Poland’s Chief Rabbi Implores Jewish Leaders Not to Boycott His Country Over Holocaust Law

'Saying things like ‘Maybe we should pull out of Poland’ will have the opposite effect,' Rabbi Michael Schudrich warns as rift between Israel and Poland deepens

Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich prays during commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland.
Michal Kosc/AP / מייקל קו

The chief rabbi of Poland urged Jewish leaders on Monday to reject growing calls to boycott his country over the new Holocaust law that would criminalize any public statements that the Polish nation was complicit in Nazi war crimes.

Speaking at a session of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, Rabbi Michael Schudrich warned that by staying away from Poland, Jews around the world would inadvertently be ostracizing the local Jewish community.

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“Saying things like ‘Maybe we should pull out of Poland’ will have the opposite effect,” the American-born rabbi told the board of governors, which is convening this week in the northern Israeli city of Zichron Yaakov. “What we should be doing is looking for new ways to connect with the local Jewish community.”

Deeply offended by the new Polish law, many Israelis have urged the government to stop sending high school students on trips to Poland as part of their Holocaust curriculum. The Education Ministry has thus far rejected these calls.

The Ruderman Family Foundation, a private American-based philanthropy, last week launched a controversial campaign urging the United States to suspend diplomatic ties with Poland. The campaign included a video, which sparked so much controversy that it was removed from YouTube.

Schudrich said that such outside interference was counter-productive. “Are we going to win this one?” he asked. “I don’t know, but it has to be done locally.” 

Polish President Andrzej Duda, Shudrich revealed to the board of governors, was scheduled to visit the Jewish Community Center of Krakow on Tuesday, where the chief rabbi said he would deliver “an important statement condemning anti-Semitism.”

The Polish president will meet at the JCC with nursery school children, Jewish students and Holocaust survivors, Shudrich said.

“I sat with his people a week ago and said to that we have a problem – Polish Jews are not feeling comfortable in Poland, and we have to do something about it,” he relayed. “They obviously took it seriously because a week later, he’s going there.”

“At least they’re listening,” Schudrich added, “and that gives me hope.”

Since the fall of Communism, many Poles have discovered their Jewish roots and are embracing Judaism. In most cases, they are descendants of Jews who were forced to keep their religious identity secret during the Holocaust. 

Schudrich said he feared that bad feelings toward Jews sparked by the controversy over the new Polish law might cause them to reconsider. “Today I’m concerned that some people making their way back are saying that maybe it’s too dangerous, not a good idea, and they go back into the closet,” he said.

At the same time, the chief rabbi said that despite the new Polish law, he was not aware of any major increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the country. “The community has received a few dozen nasty emails, which is really not such much,” he said. “Interestingly, I’ve only gotten positive emails – the type where people say ‘We’re with you.’”

On Saturday, Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who also serves as the country's chief prosecutor, announced that the government would not open criminal proceedings against individuals found guilty of violating the new Holocaust law until Poland’s constitutional court reaches a decision on the legislation.

The new law outlaws publicly and falsely attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation. Violators can be punished with up to three years in prison. The law also forbids use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the death camps where Jews and others were murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.