PRAGUE (Sep. 17)
During big-issue speeches on alliances and cooperation made by the Polish president and prime minister during their recent diplomatic trips, the identical twin leaders also recited what has become a well-rehearsed mantra for them. “There is no place for anti-Semitism in Poland, and we will do everything in our power to fight it whenever and wherever it occurs,” was uttered several times, in various ways, by both brothers during their diplomatic discourse.
The comments were made by President Lech Kaczynski, who met his counterpart and other key politicians in Israel, and by his twin brother, Jaroslaw, the prime minister, who held meetings with President Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, on Poland’s increasing military support for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Is their campaign to show their opposition to anti-Semitism working?
Admiration for the Kaczynskis abounds, coupled with wariness over how they will implement their vision of a Poland free of anti-Semitic rhetoric.
“We welcome any declaration from the president and prime minister when they declare that they will fight against all forms of anti-Semitism; we must welcome the president when he makes his first foreign visit as president to Israel, it is quite significant,” said Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress.
“At the same time we must keep pressuring the government to maintain democratic status quo in the country, not to fall into the arms of extremists and not to let extremist elements within the government spoil our relationship with Poland at large,” he added.
The brothers’ comments are seeking to offset months of criticism by Jewish groups that are concerned over several high-profile anti-Semitic incidents.
An Anti-Defamation League report released last week that said anti-Semitism was on the rise in Poland cited three key concerns: a commentary on the Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja in April that accused Jews of engaging in “Holocaust business”; the history of anti-Semitic stances by members of the League of Polish Families, an extreme right party in the government coalition; and the influence of the chairman of the league, Roman Giertych, who is education minister.
The report urged the government to dismiss Giertych, whose nationalistic ideology is viewed as incompatible with Holocaust education by Jewish groups.
The ADL and the European Jewish Congress have also expressed disappointment that a state prosecutor has dropped charges of inciting hatred against the Radio Maryja commentator who broadcast an anti-Jewish diatribe and who has been just been given a top post at Polish state radio.
All of these issues were discussed in a Sept. 13 meeting between the Polish prime minister and David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
“He vowed to fight anti-Semitism and protect the memory of the Holocaust,” Harris said.
Regarding Radio Maryja, the prime minister insisted that he and his brother had “succeeded in moving the station away from anti-Semitism.”
The station, with an audience of 4 million, is one of the main media supporters of the twins’ Law and Justice Party. “We will have to keep monitoring the station to see if they are right,” Harris said.
He noted that worries about anti-Semitism have to be put into the broader context of Poland’s relationship with Jewish interests.
“Very few people understand the extent of Poland’s bilateral relations with Israel. We also do not take lightly the support for the U.S. commitment in the Middle East, including troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Poland has 1,000 troops in Afghanistan and has pledged an additional 900; there are some 900 Polish soldiers in Iraq.
In Israel, Lech Kaczynski sought to back up his statement to the country’s president, Moshe Katsav, that the Jewish state has no greater friend in Europe.
He offered to increase troops for the United Nations force in Lebanon from 200 to 500 and demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of Polish Jewish history, stunning some Israeli politicians, according to media reports.
“I think people should not forget the fact that at the state dinner, he called Jerusalem the capital of Israel,” said Israel’s ambassador to Poland, David Peleg.
Kaczynski told a group of Israeli schoolchildren that the League of Polish Families no longer holds anti-Semitic positions, and should thus not be a source of worry for Jews.
There has been much speculation that the twins have neutralized Giertych. Some observers believe Giertych’s pubic renouncement of anti-Semitism was a result of their pressure.
“I personally have my doubts about his new convictions,” Peleg said. “But I do think he would like to be regarded by Polish society as a legitimate politician.”
Peleg, however, has no doubts about President Kaczynski, who complied with Israel’s request and transferred the Israeli student visit program from Giertych’s office to his office.
“I have known President Kaczynski for 10 years. I believe him in his very strong and sympathetic feelings towards Israel and his sensitivities on Jewish issues, as is proven by his financial backing of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews,” he said. The museum is set to open in 2008.
“But I am sure he knows that there is work to be done,” Peleg said.
Within Poland, that “work to be done” involves the flow of anti-Semitic publications despite adequate anti-racist laws.
Piotr Kadlcik, chairman of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, suggested there is a gap between the government’s spoken commitment to countering anti-Semitism and reality.
He said he and many other Poles were disgusted that the country’s biggest purveyor of anti-Semitic materials, Leszek Bubel, was last week again found not guilty in one of several trials in which he was charged of promoting hatred against Jews.
Bubel’s anti-European Union commercial, the topic of the most recent trial, depicted characters dressed in traditional Jewish garb menacingly seeking the return of their property.
“With the Radio Maryja acquittal and the Bubel trial, I think media statements earlier in the year calling the country anti-Semitic were not unfair, they were just premature,” Kadlcik said.