The views of Konstanty Gebert , who wrote articles in communist Poland under an underground pseudonym involving a dual identity, are intertwined with the complex and chimerical relations between Poles, Jews and Israelis. A portrait of a Jew as an eternal critic and intermediary
When I was writing articles for Poland's underground press during the 1980s, I grew accustomed to the various names that I was called. As far as the authorities were concerned, I was a “traitor” working for the CIA; for the members of the rightist underground, the criticism I leveled at the American policies and my sweeping refusal to condemn the “imperialist nature of the Russian people,” meant that I was a “Russophile,” or perhaps worse; my Jewish-sounding pseudonym – Dawid Warszawski – automatically made me a “Mossad agent.” All this was fairly par for the course; the only thing I was unprepared for was that I would be called an “anti-Semite.” Nevertheless, when I wrote an article in which I maintained that some of the Palestinian arguments and complaints were justified – unrelated to their employment of terror – and that only the establishment of a Palestinian state could address those justified grievances, I was.
I published my criticism in a nationalist underground newspaper that often lambasted “anti-Polish” positions among Jews – a claim that reeked of anti-Semitism – but which also took a solid pro-Israeli position regarding the conflict in the Middle East. In the eyes of the newspaper's writers, Israel was not only a Western outpost in the heart of the barbaric Middle East and the only democracy in the region, but it was also – wrote my critics in admiration – a strong state with a powerful national-religious identity and a determined army willing to do what was necessary in order to defend its national interests. They argued that the fact that Israel's enemies were supported by Poland's enemy – the Soviet Union – meant that we were allies. Israel's enemies, the Soviets and Arabs both, shared a joint anti-Semitic ideology – they noted – and consequently, any support for them could be considered both anti-Semitic and anti-Polish.
All this occurred twenty years ago. The world has changed, and despite this, public opinion polls in Poland show that the Israelis are more popular than the Jews. The Israelis are still considered geostrategic allies of the West, whereas Jewish “ties” with communism have tainted the Jews forever. Israel's mythic image, as it emerged in the writing of an adversary of mine in the past, can be perceived as a reflection of his own hopes regarding the image that a future, independent Poland should take as a nationalist-religious state with a strong army that can do whatever it wants. Not a very apt description of Israel and complete madness in relation to any imaginable Poland. At the other end of the political spectrum of the democratic opposition in Poland, Israel is perceived as a utopia become reality, and the myth of the kibbutzim is stronger than ever, even after their decline. The right's support for Israel was no less intense, despite the fact that it arose from a diametrically opposed reading of Israel's political reality. The fact that the “anti-Zionist” propaganda had been disseminated by the communist regime –despised on both ends of the oppositional spectrum – only bolstered the positive image of the Jewish state.
Poland's support for Israel after 1989, with the end of the Cold War, should not have surprised anyone. Other factors that influenced this support included feelings of shame or recrimination because of the Polish anti-Semitism before the war – or worse – during it, and because of the murders and lies afterwards, intensifying the sensitivity of the political elites on the left and right to all matters related to Jews and Israel. And finally, independent Poland became firmly pro-American, and it was only natural that it support America's Middle Eastern ally too. This friendly pro-Israel policy was evident not only on the level of official visits and their frequency, but also in the way Poland voted in the United Nations, with Warsaw generally taking a position somewhere between the European Union and the United States. The former Polish ambassador to Israel, Maciej Kozlowski, was often the target of savage criticism from his European Union colleagues because of his support for Israel's security policies. And this was at a time when Szewach Weiss, Israel's former ambassador to Poland, was without doubt the most popular foreign delegate ever to serve in Poland. Additionally, the Polish media tended to relate far more objectively to the conflict in the Middle East than their Western European counterparts.
But just as ideological assumptions, which were to some extent disconnected from the political reality in Israel, distorted Israel's image in Poland, Poland's image in Israel was determined based on both genuine and distorted historical memories. Poland was viewed as an anti-Semitic country par excellence, and there was no lack of events – in the past and in the present – to support this view. Groups of Israelis that participated in the March of the Living – still the most popular form of Israeli tourism in Poland – have been the target of verbal abuse and jeers, and in some cases, have had rocks hurled at their tour buses. All this appeared to pose sufficient justification for the heavy security provided for the Israeli march, as well as the mantra that the participants commit to memory before the trip: The goyim are out to get us. But in my opinion, the logic behind the extra security remains problematic, to put it mildly. Groups of Diaspora Jews tour Poland all the time accompanied by far less security or none at all and rarely encounter problems. And anyone that marches rich kids through a poor country can expect problems, related or unrelated to anti-Semitism: Try leading the March of the Living through Harlem, New York.
The very real anti-Semitism that still exists in Poland is often viewed in Israel as a reflection of Polish society's “true self.” The very fact of its existence makes the need to delve deeper or explore further superfluous. The firm support that Warsaw has given Jerusalem on the international level and the goodwill offered to Israel by many important sectors of Polish society have not really made inroads in Israeli hearts and minds. Thus, for example, Poland is one of the few European countries in which student unions on campuses regularly organize solidarity days with Israel, which draw not only pro-Palestinian demonstrators, but also a great deal of positive interest on the part of Polish students.
