September 3, 2022 — Warsaw, Poland
This piece originally appeared in Rzeczpospolita.
Jędrzej Bielecki: Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid recently called Poland an “antisemitic”, “undemocratic,” and “illiberal” country. Is there a grain of truth in this?
David Harris: I have been coming to Poland for over 40 years, and I know that it is a complex country. It cannot be summed up in one sentence. Undoubtedly, there are antisemites in Poland. I can also understand that some may see, fairly or unfairly, certain aspects of the Polish government’s policies as motivated by antisemitic stereotypes. At the same time, it has to be underscored that, while in some countries, notably in western Europe, Jews live with a measure of fear, Jewish communities in nine Polish cities have not until now faced any comparable threats or acts of violence. A Jew with a kippah is likely to be far safer walking in Warsaw than in certain neighborhoods of Paris or Malmo.
JB: The first years after the fall of communism were marked by an attempt to break the hostility between Jews and Poles. However, after 2015, as with the LGBT community or Germany, are the rulers not stoking fears just to stay in power? Because how to treat, for example, such a declaration by Jarosław Kaczyński referring to the return of property left by the victims of the Holocaust: “the power of PiS is the only real guarantee that we will not pay, that we will not suffer huge financial damages and, even more importantly, great dignity damages”?
DH: Certainly, there is a risk that what is called Polish-Jewish relations can sometimes be instrumentalized. The January 2018 amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance is an example of just that — but, fortunately, that law was amended again six months later, when the Polish parliament retracted the most egregious provisions. On the other hand, a high-ranking representative of the Polish government, with whom I spoke, argued it was not Poland that was trying to instrumentalize these relations, but rather Israeli politicians — allegedly for electoral purposes.
JB: Is that true?
DH: No, and I told him that. I don’t want to be misunderstood, but relations with Poland are not important enough for the vast majority of Israeli voters to influence the outcome of Knesset elections. Bigger issues for Israeli voters, including security and the economy, tend to dominate elections.
JB: John Paul II called Jews “our elder brothers in faith.” He hasn't been with us for 17 years. If he was alive, would these relationships be different?
DH: Relations between Poland and Jews kept developing even after the much-admired Pope passed away in 2005. Among other signs of progress, Israel and Poland developed a strategic partnership. However, over the last couple of years, we have seen some setbacks. Polish-Israeli bilateral relations are not necessarily described now as strategic by either side. Otherwise, we would not have had to wait so long for the Israeli ambassador to return to Warsaw and be invited to present his credentials. And the ambassador’s office in Tel Aviv still remains empty, while we await the appointment of a new Polish envoy. There is great potential to build on past successes of Polish-Israeli relations, but that presupposes both sides want it. However, it seems some would rather pour oil in the fire than water. From my perspective, as a friend of Poland for decades, I believe in pouring water and reminding ourselves of the many points of commonality and mutual benefit. I only wish today there were many more firemen than arsonists. And I know that view is also prevalent in Washington, when maximum solidarity among America’s allies is even more important than prior to President Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
JB: So the work of Polish-Jewish reconciliation can be lost?
DH: I have believed in helping write a new chapter in Poland’s relationship with the Jewish world for decades, so I, for one, will not stop my efforts. But from long experience, I know this is not a job for the fainthearted or those looking for instant gratification. Here, alas, we’re not always moving in a forward direction and a linear way: from A to B, C and D. No, there can be challenges and setbacks along the way. You have to fasten your seatbelts, and even perhaps be equipped with an airbag as well! Many consider me naive for my commitment, through thick and thin. Why bother, they ask. But I remain convinced that these issues are of fundamental historical and contemporary importance to both sides. And given my advancing age, I don't have too much time left, or the option of simply clinging to hope as a strategy for moving forward, or the luxury of watching from the sidelines, especially when we need more, not fewer, well-intentioned and dedicated “players” on the field of action.
JB: Where does this determination come from?
DH: I come from one of the few Ashkenazi families without significant Polish roots. My mother was born in Moscow, my father in Budapest. They are both Holocaust survivors. Mine was not a house where Poland was viewed well, though, truthfully, it wasn’t a frequent topic of conversation. Still, my parents (and grandparents) were convinced that antisemitism was deeply entrenched in Poland before, during, and after the war. But, at the same time, mine was also a staunchly anti-communist house. My mother’s childhood took place during the Stalinist era. Moreover, as I said, my parents both survived Nazi Germany’s goal to destroy the Jewish people. So, gradually, as I grew up, I began to realize that my family’s two greatest enemies, Nazism and Communism, Germany and Russia, were also Poland’s greatest enemies. And that it had been so for a long time. This is how a certain dichotomy — suspicion versus sympathy — about Poland developed in me. Both my parents, I should add, ended up in France, where they were later persecuted by the French Vichy collaborationist regime, I realized that Poland, laudably, had never had an equivalent of Vichy. And when my father escaped from a Vichy labor camp after three years and on his second attempt, and ended up fighting on the American side at Monte Cassino, who did he meet there? The valiant Polish army that fought alongside. Poland is, therefore, a country where antisemitism was — and still can be — a problem, but it also a country that gave the world Jan Karski and Irina Sendler, airmen fighting in the Battle of Britain against Germany, cryptologists who helped break the German Enigma code, and a government-in-exile that tried to alert a largely indifferent world to the Nazi Final Solution against the Jews.
