Who do you hire to fight for Jewish religious freedom and the right to kosher slaughter in Poland, a country plagued by a centuries-long, not always deserved, reputation for intolerance? A sensitive do-gooder, right? Wrong.
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The European Jewish Association has just recruited Roman Giertych, the hard-boiled former leader of a Polish far-right party which once branded liberal politicians as "pink hyenas representing non-Polish interests, assisted by Mossad and godless, satanic masons propagating nihilism and demoralization."
Just the kind of gentle shepherd needed to guard Jewish interests. True, Giertych says that unlike his father (Maciej, also a right wing politico), he is not an anti-Semite. And he has promised results – that is, progress in the legal challenge to the kosher slaughter ban – by September.
It is a strange transition, but one that highlights the complexity of relations between Poles and Jews. This should after all have been the moment when Poland finally shrugged off its reputation for anti-Semitism. Crowds have been flocking to a breath-taking new $100 million Jewish museum. Interest in Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust has never been so intense.
But a decade’s worth of careful diplomacy and historical research was derailed this summer when lawmakers threw out a government-backed bill that would have permitted slaughterhouses to resume production of kosher and halal meat. It was shameful and shortsighted, and raised fears in the Jewish community that Poland was going to turn the clocks back again.
To this day, many Israelis subscribe to the late Polish-born Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's view that Poles “imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” Israeli politicians and American Jewish groups were the first to accuse Poland of anti-Semitism. Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, sounded a familiar trumpet. Polish attitudes, he said, showed “a consistently high level of anti-Semitism.”
But this is simply not true of Poland today. Anti-Semitism still exists in Poland – as it does in all European countries – but it is not the scourge that many foreign critics claim it is. Polish-Jewish relations are tangled, still evolving. And the row over kosher meat is not as outrageous as it is being painted in Israel. The Polish parliament’s vote on ritual slaughter was at its core a highly politicized one, aimed at tripping up an increasingly wobbly Polish prime minister. It was part of a political game, without any dark undercurrents.
The relationship between Poles and Jews is, however, so finely tuned that even a minor parliamentary blunder can cause hurt. Ban the kosher slaughtering of meat and you immediately evoke a time, twenty to thirty years ago, when it was virtually impossible to live a full Jewish life. For many decades being Jewish in Poland meant keeping a low profile. The smattering of Polish-Jews who survived the Holocaust and stayed in the country after the anti-Semitic purges of 1968 often diluted their Jewish identity in order to protect themselves and their families.
For most of the 1980s the closest one got to tasting Jewish food was at Szanghaj, a Chinese restaurant on the drab Marszalkowska Boulevard. The cook at Szanghaj had worked for the Polish ambassador to Peking and had come back with him to Warsaw to marry a Polish-Jewish woman, hence their "Gefillte Fish Chinese Style" which was gulped down with a shot of vodka.
As a small child I remember how the eyes of my great-uncle Dudek, a Holocaust survivor, lit up when he received a package from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (The Joint), a Jewish relief organization. The parcels, including matzot for Passover, were a fleeting reminder of what it meant to be Jewish. Food helped to keep alive the Jewish identity.
Twenty years on, there are now 25,000 Jews in Poland, still a far cry from the pre-war population of 3.3 million. After decades of emigration, Jewish life in Poland has been starting to blossom again. Poles are starting to dig up, and take pride in, their Jewish roots. Warsaw’s shochet, the slaughterer who kills animals for kosher food in accordance with Jewish religious law, used to be a baseball bat-bearing skinhead. He only found out he was Jewish as a teenager.
A new younger generation of Polish politicians has guided the country to a deeper understanding of the Jewish-Polish interweave. Even Giertych, although he certainly has not mutated into a Woody Allen-loving philo-Semite, has come to realize that to be a credible force in Polish politics you have to adapt and embrace a modern but historically sensitive vision of the country.
And so it is now up to this ultranationalist lawyer to find a way to overturn the ban on kosher slaughter. Polish politicians have to give Jewish life more room to breathe; it's not enough to confine Jewish remembrance to the glass showcases of expensive museums.
But in the same vein, Jewish leaders need to give Poles a chance. Knee-jerk accusations of anti-Semitism do more harm than good.
Philip Boyes is a Warsaw-based speechwriter for a leading European politician.