Poland's Twins and Israel: A Love Story

They offend the Germans, squabble with the Russians and are infuriating the entire European Union with their stubborn opposition to major continental initiatives: the European constitution - nie (no); the struggle against the death penalty - nie; a ban on abortions - tak (yes); and tak is also their approach to the prohibition on euthanasia. The Poland of the Kaczynski twins - Lech, the president, and Jaroslaw, the prime minister - is a conservative, nationalist country, religious and homophobic, vengeful and intolerant, a country haunted by bribery affairs and sex scandals, a place of politicization and appointments of confidants, of purges and maltreatment of dissidents.

But the Poland of the Kaczynskis is also "our best friend in Europe": The Poland of the twins views Israel as a major ally, describes us as a "strategic asset," no less, and comes to our defense repeatedly in international forums, even at the price of a confrontation with its continental partners.

The Kaczynskis' Poland is characterized by an extraordinary blossoming of organizations, funds and associations that have been established to revive Jewish culture. Polish public radio broadcasts a daily program in Hebrew, universities are investing in Jewish studies curricula, and cities glory in large-scale festivals of Jewish culture.

The president himself has become totally involved in the establishment of a huge museum on the history of Polish Jewry, opposite the monument to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Last week, in an ostentatious ceremony, he awarded medals to dozens of people who rescued Jews in the Holocaust; last night it was his wife, Maria, who joined those dispensing Polish honor when, in the midst of a campaign prior to the upcoming parliamentary elections, she took part in the dedication ceremony of the new Polish cultural center in Tel Aviv.

'Cozying up to the Jews'

The president's rare philosemitic record is blemished by his association with the Catholic and anti-Semitic station Radio Maryja. A senior figure who is close to the president explains that his motives are "tactical-electoral only," and promises that after the elections he will definitely dissociate himself from the station.

Be that as it may, the fact is that the popular station is virulently attacking Kaczynski for cozying up to the Jews. A similar attitude is evidenced by the Polish League of Families, an anti-Semitic party which last week broadcast a campaign ad showing the skullcap-clad president at the Western Wall, juxtaposed with images of the Polish troops in Iraq.

The message is clear: The Kaczynskis are nothing but captive babes in the hands of Jews; if you don't understand why our boys are being shot up in Iraq, look for the answer in Jerusalem.

What is the explanation for the special relations that have developed between Poland and Israel in the past two decades, which have reached a new peak under the Kaczynski brothers? Conversations with a series of senior officials, journalists and observers in Warsaw and Jerusalem reveal the following reasons:

1) The historical-moral consideration: Even if the Poles are not responsible for the Holocaust, they cannot evade the fact that it was perpetrated largely on Polish soil, and certainly not the fact that Poles were indeed responsible for dark events such as the massacres at Jedwabne (1941) and Kielce (1946).

The state anti-Semitism which, under the communist regime, led to the expulsion of tens of thousands of Jews in 1956 and 1968, is particularly upsetting to the Kaczynskis, because a number of their good friends had to leave Poland under those edicts.

2) New global image: Poland as a land of persecution and pogroms, as a nation of murderers and collaborators, as a graveyard of the Jewish people - the Poles want to shake off these harsh stereotypes, which have been haunting them since the war.

"A thousand years of common Polish-Jewish history is no small thing," says a senior figure in Warsaw.

"On the eve of the war the Jewish community of Poland was the largest in Europe. You know, one cannot claim that as anti-Semites we allowed this coexistence for masochistic reasons," the source continued.

The Jerusalem alibi

The Poles need the alibi of Jerusalem and promise to be its advocate in the international community - which, as described by a senior Polish figure, is "a hypocritical community that stereotypes a threatened Israel as a 'villainous aggressor,' in an unjustified way."

What's happening here in essence is a "laundering" deal: You launder me and I will launder you.

3) Eradication of anti-Semitism: Israeli diplomats in Poland describe the anti-Semitism there as "lite," as not being marked by violence. Still, the popularity of Radio Maryja and the election ad of the Polish League of Families show that in the Kaczynskis' Poland, there are, after all, clients of anti-Semitic propaganda.

The Poles believe that an increased presence of Israelis in their country will help them overcome this: It will dissipate Polish fears of property claims. And perhaps more interestingly, it will help eliminate the prejudices that focus on the image of the familiar shtetl Jew, "the ultra-Orthodox figure dressed in black and wearing a shtreimel, which in your country can be found mainly in Mea Shearim," says a senior Polish official. In other words, come in your masses, prove to us that you don't have horns and so help eradicate anti-Semitism.

4) Attracting investors: Both sides talk about "complementary economies" in which the one exports what the other wants to import.

Poland is interested mainly in Israeli high-tech and scientific know-how, however it is also pleased with recent, large-scale Israeli investments in real estate, and of course with the growing security and intelligence cooperation, which it needs in the light of its military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

5) Anti-communism and anti-Islam: Poland wants to free itself of its communist heritage, including its traditional pro-Arab policy. With no colonial past, it is also unburdened by moral debts to the Arab world.

A senior Polish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, takes this notion farther: "Western civilization must protect itself from the rising status of the Muslim communities on the continent."

6) America, America: After a visit to Poland, veteran New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman approvingly quoted Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign affairs expert, who described it as "the most pro-American country in the world - including the United States."

The Poles are especially grateful to the United States for its support of the Solidarity movement during the period of the communist regime, for its part in the toppling of the Berlin Wall, and for the co-option of Poland to NATO in 1999.

Schooled in humiliation, and having lost its independence time and again, Poland is today linking its security and its future to maintaining close ties with the world's only superpower.

It is only natural that it wants to join the tight bond - a Gordian one, in its eyes - between Washington and Jerusalem.