A Polish visit - Blog
By Agata Peleszuk | 24/02/2011
Between the 23 to 24 of February Polish and Israeli governments held a joint summit in Jerusalem. It was the first time in history when Poland's and Israel's cabinets met together to discuss core political, economical and cultural issues, including strategic agreements for the future.
After 21 years of reestablished diplomatic relations, nobody doubts that Poland is a strong ally and friend of Israel. This fact does not arise only from the unique historical bond of the two, but it is also backed up by a constructive bilateral relations of both states developed during the last decades. From this point of view, the intergovernmental summit in Jerusalem is a simple outcome of extensive efforts to develop and extend the fields of Poland's and Israel's cooperation.
Among political leaders who held joint meeting in Jerusalem were prime ministers – Donald Tusk from a centre-right Civic Platform Party and Benyamin Netanyahu - ministers of foreign affairs, defense, education and health. The uniqueness of the Polish-Israeli summit is that so far both states have held such intergovernmental consultations only with Italy and Germany (Israel) and France and Germany (Poland). In Jerusalem ministers discussed further cooperation in the field of defense, health care, new technologies (i.e. in the environmental protection) and culture. In regard to the intended intensification of economical relations, both Polish and Israeli decision makers focused on cooperation in the fuel industries. As result of the two-days summit governments signed an agreement on the cooperation in the field of health care and medicine for the period of 2010-2015, a joint declaration in the field of management policy, water provision technologies and balanced energies. During their meetings Polish and Israeli leaders repeated a declaration of a bilateral military cooperation. Governments did not pass over the issue of students' exchanges and Polish-Jewish dialogue, as well as the significance of a cultural cooperation. According to the media, until 2013, the Polish ministry of culture plans to co-organize with Israeli partners the Czeslaw Milosz Year in Israel [a Polish poet, Nobel laureate], participation of Polish publishers in the Jerusalem Book Fair, cooperation between national libraries and possible continuation of the Polish Year in Israel [held between 2008-2009]. “Me met here not only to talk about past. Together with us there are ministers of both cabinets, and today and tomorrow will be working to build together a better future” – said Benyamin Netanyahu.
Though Israel has a crucial interest in struggling the international criticism over its policies towards the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Netanyahu's cabinet spokesman Mark Regev denied that Israeli government used the Polish-Israeli summit to cover over the bad image of Israel in Europe. Nevertheless, as the instability in the Middle East is deteriorating day by day, the summit with Poland helped strengthening Israel's friendly relations with one of its important European allies (and the largest Eastern European country which belongs to the NATO and the European Union). “A few understand you now as much as we do” – declared Donald Tusk, turning to the Israeli Prime Minister “Dear Friend”. Such open declarations should not be underestimated by the authorities in Jerusalem. Especially since Poland is taking over a presidency in the European Union's Council in July 2011, and all issues directed from Israel to Brussels will have to pass through Warsaw. That means that until the end of December 2011 Poland will represent the main decisive organ of the EU in its relations with the European Parliament and Commission, coordinate all formal and informal events, agreements and meetings held within six months by EU members. From the Israeli point of view, the cabinet in Jerusalem needs to reassure Poland's support for Israel's security and legitimacy, especially in a period when its Arab neighbors undergo a severe social and political crises.
Taking the politics and business aside, Poland and Israel saw the joint cabinets' meeting as the opportunity to bridge difficult subject of the Polish-Jewish dialogue. One of the main goals of the Polish-Jewish discourse has always been a struggle with the stereotype of Poland's image in the eyes of Israelis and yet not entirely accomplished Polish examination of conscience regarding a prewar, postwar and modern anti-Semitism. “A difficulty lies in the fact that it is not only about a reconstruction of a dialogue after the communist period in Poland. Before 1989 this dialogue practically did not exist in a solid and organized form – explained Prof. Władysław Bartoszewski, today an advisor to Prime Minister for international dialogue, a honorary citizen of Israel and one of the first Poles awarded with a medal of the Righteous Among the Nations. The renewed bilateral relations were shaken by the issue of anti-Semitism relatively late, in 2000. It was when a Jewish-American historian Prof. Jan T. Gross published his controversial book “Neighbors. The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne” about a pogrom of Jews in a Polish village of Jedwabne on 10 July 1941. The story shocked the public opinion used to approach discussions about anti-Semitism with reluctance. Prof. Gross attracted Polish attention again in 2008 when his new book “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz: An Essay in Historical Interpretation” was introduced to the Polish bookstores. Stormy debates on Gross' narrative and historical facts proved that Polish public opinion still has not found the right language to discuss this difficult subject yet.