JB: A year ago, the modification of the Code of Administrative Procedure put an end to the possibility of returning property left by over three million citizens of the Second Republic of Jewish origin, who fell victim to the Holocaust. This property remains in the hands of the state. Has the Polish state become a de facto black marketeer owning someone else’s property?
DH: This is a major challenge, of course, further complicated by the Soviet-imposed communist regime in Poland following the defeat of Nazi Germany. I am not a negotiator, and, if I were, I would not want to come up with ideas for concrete solutions in public, but agreements on restitution have been found in every other affected country in Europe. One could, no doubt, be found in Poland as well, if there is a political will to do so.
JB: From the legal point of view, this case is closed for Poland. Will it not, however, weigh on Polish-Jewish relations for a very long time?
DH: Yes, all the more so because it exists in a larger framework of what some see as almost a rivalry — I am not sure how else to describe it — between two narratives of martyrdom.
In Poland, many believe that there are some Jews trying to downplay the suffering of Poland during the Second World War. According to this viewpoint, which is not mine, I must stress, the whole world, for example, knows and honors the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of beleaguered and vastly outnumbered Polish Jews, but almost no one outside Poland has heard of the valiant and costly 1944 Warsaw Uprising against heavily armed German troops, while the nearby Soviet army, just across the River, chose not to help the Polish Home Army.
Similarly, the world is too frequently unaware that non-Jews were also murdered in Auschwitz; that, in all, as many as three million non-Jewish Poles lost their lives due to German (and Soviet) aggression.
For Poles - who may see themselves as a heroic, pristine nation that experienced the greatest brunt of the war; that was attacked from the west by the Third Reich and from the east by the USSR; that has the most Righteous Among the Nations honored by Yad Vashem; and that thinks of itself as the Christ Among the Nations - the failure to acknowledge, much less honor, this history is particularly painful and upsetting.
After all, both in Israel and America, again according to this perspective, there are some Jews who view Poland in a negative light and do not want to recognize Polish wartime sacrifice. They do not want to acknowledge that it is impossible to summarize the Polish experience in Yitzhak Shamir’s declaration about Poles who sucked antisemitism from their mother’s milk.
I believe we must understand the unique horrors suffered by the Jewish people faced with a Holocaust, as well as the magnitude of Polish resistance and suffering. I see no “rivalry,” and no reason for, let’s call it, victimology competition.
Even so, apart from the unfinished restitution issue, there is one highly difficult, if unavoidable, question, which I suspect you are about to raise.
JB: The recognition by Poland of the participation of a certain number of Poles in the Holocaust would perhaps induce radical Jews to abandon such an assessment. Why, 33 years after the fall of communism, does Poland still not find the strength to deal with this friction?
DH: I thought this would come up now. Because it requires the work of not so much historians and politicians, but psychoanalysts. It requires the separation of mythology from history. Understanding that a country can be proud of its past and, at the same time, admit it has done wrong things. And among democratic countries, Poland is certainly not alone in having darker periods in its past. I believe that countries display strength, not weakness, when confronting those periods squarely and honestly.
JB: Maybe because it was a crime in the family. How can we not consider two nations who have lived on the same land for a thousand years as a family?
DH: I have talked to many people over the years about Poland-Jewish relations, but this might be the first time I hear that we formed a family. I am not sure if this is an accurate statement. But, in any case, it raises a fundamental, if often overlooked, point: Poles can also be Jews. To be Polish, you do not need to wear a cross and attend mass on Sunday. And Jews can also be Poles and share a love of the country.
In any case, to acknowledge the truth that there were some Poles who, yes, sold Jews for money to the Nazis requires strong and courageous leaders. And yes, it’s also undeniably true that there were Polish non-Jews who hid Jews at great personal risk — and who deserve our everlasting gratitude.
JB: We'll wait a long time for this.
