The relationship between Jews and Poles is a very complicated one. The two nations differ in many ways however, have even more in common. Religion, which for Poles and Jews is a matter of national identity, determining many behaviors, is the main difference between the two. They share, however, a difficult history and a belief in their historical mission and uniqueness. Poles and Jews fought hard for their countries, experiencing wickedness over the centuries, so it is not surprising that they guard their privacy so diligently. These are nations extremely sensitive to all manifestations of verbal and military hostility, the latter now concerning Israel, but it is almost certain that similar reactions in the face of threat would take place in Poland. Century-old coexistence had a huge impact on both nations, which, on the one hand, got used to each other’s presence, but on the other hand, generated many mutual, absurd accusations and animosities. At the same time, borrowing a large number of elements of each other’s tradition, treating them with time as their own national heritage.
Poles accuse Jews of collaborating with the Soviets, accusing them of having collectively supported communism in post-war Poland. Jews, on the other hand, explain that they did it for the sake of their own safety. Both make the mistake of generalization.
Any attempts to treat history in an extreme way are burdened with a high risk of error, because Jews in Poland were not as well off as described by right-wing historians, but they also did not experience as much misery and evil as some leftist scholars imply. Unfortunately, the Jewish problem has become a political weapon in Poland, which is a very disturbing phenomenon.
When it comes to the historical wellbeing of Jews in Poland the basic argument of eulogists is their number – if it was so bad, why did so many of them live here? This rhetorical question is asked during almost every discussion. It is basically an indisputable argument, which in the course of further conversation almost always leads to the conclusion – maybe actually it wasn’t so wonderful in Poland, but elsewhere, the Jews had it much worse. Another crucial argument is the dominant number of Poles on the list of people honored with the Righteous Among the Nations Medal, however if we look at the population of Jews in Poland, these numbers lose a lot of value. Then there is the quick retort – only in Poland hiding Jews meant the death penalty. It is customary to end with an argument that is a commonly present in national circles in Poland – and after the war, after all the good that that Poles did for Jews during the occupation, the Jews joined the Communist Party and murdered Polish patriots. Any attempts to explain to the eulogist that during the war the attitude of the Polish underground and Polish society towards Jews was very diverse is pointless, because in most cases the discussion enters a highly emotional level, where any substantive arguments cannot be understood.
Jews specifically remember the great deal of blackmailing and denouncing of those in hiding during the German occupation and hold memories of pogroms and acts of violence which they experienced at the hands of their Polish neighbors during the hundreds of years of living together. Pre-war numerus clausus and numerus nullus in access to higher education. The current generation of 70-year-olds remembers well the events of March 1968, when the communists expelled about 13.5 thousand people from Poland, people whose only fault was that they were born Jews.
The above-mentioned accusations are only a small fragment of mutual accusations and claims, the overcoming of which is an extremely difficult and time-consuming task.
The modern state of Israel is perceived by the national circles in Poland as a continuation of the shtetl tradition of Polish Jews. This is a cardinal error, because contemporary Israel is a modern state. The proverbial Jew from Berdyczów, dressed in a customary gown who speaks only Yiddish, has as much in common with today’s Israeli as an illiterate peasant from Stanisławów, who travelled only as far as his own court, with a young Pole today working in an international corporation. Tel-Aviv and Warsaw are modern cities whose inhabitants live very similarly. Of course, everyone has their Me’a Sze’ari or Radio Maryja, but I would not overestimate their importance. Forming an opinion about Poland or Israel through the prism of orthodoxy is quite often a repeated mistake, leading to an incorrect view of the realities in the given countries.
Poles look at Israel with distrust, but also with undisguised jealousy, mainly because of the diplomatic effectiveness that characterizes Israel on the international arena.
For most Poles, Israel is primarily a holy place, where the Jews murdered Jesus who is considered by Christians to be the Messiah. In 2016, Jesus was officially enthroned “the King of Poland”, and a large group of politicians, along with President Andrzej Duda took part in the official religious ceremonies. The event was broadcast by Catholic media, Trwam Television , Radio Maryja and the state-owned Polish Radio. The Roman Catholic Church in Poland has a privileged role and is perceived by many as a synonym of Polishness. Even before the war, it was common to believe that when a person of different faith converted to Catholicism, it was only then that he became a true Pole. For deeply religious Roman Catholics, the Jews will always be responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, no matter what the religious and historical background of those events was and what intellectual level these individuals are on. The very presentation of the matter in such a way leads to negative feelings and many Polish pilgrims embark on their journey to Israel with a negative attitude. The vast majority of them, however, returning to Poland are fascinated by Israel and impressed by the architecture, infrastructure and people living there.