It would not be an overstatement to say that for Israel, Poland is a missed opportunity, whereas for Poland, Israel represents an even far greater missed opportunity. When the communists severed diplomatic ties with Israel in 1967, this distanced Poland from the only country in the world whose elites spoke Polish and understood their “second homeland.” One needs to look no further than the relations between Israel and Romania after 1967 in order to get an idea of what could have been. The turning point of 1989 came too late to repair the damage: In the eyes of the descendents of Polish Jewry in Israel, Poland was no more than yet another aspect of the terrible experience of life in the Diaspora, and nothing remained of that special relationship.
And where was Polish Jewry when all this was going on? Sadly, we played a very minor role in the process and our influence was equivalent to the size and importance of the Jewish community. Moreover, because immigration to Israel had always been permitted (and in 1968 was even forced upon Polish Jewry), those that emigrated did not leave behind a heroic mythos like that of the Russian refuseniks. All those that wanted to move to Israel ultimately did so. Those who remained were unenthusiastic Zionists at best; Israel was not a crucial issue in the eyes of the generation that was trying to mend the rifts in their conflicted Jewish identity in wake of the catastrophe of 1968. In fact, we felt a certain measure of aversion towards the ostentatious demonstrations of patriotism that we saw in Israel from the time we began to visit it, when this became possible once again in 1989. Personally, I had difficulty shaking the feeling that this was what the capital of Gabon must have looked like on its second Independence Day. Our Polish experience gave us more than enough nationalistic sentiment, and made at least some of us more sensitive to the Arab distress. “I identify them by their sad Jewish eyes,” a friend who immigrated to Israel in the 1980s, and whose job when he does reserve duty in the army is to examine identity cards, told me. There are of course those that see the situation quite differently. Among the dozens of Polish Jews who immigrate to Israel each year, the majority situate themselves in a comfortable place on the broad religious-national consensus.
The calls for immigration to Israel may be perceived as a nuisance by those among us who are unable to find their place on the abovementioned consensus. When Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Poland in the late 1990s, he ignored all the signs of Jewish revival there (which, granted, were not especially impressive) and sent an impassioned plea to all the Jews of Poland to immigrate to Israel by the year 2000. But I don't need an Israeli prime minister to say: “All the Jews to Israel.” There are plenty of Polish anti-Semites willing to fulfill that role. At the same time, the late 1990s was also a period when many Polish Jews felt a stronger bond to Israel than those in other places in Europe. For many of us, the unfairness of the attacks and the classic anti-Semitic insinuations touched a chord that we didn't even know existed. If Israel's Israeliness served as a barrier of sorts, its reawakening Jewishness – even in its unexpected and unwanted form – made us feel a renewed closeness towards it. And signs of a gradual realization that Poland had changed was taking shape among Israeli public opinion too.
But all this appears to have come too late. The window of opportunity for an improved understanding between Israel and Poland was open for about fifteen years or more, but it is now starting to close, at least on the Polish side. One of the reasons for this is the public debate over the events of Jedwabne: The revelation of the massacre carried out by Poles in 1941 in a tiny shtetl fundamentally changed Poles' self-perception. It also impacted the anti-Semites because it repudiated their sacred belief that all Poles shared their views. The public debate over Jedwabne proved that most Poles do not share their views, forcing the anti-Semites to organize instead of continuing to patiently wait for the actualization of their “rights.” As a result, in 2001, an anti-Semitic party – the Polish Family League – was elected to the parliament for the first time and won almost ten percent of the popular vote. It also almost doubled its strength in the European elections held that same year. There is no doubt that this party will become part of the rightist coalition that can be expected to form after the elections to the parliament next year, and this will undermine the pro-Israeli consensus that has prevailed in Poland for the last fifteen years. The results of the elections for the presidency of Poland, which will also be held next year, will apparently bolster this trend. The current policy, which espouses a favorable position towards Israel and the Jews, is not likely to attract the Polish voter. Furthermore, after Poland joins the European Union, it will not be able to continue to challenge the European consensus on major foreign policy issues, such as relations with Russia and with the United States, the expansion of the EU and so on. Even before officially joining the EU, Poland had already voted with it in the United Nations. And finally, the more Poland sinks into the American quagmire in Iraq – without any clear purpose, and with almost two thousand soldiers that about 75 percent of the public want to bring home – the traditional pro-American stance and all that it implies will be undermined. Israel can expect less support from Poland in the near future, whereas the Jews can expect to find that Poland is not as interested in them as in the past. If that indeed happens, it will not be a case of “back to the past,” but rather an understandable – albeit unfortunate – result of leaving the past behind.
Konstanty Gebert is the founder, former editor-in-chief and current publisher of the monthly journal Midrasz in Warsaw, Poland