DH: Who knows? In the past, Ukraine, for instance, was associated by many Jews with pogroms, antisemitism, and exodus. Who would have thought that, in the last presidential elections, an overwhelming majority would elect a president who openly speaks of his Jewish identity, Volodymir Zelensky, and who leads his country in the struggle for freedom from Russian tyranny. So this is not necessarily a permanent rerun of a drama, where people who hate each other are doomed to live together in one room without ever overcoming their feelings. Evolution is possible. But alas, I fear that extremist voices too often try to set the tone in Poland-Jewish relations, and in a way they feed off each other. We cannot let them win.
JB: Radicals on both sides?
DH: As I said, there are those who want to add to the fire, and there are those who want to put out the fire, and they are not limited to any one country.
JB: To the best of your knowledge, how many Jews fell victim to Poles during the Second World War?
DH: I don’t know the answer. We have seen estimates of up to 200,000 although I am aware some scholars hold different opinions. But, again, I am not knowledgeable enough to say.
JB: Jews in Poland were not only victims of the Holocaust, but also a thousand years of great civilization in Poland. Israel does not want school trips to come into contact with this legacy to show that only a strong, independent state can keep Jews safe?
DH: Let’s start with the method. Poland cannot dictate, in a public forum, to Israel how to educate its children. No country would agree to such outside involvement. But the crux of the matter is this: the vision you are alluding to relates to Israel from decades ago. Today, it is a successful, not a weak, state. Its population has grown from 650,000 in 1948 to 9.5 million just 74 years later. That’s astonishing growth by any standard. So, it certainly doesn’t need to deny the viability of Jewish diaspora life to ensure its own development. Not at all.
JB: Why, despite all the problems with Poland, has Israel sent an ambassador to Warsaw? What does it need Poland for?
DH: This is a question I hear a lot these days. And it is an unhealthy question, I would argue. Sure, both countries can survive without an ambassador. Israel would not collapse if it did not have an ambassador in Warsaw, and the same for Poland without an envoy in Israel. But why should we even be talking about this? First, there is a fundamental point: There is no Polish history without Jews, as there is no Jewish history without Poland. We are linked to one another. Second, there are those who want to rewrite your history and mine. From Moscow we hear: Denazify Ukraine, even as it’s led by a Jewish president and when it’s actually Russia that needs denazification; deny the reality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its direct impact on Poland and the Baltic states; suggest it was Poland that triggered the Second World War; and assert that the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves because Hitler might have been a Jew, as Minister Lavrov astonishingly claimed.
Who, if not us, Poland and the Jews, must be the guardians of the truth in such times?
And finally, Poland and Israel have much to offer each other in the bilateral sphere. Let’s seize the opportunity and build on it, not the opposite.
By the way, the principal beneficiary of any tension in Polish-Israeli ties is Putin. Is this what any of us should want?
JB: Only, it was Israel, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January 2020, that gave Putin a forum to spread these lies: it was Yad Vashem. Contemporary Germany does not go so far as to instrumentalize history in this way.
DH: I regret what happened, even as I wasn’t at all involved in the story. Some Russian oligarchs promoted the idea of Putin and Russia over Poland and Duda. Why did there have to be such a choice in the first place? Unfortunately, their plan succeeded and led to sidelining Poland. But I also want to emphasize that Israel, which, again, erred in my estimation, certainly does not seek to rewrite history. It was a one-time mistake, not more than that, I choose to believe.
JB: But isn't this a bill for Barack Obama’s refusal to participate in the intervention in Syria when Francois Hollande was getting ready? Thus, Israel fell into dependence on Russia.
DH: I remember that day. It was Friday (August 31, 2013 - ed.). At President Hollande’s orders, the French fighter jets were ready to take off. They awaited America’s decision. And then President Obama blinked, after having established a red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own population. It was a shock. We at AJC warned on the very same day that this would have two fundamental consequences: President Assad would not leave his post in Damascus, despite all the Western calls for him to go, and Russia would become entrenched in Syria. And from then on, Israel’s northern neighbor would become a satellite not only of Iran, but also of Moscow.
JB: Today, the test of countries’ ethics is their attitude towards Ukraine. Israel is not sending weapons to Ukraine and is not participating in sanctions imposed on Russia. If Israel was established as a result of the Holocaust, is it not betraying its history in this way?
DH: Israel cannot change its geography and it cannot jeopardize its own existence. Israel’s concern towards the Kremlin is not only Syria, where the Israeli military operates to prevent an arms build-up by Iran (and needs some understanding with the Russian military), but also the well-being of hundreds of thousands of Jews who live in Russia. Yet, I have no doubt that, whatever its interests might be, its values fully align with Ukraine’s struggle for independence and territorial integrity.
