Monday, September 27, 2010

REBRANDING POLAND

How should Jews think of Poland?

As Israel's best friend in the European Union, according to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and the Polish Institute for International Affairs, organizers of a recent [September 19-20] Jerusalem conference which marked the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries twenty years ago.

It is time, they emphatically say, to take a more nuanced view of Poland; to obsess less about the killing fields implanted on Polish soil by Nazi Germany and reflect more broadly on the preceding 1,000 years of Jewish civilization.

It's not an easy sell. The image framed by Polish-born former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir of Poles imbibing anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk persists. The reasons are plain.

Before a single Nazi boot set foot in Poland, Jewish college students had been obliged to sit on segregated classroom benches. By 1937 a "cold pogrom" had systematically eliminated Jews from Polish economic life. There is Jedwabne, where in July 1941, 1,600 Jews were burned alive in a barn by local Poles before the Nazis could lay hands on them. There is the 1946 pogrom in Kielce which claimed the lives of 42 Jews who had survived the Holocaust.

Moreover, Communist Poland's post World War II record toward Jews and Israel is also spotty. To its credit, Poland allowed the Haganah to set up a military training camp and was among the first to recognize Israel's independence. On the other hand, when Stalin's policy shifted against Israel so did Poland's. By 1953 Israeli diplomats had been declared persona non grata.

The elevation of Wladyslaw Gomulka in 1956 improved matters. Relations remained muted, but Polish authorities permitted tens of thousands of Jews to make aliya. However, with the 1967 Six Day War, Gomulka not only broke diplomatic and trade relations with Israel, anti-Semitism again became an element of domestic propaganda. In the 1970s low level trade ties with Israel resumed. By 1986, as the party began having doubts about the permanence of the Soviet empire, Poland sought improved relations with Israel in the transparent hope of impressing the U.S. "Jewish lobby" and thereby swaying Washington.

Momentously, relations between democratic Poland and Israel were re-established shortly after the communists lost power. Since then Warsaw has gone to great lengths to rebrand its image among Jews. When the Soviets allowed indirect Jewish immigration to Israel, Poland in 1990 crucially provided a clandestine staging area enabling 100,000 souls to reach Zion. In 1995, Poland created the post of minister plenipotentiary for Polish-Jewish relations.

Over the years, President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were all welcomed in Poland. Jewish travelers describe a country whose elites genuinely want to turn over a new leaf. Israeli and Jewish authors are prominently featured in bookstores. Kletzmer music is all the rage. A renewal of Jewish life is underway. And a Jewish museum is under construction in Warsaw.

Annual trade between Poland and Israel stands at $500 million. Polish entrepreneurs seek to invest in Israeli hi-tech; Israelis are active in Polish real estate. Israeli-owned companies are a presence in Poland. Teva ranks as the number two pharmaceutical firm there.

Israeli analysts assert that Poland has become an invaluable diplomatic asset to Israel within the EU -- siding with Jerusalem against the tainted Goldstone Report; refusing to participate in the Durban II conference; derailing a Swedish initiative on Jerusalem inimical to Israeli interests, and as Europe's leading voice against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's despicable Holocaust denial. Deepening Israel-Polish security cooperation has become a further element in the relationship. And in November relations are to be taken to an unprecedented level when Poland's top leadership echelon is expected to arrive in Israel for inter-ministerial meetings.

All Poland asks in return is for Israelis to see it with fresh eyes and to influence other Jews to do so as well. Not to ignore the ignoble aspects of Polish history, but to place them in the context of a very long, at times positive, and always complex relationship. For some Jews – influenced less by realpolitik than by painful memories – this may be asking too much.

September 2010

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