

Nor was the Zionism of Rabbis Kalischer, Eliahu Guttmacher, and Yehuda Alkalai driven by antisemitism. Rather, it was driven by belief in the dawning of the Messianic Age. Rabbi Kalischer himself believed that the strong presence of Christian Zionism (Restorationism) in his day was one of the clear signs of the Messianic Age. Thus, Kalischer’s markedly irenic and inclusive views toward Christians lend themselves eminently to the pivot offered here.

Ben-Gurion, in turn, wrote that antisemitism was not what had drawn him to Zionism, but rather a positive “love for the Land of Israel and Hebrew language.” Indeed, he stressed that in Płońsk he had not personally experienced antisemitism: “We lived in complete harmony with our Polish neighbors.”

By no means am I suggesting supplanting the memory of the Holocaust, which, in any case, would be impossible—nor is the pivot to Zionism proposed here believed to be a panacea to the tension-wracked relations between Poland and Israel. Rather, I suggest laying new foundations for a direly needed extension of the shared “place of memory.” That so much of the above applies to many of Poland’s neighbors, as well, adds further weight to the argument in favor of the pivot outlined here. That pivot seems all the more feasible in Polish-Israeli relations, as today’s political climate—though currently more fraught than in years—is also more conducive than it otherwise could be, given the two strongly national governments and the growing mutual understanding that the present formula (i.e., snafu) offers no traction. A surer footing for Polish-Israeli relations can be found.

The promise of a pivot to a joint commemoration of Zionism is that it can help bolster and stabilize Israel’s ties with Poland and several other EU member countries (especially the V4 members), which can serve Israel well in parrying biased EU policies. Cultivating relations with those countries has been a salient policy of the Netanyahu government, and should remain one. Moreover, the pivot to Zionism offers a way to help Israel’s partners in Central and Eastern Europe better understand the nature of Israeli statehood beyond both the wartime traumas suffered by all parties and the often-slanted news accounts of Israel’s security issues. It can potentially move them to an understanding of the Jewish national revival as something altogether kindred, as a phenomenon that developed also during their own repeated periods of captivity and dispersal, and that sprang forth during their many struggles to reassert themselves in their own lands. For many Israelis who have forgotten, or never even knew, the uplifting history of their own national renaissance, this pivot could also help them “rediscover the dream.”