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Behind the Headlines: Meeting with Glemp Sparks Debate on How Far to Pursue Past Remarks

December 14, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Poland delivered a vitriolic speech in August that contained harsh words about world Jewry and an open refusal to abide by a 1987 agreement to relocate the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, world Jewry cried out unanimously in a chorus of hurt and outrage.

But now that progress toward relocation of the convent is being made, a disagreement has arisen among prominent American Jews over how, or whether at all, to include Glemp in present efforts at Polish-Jewish dialogue.

Glemp, who heads the Polish Catholic Church, has acquiesced to Vatican pressure and agreed to the convent’s relocation. But he has not yet apologized outright for slandering world Jewry, whom he accused of violating Polish sovereignty and spreading anti-Polish feeling through the news media.

In agreeing to meet with the Polish primate last week, American Jewish Congress leaders sent a clear signal that they were putting the bitterness of the convent crisis behind them.

AJCongress President Robert Lifton and Henry Siegman, the group’s executive director, spoke to Glemp on Dec. 4 about the interfaith center that will adjoin the convent once it is relocated.

They also discussed working at the parish level in Poland to raise public awareness about anti-Semitism.

Prior to the meeting, AJCongress gave Glemp a Polish translation of its condemnation of his August speech. But the two leaders did not bring up the matter directly during the session.

Glemp indicated to the AJCongress officials that he is involved in programs to fight anti-Semitism among Poles.

That, Siegman asserted, is “as close as a Polish primate comes to saying he was wrong.”


But to Rabbi Avraham Weiss and his attorney, Alan Dershowitz, the mere fact of participating in such a meeting was a surrender of Jewish pride and a concession to a proven anti-Semite.

Dershowitz publicly slammed the AJCongress officials for their actions, in a speech Sunday night at a Yeshiva University dinner here. He held up Siegman and Lifton as examples of “bankrupt” Jewish leadership and characterized their meeting with Glemp as going “hat in hand” to a known anti-Semite.

By not confronting Glemp, Lifton and Siegman were condoning the cardinal’s remarks through their silence, Dershowitz maintained.

More specifically, Weiss and Dershowitz claim that the AJCongress meeting, as well as public statements made in Poland by Lifton and Siegman, derailed promising efforts to extract an apology from Glemp for his August remarks.

It was Weiss’ demonstration on the grounds of the convent last July that initially triggered Glemp’s tirade at a Polish feast in the city of Czestochowa.

In addition to using derogatory words to describe the Jewish people as a whole, Glemp implied that when Weiss and his group climbed over the convent wall at Auschwitz, their intention was to inflict physical harm on the nuns living there.

Since the speech, Dershowitz, acting on Weiss’s behalf, has been working to press Glemp to retract his comment about Weiss’s violent intentions.

Most recently, Dershowitz sent two young attorneys to Poland to work intensively to produce such a retraction from Glemp, using as a bargaining tool a slander suit they have filed in Polish court.


Jack Zarenski, one of the attorneys working for Dershowitz, returned from Poland on Sunday, saying that he had been on the brink of convincing Glemp to sign a statement of retraction. But then, the AJCongress officials’ meeting prompted Glemp to change his mind, he claimed.

Positive signals were received from Glemp about signing statement, Zarenski said.

Dershowitz described the signals as “an agreement in principle.”

But after the AJCongress meeting, “the atmosphere for retraction had been destroyed” Zarenski said.

Zarenski and Dershowitz asserted that AJCongress undermined whatever leverage they had mustered by telling Glemp and other Polish leaders that Weiss was on the fringe of the American Jewish world, that he had been acting strictly as an individual, both in his demonstration and his lawsuit, and that he did not represent American Jewry.

Siegman cast doubt on Dershowitz’s account of events and questioned how close he had actually come to convincing Glemp to sign a retraction.

But at the same time, he said that he had no qualms about saying publicly that he found Weiss’ actions at the convent and his libel suit “utterly destructive and damaging to every Jewish interest.”


Seymour Reich, who heads the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, has been playing a mediating role in the dispute.

Reich is also president of B’nai B’rith international and is the current chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Reich said that while he did not see “anything wrong with the (AJCongress) meeting with Cardinal Glemp,” he was sorry that Glemp’s offensive remarks about Jews and his statements about Weiss were not directly addressed by the AJCongress leaders.

“I’m sorry they didn’t raise the issue directly with Glemp, not only in terms of Rabbi Weiss, but the whole Jewish community,’ Reich said. “They lost an opportunity to discuss the matter with Glemp directly.”

The dispute highlights the fact that, despite the reported progress on the relocation of the convent, the wide gulf between Glemp and American Jewry that emerged after his speech still needs to be bridged.

“To build bonds between communities, you have to recognize the past,” Reich said.

“Just as Lech Walesa finally addressed the issue of Polish anti-Semitism,” during his recent visit to the United States, Reich said, Glemp “has to recognize that what he said was offensive to the Jewish community.”

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