PRAGUE (Jul. 12)
Political pandemonium erupted in Poland following an Israeli diplomat’s condemnation of Education Minister Roman Giertych, whose party has a history of anti-Semitism. Israeli Ambassador David Peleg told Israeli Radio last Friday in Krakow that Israel would not speak to Giertych or continue cooperating with his ministry on programs involving Israeli student visits or Holocaust education.
Additionally, in front of a crowd of about 150 at the Krakow Jewish Festival, Peleg said, “It is incomprehensible that issues like Israeli student groups, like Holocaust education, like March of the Living, will be directed by the president of a party which is an anti-Semitic party.”
The Polish media had a field day with Peleg’s comments, with commentators suggesting he was interfering in domestic affairs and television stations airing segments Sunday and Monday nights on what was perceived as a serious diplomatic spat.
On Tuesday, the Polish Foreign Ministry became involved, with Undersecretary of State Witold Waszcykowski telling the Jerusalem Post that Peleg had made a diplomatic error.
“Mr. Giertych is not a Hamas politician,” Waszcykowski told the newspaper.
Waszcykowski said that Giertych, 35, head of the right-wing, strongly Catholic League of Polish Families, should be judged by the present, not the past.
“He is playing by the rules, and I don’t see any basis for such a comment,” Waszcykowski said.
Even the leader of the main opposition party, Jan Rokita of Civic Platform, told the newspaper Rzeczpospolita that the boycott of Giertych is “damaging Poland-Israel relations.”
Peleg’s statement may have sparked Giertych’s stunning visit to a memorial service Monday at Jedwabne commemorating the 1941 murder of 1,600 Jews by their Polish neighbors, who locked them in a barn and burned them alive.
Giertych told reporters at the memorial that his visit was “an extended hand to Israel. In Poland there is no place for anti-Semitism and there will be no place for it.”
Even after historian Jan Gross’ 2000 book “Neighbors” debunked the myth that Nazis were responsible for the Jedwabne pogrom, many Poles — especially Giertych supporters — refuse to accept the findings, making Giertych’s presence at the memorial a shock for both admirers and detractors.
Giertych’s party received 8 percent of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections, and he joined the government coalition in May. Peleg’s statement was a reiteration of what he has told Poland’s president, prime minister and media since then — that the Israeli-Polish program involving the annual visits of 25,000 Israeli high schools students to Poland, mostly so they can visit former concentration camps, should be moved to another ministry.
The government agreed, and a new office overseeing those issues will be opened at the Prime Minister’s Office in several days.
But Peleg’s public statements last week weren’t welcomed by some Poles, including leaders of Jewish organizations.
“I am very concerned about the strict attitude which the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs adopted,” Monika Krawczyk, chief executive officer of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage, wrote in an e-mail to Peleg.
“In my opinion it does not recognize the fact that Jewish organizations based in Poland, such as our foundation, which do promote education on the Holocaust in Polish schools, are eligible for public money which is distributed by Polish Ministry of Education,” she noted, adding that she wouldn’t be surprised if such funding was now cut.
Krawczyk told JTA that most Jewish organizations agree with her position, noting that Giertych has not made controversial comments since his appointment.
However, Giertych remains honorary chairman of the All Polish Youth, an organization that includes many skinheads who have reportedly been photographed making the Nazi salute. Members of the League of Polish Families also have made numerous anti-Semitic statements.
According to an Israeli Embassy spokesman in Poland, two leading members of the party told Polish journalists two weeks ago that universities had “too many Jews” during the 20th century.
The League of Polish Families is the latest version of Endejca, a nationalist party run by Giertych’s grandfather that in the 1930s adopted an anti-Semitic platform and promoted the beating and harassment of Jews. Giertych’s father, a member of the European Parliament and member of the League of Polish Families, also is known for his anti-Jewish positions.
One prominent Jewish leader who requested anonymity said, “I am not a big fan of the League of Polish Families, but we have to be here and work with the Ministry of Education. Even people who are indifferent to Jewish topics will feel, ‘Why are the Israelis interfering?’ “
“This is not the way an ambassador should fight against xenophobia. This type of statement does not improve the relationship,” said another influential figure in the Warsaw Jewish community, who also requested that his named not be used for fear of repercussions. “The problem is it was in the open and Giertych looks like a victim, unjustly accused. He will come out a martyr.”
Giertych may already have elicited sympathy when he told the PAP Polish news agency at Jedwabne, “I like the Jewish nation, and I can’t see a reason why the ambassador doesn’t like me.”
Peleg said he is not engaged in any boycott.
“We have no personal issue with Mr. Giertych. The issue is the party he leads, the ideology, the activities, the statements of those in the party,” he told JTA.
He denied interfering in domestic politics, adding that his interest is in Holocaust education and fighting anti-Semitism, and that he would cooperate with Polish President Lech Kaczynski on these matters.
“How this is done is a Polish decision,” he said.
And not everyone finds Peleg’s stand unreasonable. Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, said expecting Peleg to meet with and work with Giertych was “like expecting the NAACP to work with the Klu Klux Klan. There are red lines you just don’t cross.”