Yitzhak Shamir was a man of few words. After spending most of his adulthood underground or in secret service, Israel's seventh prime minister was not equipped with the knack of small talk - or any type of talk for that matter.
I remember him once answering derisively a journalist's question: "We are not indulging in shpeculations (sic )." Back in the day before politicians were judged by their telegenic qualities, this gruff, no-nonsense attitude had enough admirers, or else Shamir would not have become the second-longest serving prime minister in Israel's history. It does mean though that historians and eulogizers this week found it hard to dig up memorable quotes.
One of the few Shamirisms to have gone down in history was the remark he made to David Landau that the "Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother's milk," insisting despite his spokesman's urgings that it was to remain on record. It was an unusually emotional utterance, out of character for the leader who very rarely displayed his inner feelings. It obviously reflected the fact that his father, Shlomo Ysernitzky, was stoned to death by local villagers, some of whom Shamir said had been "his friends from childhood."
While many have tried to explain Shamir's intransigence as a politician through the prism of this biographical detail, it should be noted that he was a hardliner long before he learned how his father died. In 1940 he left the pre-state Irgun militia after it decided to cease fighting the British during the Second World War, preferring to join the Lehi militia which continued to oppose any form of cooperation with Britain, even seeking for a while an alliance with the Axis. Also, during Shamir's premiership, Israel resumed full diplomatic ties with Poland.
I have always been intrigued by Shamir's description of the Poles. Despite what his critics said about his single-minded policies, he was a complex and highly intelligent person. I don't believe that he meant an entire nation congenitally hates Jews.
Last month I interviewed Ziggy Shipper, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Lodz, and he said to me that "the Poles were told for hundreds of years to hate Jews, that they were Jesus-killers and were to blame for everything. It was inbred into them."
When he went back to his home town a few years ago, he discovered racist graffiti and was told by locals that Lodz is still very anti-Semitic despite the fact that very few Jews still live there and most of the town's people have never met one. "So it's mainly ignorance," says Shipper.
Having met a good number of Poles who did not seem to have a Jew-hating bone in their body, all of them relatively young and well-educated, I think that Shamir and Shipper are right: It does all boil down to what you get from your mother's milk. If you were raised in an enlightened environment and were lucky enough to have been born in a Poland which for the first time in its history was opening up to Western democracy, chances are you won't be an anti-Semite.
Americans don't have to worry
Recent events in the United States prove that truly democratic nations - and these are not as common as we would like to imagine - barely suffer from this ancient hatred. Never in the history of American politics has an individual donor tried to use his money as blatantly as Sheldon Adelson, the second-richest Jew in the world, is trying now to influence the presidential election. It is not just the sheer sums - by some accounts he and his family have already donated over $70 million to Republican candidates and he has said that he is willing to donate even a hundred million. It is the way he has made it clear that he will give whatever he can to whomever can prevent Barack Obama's reelection.
And yet, I have trawled the Internet and not detected a sign whatsoever of any backlash. Outside of a few recognized neo-Nazi websites and apart from a handful of unabashedly racist commentators, nowhere within the wide mainstream of American opinion has anyone suggested that it is somehow unseemly for a Jew to intervene so openly in the electoral process. Even within the Jewish community, I have yet to detect a fear of such repercussions.
Last week, a leader of one of the biggest Jewish organizations, who grew up in a country where Jews were extremely careful about expressing radical political views, said to me, "It's incredible - American Jews really do not believe that they have to worry about anti-Semitism."
Sure, there is a spirited, even acrimonious debate regarding Adelson's donations. But none of it seems to reflect his Jewishness. The previous Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, excoriated the way "foreign money" is influencing American politics. But he was referring only to the fact that Adelson has made billions from casinos in China and not casting for one moment aspersions on his identity as an American citizen.
Neither was an editorial last week in the New York Times that lambasted Adelson for using his money to further his strident right-wing views on the Israel-Palestine conflict and to safeguard his own financial interests in the face of Obama's tax policies. The Old Gray Lady has no problem with a Jew donating millions to political campaigns - it just doesn't like right-wing candidates.
This week, finally, a Jewish organization criticized the donations. But they were not doing so out of fear for the community. Instead they were citing recent allegations that Adelson had permitted prostitution in his Macau resorts, a claim he has strenuously rejected. And anyway, the organization is the National Jewish Democratic Council, so they also have a political agenda. And most crucially, they were calling upon Romney not to take the donations, not criticizing Adelson for making them.
Americans understand that it is the right of any citizen to give his money to promote a political cause - it is the politician's duty to do the right thing and not be unduly influenced by that money.
The issue of campaign finance and private political donations is a thorny one. Last election, Obama outspent his Republican rival and he may yet do so again this time around, despite Adelson's billions. Elections are not fought on a level playing field in a free capitalist society, but voters are still respected enough to make their own decision. Ultimately, Americans instinctively accept their citizens have a right to use their money as they see fit, as long as the media is free to observe and report. The only real safeguards against undue influence are the tools their democracy has developed to hold politicians to account.
No political system is perfect, but before we criticize the wide-open no-holds-barred style of American democracy, just imagine the poisonous public reaction in Poland, or just about any other country for that matter, were a local Jewish tycoon to act as Adelson. The superpower of freedom is not without its faults, but we would do better to learn from a nation that in 236 years of independence has freed itself from prejudice and racism to a degree unparalleled in history.
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