This year the first pioneer steps in the Polish case studies on war-time and postwar anti-Semitism were made by two researchers from the Polish Academy of Science – Prof. Barbara Engelking and Prof. Grabowski. Taking under a historical microscope 3.000 case of anti-Semitic assaults of various kinds, two professors paved the way for Polish researchers by challenging one of the most controversial cards in the history of Polish-Jewish relations. The decisive role of Engelking's and Grabowski's publications is the insider's perspective of the authors. Whereas Prof. Gross has been accused of subjectivity, manipulation of facts and unfamiliarity with the Polish narrative, these objections cannot be thrown at specialists who asses historical facts without any emotional charge.
Besides the academic world, the bumpy road of dialogue was taken from the very beginning of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in February 1990 in the political arena. “Why Polish-Jewish relations are so special?” – asked the former Israel's Ambassador to Poland Shewach Weiss in his article to one of the leading Polish dailies – “The answer is simple. If you live together in one land for 800 years, a special bond is being created between people, a bond which cannot be broken even after a long separation”. Indeed a reconstruction of the unique bond between Poland and Israel was challenged by many. One of the groundbreaking events on the line Warsaw-Jerusalem was a visit of the former Polish president Lech Wałęsa in May 1991. During a special session of Knesset the leader of Solidarity movement said: “We helped you as we could. There were many Polish Righteous Among the Nations. (…) Among us there were also villains. (…) Here in Israel, the state of your birth and rebirth, I ask you for forgiveness”. A similarly emotional sentences were said during the former Israeli president Chaim Herzog's visit to Poland in May 1992. “I stand in front of you as a grandson of a Jewish rabbi from a small town in Poland, who today is a president of Israel. I am very moved and proud” – said Herzog during his speech at the Polish parliament.
Polish-Jewish relations are still marked by many scarves. Even a brief look at the complicated discourse reveals a multidimensional issues which will not be solved by one or two generations. In this regard, both sides agree that the fundamental role in bridging negative stereotypes belongs not to those who personally went through tragic times of the Holocaust or later on experienced any indications of prejudice towards Jews in Poland, but young Polish and Israeli generations who have a chance to overcome difficulties met by their grandparents and parents. In recent years more and more young Poles and Israelis participate in joint educational exchange projects. “Actual results of meetings of Polish and Israeli youth are priceless” – says Dr Ilona Dworak-Cousin, the head of the Israel-Poland Friendship Association, herself awarded with the highest Polish award for contribution in promoting Polish-Jewish dialogue – “A true interaction of young people allows them to see Poland and Israel from different perspectives, free of prejudice. It is extremely important for Israeli youth not to perceive Poland only as a cemetery, but also as a place of once flourishing Jewish culture and today's friendly ally of Israel ”.
As for the debate of difficult and painful history, Poland and Israel still have some homework to do. In spite of the fact that both societies until today need to digest many harmful stereotypes, the joint meeting of Polish and Israeli governments proved that Warsaw and Jerusalem are strongly involved in friendly relations which translate into concrete, dynamic cooperation in the field of economy, defense, science and culture. With the accession to the NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004 Poland transformed into a stabilized democracy whose friendly voice in the European forum has not been disregarded by any of the Israeli governments. And though diplomatic summits are generally considered as festivals of empty declarations, the Polish-Israeli intergovernmental meeting in Jerusalem was a strategic prelude to concrete agreements in the ground.