A diffrent view: Poland and the Jews

The Zionist revolution reshaped the trajectory of modern Jewish history; our national priorities cannot afford a rather needless political scuffle with Poland.

February 19, 2018 20:25
A diffrent view: Poland and the Jews

‘SHOES’ STARTS out with a pair of women’s shoes in a store window and follows their journey all the way to Auschwitz (pictured).. (photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)

The Jews who lived in Poland for a thousand years did not really consider themselves Poles, and neither did the Poles consider the Jews to be Poles. As outsiders in the country, Jews created their own ethnic and religious enclave, dressing and speaking differently from the national norm.

Jews living in the harsh reality of galut (exile) need to cautiously heed the gentile environment.

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Even an ostensibly comfortable Diaspora life should not numb Jews’ sensitivity to dormant ripples on the sea of a historically precarious Jewish fate.

Except regarding communal matters of religious faith, the Torah advises Jews to participate in the broader social reality and show goodwill toward the gentile population.

The rabbinic dictum calls upon Jews to follow “the ways of peace” by healing the sick and burying the dead of the gentiles.

Greet them in the market and offer charity for their needs.

To translate this teaching into a modern idiom, Jews should speak the language of the country, identify with its mores and challenges, and show patriotic loyalty to the state. This proactive disposition and behavior will hopefully elicit reciprocal acceptance from the wider gentile population. But this is no guarantee of permanent calm and safety. The manual of proper Jewish conduct is not a call for assimilation, but rather a clear directive for a pre-emptive measure to obviate the charge of indifference, let alone hostility, toward the national enterprise.

The day-to-day Diaspora reality does not call for exemplary segregation, and the rabbinic Midrash on the Jews in ancient Egypt maintaining their own dress code and language is not born out by the biblical narrative. For Joseph and Moses were immersed in Egyptian life, though their hearts contained a well of love for and commitment to their Hebrew fellows.

The teachings of Torah and the lessons of history lead us to hope for an environment of tolerance and civility, but not love, in gentile host-countries. Because of the ancient burning coals of Christian rage to the stoking fires of human jealousy, it is unrealistic to expect that all emotional barriers will naturally fall. Jews no less perhaps than gentiles may also sustain a spirit of antagonism toward or alienation from the “other” in the recesses of their minds and hearts.

So it is toward quotidian compatibility and a shared purpose for common welfare that we must fix our sights as regards inter-communal Jewish/non-Jewish life. As a minority community, and victims of a legacy of hatred and assault, Jews around the world should always do their best to participate and contribute to all sectors of society, submitting to the dictates of caution and avoiding ostentation at every turn. Maintaining a low profile is not self-effacement, but self-defense.

In Poland the Jews survived, and sometimes thrived, for a thousand years. That they were oppressed by heavy taxation, exclusion from certain professions and education, and quite despised, is not to be doubted. The Polish people had a natural and national right to assert their faith and identity in their country. And so too is the rise of a nationalist ethos today a result of a normal indigenous pride. But the Poles don’t have a mandate to murder Jews without cause or reason.

In German-occupied Poland from 1939-45, the Poles lost their freedom and honor. Latent hatred of Jews was suddenly given an opportunity to emerge. Many Poles collaborated with the Nazi extermination machine, and many Poles avoided collaboration and risked their lives to save Jews.

In this moral quagmire no Pole was free from fear for his own life.

A person under immediate threat of death is not expected to sacrifice his life for another person. Within Hitler’s hell in Poland, each person was legitimately concerned for his survival. It was absolutely unfair to expect a Pole to save a Jew and thereby risk his own life. Yet thousands of Poles did just that. These righteous gentiles went beyond the moral imperative of doing a good deed, because neither God nor man demands a martyr’s leap of suicidal altruism.

We are not oblivious to the savage murder of Jews by Poles before, during and after the war. These barbaric acts are not forgotten or forgiven. However, we are also not oblivious to the volcano of barbarism let loose by the Nazi demon that awakened subliminal antisemitic instincts and invited appalling Polish attacks against helpless Jewish victims.

Today we Israelis have a state to protect and secure. Our national agenda does not only include the obligation of memory and solidarity with Jews past, present and future. It includes doing everything necessary to assure the welfare of Israel and its Jews, and this imperative calls for an active foreign policy to develop good and beneficial relations with all countries. Poland, in an anti-Israel infested European continent, is one of those countries with whom Israel has cultivated favorable ties and positive feelings.

Indeed, Israel’s forthright and defiant response to the Polish law on the Holocaust resonated as a knee-jerk emotional response more than with a cool-headed focus on state interests. The Holocaust understandably serves as a lightning rod in the Jewish psyche. But we are no longer just a people with a history, but now a state with a political future.

The very presence – and even the absence – of Jews in a gentile country has an eerie, bewitching power to evoke outbursts of antisemitism.

This is cause enough for Jews to leave Poland and other exilic locales. It is advisable to heed the record of history. Meanwhile, Israel’s vehement wrath from Left and Right, and perhaps serving domestic political considerations, seemingly discharged latent (or not-so-latent) but excitable antisemitic sentiment in Poland. A more subdued and measured Israeli response would have avoided a diplomatic row that handed the haters of Jews another excuse to ratchet up their nativist hostility to our people.

Now they want to prohibit ritual animal slaughter (shechita).

The Zionist revolution reshaped the trajectory of modern Jewish history in elevating the Jewish state as the primary focus of our efforts and hopes. Our national priorities cannot afford a rather needless political scuffle with Poland, even when most of the blame lies with the other side. Our response was disproportional and did not serve the interests either of Israel or of the Jews of Poland.

The author, a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes on Israel and the Middle East.

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