JB: Israel hoped that after the collapse of communism, Poland would support it against such EU countries that support the Palestinians, such as France. Is that still valid?
DH: Yes, for many years after 1989, Israel could count on Polish understanding and support, including in the EU once Poland was thankfully admitted. Eleven months ago, though, a high-ranking representative of the Polish authorities told an American Jewish Committee group that if the tension in relations with Israel persisted, Warsaw would consider distancing itself from Jerusalem by joining the camp in the EU critical of Israel, by reviewing annual Israeli trips for thousands of schoolchildren to Poland, and by questioning Israeli security provisions for those trips. All three threats, if you will, materialized, I am sorry to say, even as I hope they are only temporary and will soon be reversed.
JB: Where does this attitude come from?
DH: Poland now has high standing in America due to its impressive role in supporting Ukraine. So Warsaw feels strong. But that was not so much the case just 18 months ago, when the Biden administration had real issues with Warsaw. Whereas President Trump supported Poland extensively, largely to weaken the EU, President Biden changed that approach, prioritizing relations with Paris and Berlin over Warsaw. So, if Poland wants to maintain a strong, enduring alliance with America, it should do everything possible to consolidate its present good relations with Washington. Tensions in relations with Israel don’t help, I am convinced.
JB: A recent AJC survey shows that one in four Jews in the United States experienced antisemitic behavior in the past year and 40 percent have taken steps to conceal their Jewishness. What happened to America?
DH: It started in Europe. Already in 2000-2001, AJC warned about that. In France, Belgium, Sweden, Great Britain, it was antisemitism related primarily to jihadism. Later, the extreme right turned to the idea of protecting “Europeanness,” all the more so after the great wave of immigration to Europe’s shores in 2015. But the extreme left’s antisemitism also turned out to be dangerous. It is much more difficult to explain, perhaps, because for the extreme left antisemitism is allegedly anathema, yet they want to destroy just one of the world’s 193 countries: Israel, the only Jewish-majority nation on earth. If that’s not a form of antisemitism, what is?
JB: Israel cannot, however, be a democracy and occupy the West Bank.
DH: No, it cannot. It’s just that it’s not such a simple, binary dilemma. It includes a third factor: Israel’s survival. Since the 1947 UN recommendation for the creation of two states, an Israeli and a Palestinian Arab state, all attempts at compromise have been rejected by the Palestinians, who have never in history — I repeat, never — had a state of their own. This presents Israel with three options. First, to essentially try to maintain the status quo pending a forward-looking Palestinian leader ready to reach a fair, equitable, and durable agreement. Second, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, which, in all likelihood, would lead to Hamas taking over a territory reaching almost to the Knesset itself. Or third, annexation of the West Bank, which Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t pursue (in limited fashion), after receiving an offer to establish diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates. He chose wisely. Relations with the UAE are advancing at lightning speed. But one question remains: Can the Arab countries now at peace with Israel help persuade the Palestinians to decide, for once and for all, to reach a historic compromise with Israel?
JB: Why did antisemitism from Europe move to America?
DH: This surprised many, including AJC. So much so that today some observers are asking if the decades after World War II, when Jewish life flourished as never before in the United States, may have been just an exception in the history of antisemitism, arguably the world’s oldest social pathology. We wanted to believe that liberal democracy would prove to be the ultimate vaccine against antisemitism. But today, liberal democracy itself is weakened. This is the first reason. The second is the expansion of social media that has given antisemites an extraordinary instrument to disseminate their perverse ideas and lies worldwide. It’s terrifying to even think what would have happened if, say, Goebbels had had such a tool at his disposal. Finally, what I would call fading Holocaust memory, which had served as a brake on the spread of antisemitism in democracies, may not have as much impact in the years ahead.
JB: Donald Trump, the president who relocated the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and led to the conclusion of the Abrahamic Agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, is a symbol of undercutting liberal democracy using social media. How should we see him?
DH: To say the least, President Trump is a complex individual. He is not an antisemite. His beloved daughter converted to Orthodox Judaism, and this is how she brings up the president’s three grandchildren. There were also many Jews in the Trump administration. And he and his administration surely get the credit for unprecedented peace deals between Israel and four Arab countries. But, at the same time, in his quest to gain and maintain power, he gave a wink to the ethno-nationalist far right, which thereby gained some influence. And that poses a direct threat to Jews (and not only the Jews). At the heart of this were his words after the vile neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in 2017 — when participants chanted “Jews will not replace us” — that there are “good people” on both sides, meaning the neo-Nazis and the counter-demonstrators. Coming from the president of the United States, the damage was severe, even if he tried to insist that he was misunderstood.