Tensions were already high. Poland and Israel started 2018 on the wrong foot when Poland announced its intentions to sign into law a bill that would make it illegal to suggest the country was complicit in the Holocaust.
MKs tweeted in protest. The Polish government made some outrageous comments – one from its prime minister suggesting that Jews were just as culpable as any other aggressor in World War II, and another from his father saying that Jews marched to the ghettos voluntarily.
But while sound bites, tweets and Facebook posts went viral in Poland and Israel, US Jewry – the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel – was mostly silent.
That is, until the Ruderman Family Foundation released a controversial video mocking the law. The video shows Jews – young, old and everything in between – brazenly saying the two words Poland wants to never hear uttered together: “Polish Holocaust.”
The video calls for signing a petition – on a website, NeverDeny.org – urging the US to suspend ties with Poland until the legislation is overturned.
“THIS ISSUE has garnered a lot of attention in Israel, and people were very upset. Organizations released statements, but you didn’t hear outcry in the American Jewish community,” Jay Ruderman, president of the foundation, told The Jerusalem Post
It was an unusual move for the organization, which typically shies away from political matters, instead choosing to focus on advocating for the disabled and promoting a healthy relationship of mutual understanding between Israelis and Americans.
Ruderman rejects criticism that the video fanned the flames of an already combustible situation and, instead, believes that boldly taking a stand is exactly what American Jewry needs.
“We decided to be proactive and controversial and wanted to show Israelis that we are with them,” he said.
“One of the reasons we felt compelled to do this is because American Jewish organizations are very formulaic. There are men who have done this job for over three decades. But the Jewish community is changing,” he said.
Although the foundation took down the video – the site hosting the petition was taken down recently as well – the organization stands by its campaign and is pleased with the results.
According to Ruderman, the video proved to be a conduit that solidified the relationship between American Jews and Israelis – two groups that, despite sharing a religion, don’t often see eye to eye.
For Israelis who were livid about the proposed legislation, it was American Jewry silently standing on the sidelines that proved even more disheartening, Ruderman said.
“From our point of view, being able to garner respect from Israelis for American Jewish communities, having tens of thousands sign the petition, getting feedback from elected officials in Israel, was overwhelming. Israelis got the message,” he said.
Ruderman believes the video had an impact on a policy level as well. He points to a report by the Polish news site Onet which said last month that Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki will not be received by President Donald Trump or any other member of the administration in the United States.
The US State Department has since denied such reports, saying they are “completely false.”
Additionally, also last month, 59 US senators signed a letter calling on Holocaust victims to be eligible for reparations under a law being drafted by Poland that would limit compensation to Polish citizens only. Ruderman thinks this letter, too, is a sign of changing winds in the US government with regards to its relations with Poland.
Ultimately, though, Ruderman refuses to apologize for criticizing legislation that seeks to rewrite history.
“We did not go into this blindly. We did our research, Jan Grabowski, a leading scholar on Polish history, said some 200,000 Jews were killed by Poles or turned in. That is part of the Holocaust. That is part of the narrative,” Ruderman said.
“I don’t want to downplay Polish suffering and how they helped Jews, but we also need to face the fact that the majority of the Holocaust played out in Poland. The largest Jewish community [in Europe at the time]– in Poland pre-World War II – was decimated,” he added.
Part of the problem, though, is the Polish government itself.
“It’s not a coincidence that this is being done by a nationalist government that is trying to appeal to its base. It’s extremely dangerous and detrimental to minorities, and we know Jews historically suffer when minorities suffer,” Ruderman said.
Then why capitulate to pressure and take the video down? “We took it down for the safety of the Jewish community in Poland. However, they didn’t convince us of the inaccuracy of the video,” he said, explaining that the leaders of the community contacted the organization after stories of the video circulated.
“The term ‘Polish Holocaust’ is not accepted by any reasonable person, whether Jewish, Polish, Israeli or German,” Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said to The Associated Press at the time.
“Emotions are running high and harmful, inaccurate comments from various sides have been published, but this is indefensible.”
The video, of course, sparked a deluge of antisemitic remarks in Polish social media, but it is the failure of American Jewry to respond that Ruderman found troubling as well.
“I think, quite frankly, the American Jewish community took a while to take action,” he said.
“I don’t believe in these Jewish leaders who never leave their positions – supported by these millionaires and people of wealth.
I don’t think they represent the Jewish community any longer; it’s changed dramatically over the past few years.”
For Ruderman, the 40,000 visitors who came to the website on the campaign’s first day during its brief life span demonstrate that the organization did something right and there is a yearning for a change in approach when it comes to how American Jewish organizations address controversial issues.
“We don’t claim to represent the American Jewish community, and that’s why we opened the petition to the Jewish public,” he said.
“I hope this is a wake-up call to American Jewish leaders to be inclusive and democratic, to include all Jews.”
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