The State of Israel in Poland is synonymous with success, because it was created thanks to willpower and great determination. Israel was created from the sands of the desert and rose like Phoenix from the ashes after two millennia of non-existence. Every Pole will appreciate and understand the passion and love of an Israeli for his country, because he knows how much effort it took to rebuild independent Poland.
In common terms, the so-called right-wing media convey to the public that anti-Polish attitudes are represented within the Israeli society. It is typical for every right-wing party in almost every country to promote a siege mentality. However, it is hard to determine the scope of such information since there was never any research on the topic. We must remember that the designation of any medium in Poland as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic may meet with an immediate reaction from its publisher. This is due to the fact that Poles are deeply convinced of their tolerance, hospitality and openness to the world, it results from historical traditions that are very deeply rooted in their consciousness.
According to a study conducted in 2019, “Poles on Israelis, Israelis on Poles. Attitudes and perceived prejudices ”conducted by the Center for Research on Prejudice, only 15% of Poles have a negative attitude towards Israelis, while almost 50% have a positive attitude. Poles representing traditional-conservative beliefs are mostly convinced that anti-Semitism in Poland is something marginal, because it is perceived pejoratively. This is due to the willingness to show Poland as a tolerant country or the lack of understanding for the word itself, which is equated with fascism or communism. It is therefore difficult to meet a Pole who openly admits to his anti-Semitism, and in many cases tries to mask it. It is only during conversation that it becomes clear that the situation is completely different. I often come across the statement – I have nothing against Jews, but it’s better if they are in Israel and not Poland – or in extreme cases – I don’t like Jews, but I like you, because you are our Jew. The conversation continues in the spirit of reconciliation and tolerance, and of course none of my interlocutors consider themselves an anti-Semite.
In Poland, little is said about the case of Palestine. If someone makes remarks about the topic, they are most often repeating generalities.
Unfortunately, knowledge about the modern world in Poland is very limited, as it comes down to occasional TV snapshots. The local press and television inform almost exclusively about matters of local, current politics, while international issues are used in the context of local problems. This is obviously in response to social demand. On one of the right-wing websites, under a casual article about the conflict in Israel, you can find a user comment that very eloquently reflects the way some Poles perceive the world – And what does this have to do with our Polish life? The left-liberal media quite clearly sympathize with the Palestinian side, presenting Israel as the invader, while the right-wing media tend to avoid the topic for fear of being accused of being anti-Israeli. Often you can find information stating that – Israeli soldiers murdered Palestinian children – or especially outrageous – Jews suffered so much during the war and are now doing the same to others!
In Cracow, the radical left-wing party RAZEM organized a meeting at the Main Market Square, and in announcement of this event on social media informed:
Palestinians again are dying at the hands of the Israeli authorities. The verdict ordering them to leave their homes in East Jerusalem contributed to mass protests, the situation was inflamed by Israeli police who attacked people praying at the Al-Aqsa mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. This led to an escalation of the conflict and dozens of casualties among Palestinian civilians. When human rights are violated, when international laws are violated, the world of great capital and military interests remains silent.
The above text reflects the views of the radical left in Poland on this issue. It is also worth adding that during the demonstration, apart from RAZEM delegates and a few Palestinians, there were practically no outsiders – which clearly shows the little interest in this problem in Poland.
Israel’s concern for its citizens is widely commented on in Poland, especially in the context of the current coronavirus pandemic.
For the past two years, the leading international problem has been the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. At the beginning of April this year, photos of smiling Israelis sitting in their gardens without masks were circulated in Poland. Above one of these photos was the meaningful title “Coronavirus. They are managing the pandemic. This is how Israel returns to normal.” At that time, Poland was completely closed, not even some shops were functioning. It is therefore not surprising that Israel’s response to the pandemic aroused widespread recognition and envy amongst many Poles. On April 24 this year, the pro-government, right-wing portal “wpolityce” published an article describing Israel’s success in fighting the pandemic, under the eloquent title “Anti-vaxxers will go crazy! This is how the vaccination campaign in Israel is working. There has been no death in recent days. ” In Poland, Israel has become an example that it is worth vaccinating citizens.
There is widespread belief in Poland that only Jews live in Israel, and therefore it is a monocultural state. Therefore, surprising is the fact that Arab parties have been sitting in the Knesset for many years. In Israel, “only” 75% of the population declares the mosaic faith, which, compared to 87% of Catholics in Poland, makes it a country much more diverse in this respect. In Poland, however, still little is known about Israel. Stereotypes and distrust, supported by the lack of reliable information, most often dominate. Therefore, in conclusion, it should be emphasized that excellent educational work in this area is performed by the Israeli Embassy in Poland, publishing a lot of extremely interesting information in an accessible way on their social media.
“The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.”
Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021