Rage over abortion law in Poland rattles Israeli ‘Polonia’ in Tel Aviv

The heated debate over abortion laws in Poland came to Tel Aviv after two workers at the Polish Institute were sacked for protests targeting the ruling Law and Justice Party.

TADEUSZ WOLENSKI holds the Hebrew translation of ‘The Books of Jacob’ by Noble Prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk, at The Bookworm, Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
TADEUSZ WOLENSKI holds the Hebrew translation of ‘The Books of Jacob’ by Noble Prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk, at The Bookworm, Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The small Polish community in Israel, the Israeli “Polonia,” was rattled in October when Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski used Twitter to publicly sack two workers of the Polish Institute for “crossing the line” during a protest outside the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv.
The sign they held said ,“Jews, too, f*** PiS [The ruling Law and Justice Party].”
The decision led to an uproar in Polish-speaking social media here and in Warsaw, with some Israeli-Poles collecting funds to hire legal defense for the two. They were seen by fundraisers as having been fired by an authoritarian government for standing up for women’s rights.
Others stated that they, too, support women’s rights, but stand behind Magierowski in this decision.
Those who support the ambassador argued that one cannot be employed by the state (the mission of the Polish Institute is to promote Polish culture outside the country) and then turn around and publicly shame it. To make matters worse, the slogan is difficult for non-Poles to understand just as it is hard for Poles who are removed from Polish-Jewish issues to figure out.
“Imagine that the slogan was ‘Jews Love PiS,’” a Warsaw friend of mine said. “would they get the same support from the Left? This slogan, I think, did a lot of damage. Those on the Left might love it, but those on the Right look at it, and feel rage.” What my friend was too polite to say is this: In the context of the ever-more-toxic Polish social-media discourse, “Jews” are often associated with “outside forces” which allegedly wish to “keep Poland on its knees.” The list of such occult forces includes Germany, Russia, the Freemasons, LGBTQ people, feminists, vegans, and – how could we forget? Jews.
It would be a mistake to associate the current ruling party in Poland with Jew-baiting. The opposite is true. The official Polish state goes out of its way to honor Jewish legacy in Poland and advance Polish-Israeli relations. This litany of enemies exists, and had existed for a long time, in a sort of shadow-Poland. It lives on social media and radical Catholic pamphlets and radio programs. It doesn’t concern itself with evidence, it focuses on emotions and symbols. During a real pandemic, that of COVID-19, with real Poles dying in real ambulances after being refused entry to one hospital after the other. The hate virus seemed to have infected the nation as well. With radical right-wing supporters torching a Warsaw apartment during the November 11 Independence Day March and pro-abortion activists protesting outside churches during prayers.
Meaning to torch a flat with a rainbow flag outside, the right-wing arsonists missed, and torched the home of an art restoration expert with a Molotov bottle. Setting Polish art ablaze. What, exactly, is going on?
“The slogan was a variation of the one actually used in Poland by protesters,” Tadeusz Wolenski, one of the two people fired, said. (The other is Zuzanna Jakubowska). “In Polish, the slogan is “F*** Off!” For me, the slogan [“Jews also f*** PiS] is a metaphor because we are a minority, and the current government is messing with all minorities. Immigrants, LGBTQ people, and now women, who are a social majority being treated as if they were a minority group.” It’s important to note Wolenski has a history as an activist in Polish-Jewish discourse both back in Poland, during his student days in Krakow, and in Israel, the land to which he made aliyah 12 years ago. He isn’t speaking for some “other Jews” in Poland but “on my own behalf, we as Jews feel this [rage].” What is the rage about? In Poland, the Constitutional Tribunal recently ruled that the previous abortion policy had been, in fact, illegal.
Until the ruling, women could abort when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, endangered the life of the woman in question, or if the fetus had severe disabilities.
The court ruled that this last part, the reason the BBC reported is the cause for 98% of Polish abortions, is unconstitutional.
Now, if a woman is informed her baby would be born with a serious heart defect and would die in agony after being born, she will be compelled to follow through.
STUDENTS FROM Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and Krakow’s Academy of Fine Arts present their illustrations for the poem ‘To Poland’ by Abraham Sutzkever. STUDENTS FROM Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and Krakow’s Academy of Fine Arts present their illustrations for the poem ‘To Poland’ by Abraham Sutzkever.
Since 2015, the tribunal is controlled by PiS, when that party nominated five judges to the highest court in the land.
This was done after Civic Platform (PO) attempted to appoint five of its own judges before losing the elections. The move was blocked by President Andrzej Duda in a move many in the country and the EU argue is against the law. Magierowski worked with Duda as his spokesperson before taking the position of diplomat.
Conservative Poles felt PiS had a point, after all, PO lost the elections. If approved, the five judges would have packed the court ahead of power changing hands. Liberal Poles felt the move turned the tribunal into a rubber stamp. PiS won the elections. Yet the decision to nominate the judges was approved before the elections took place. If PiS is allowed to block it, they argue, would every new government overturn previous decisions? Who is there now to protect Poles who don’t support PiS from any policies it might enact?
Due to the binding nature of the ruling, women expecting abortions for these medical reasons were told their operations were canceled as, if performed, the medical staff would commit a crime.
Polish ire is explosive these days. Massive protests erupted in large and small cities, including not only women, but also soccer hooligans and cab drivers. The idea of women being compelled to give birth to babies born “without a brain,” as some reporters argued, set Poland on fire.
“They (PiS) crossed a redline,” Wolanski said. “People understand the court was used to kiss up to the Church and the radical Right. Not to mention to distract the people from how the COVID-19 crisis is poorly managed.” What did the Catholic Church do? The reason churches had been targeted during the protest is that PiS is seen as a strong supporter of the hard-leaning Catholic Church in Poland. While most Poles are Catholic, at least in name, this does not mean they support the Mother Church in everything.
The church had been rocked in recent years due to a series of reports and documentary films which exposed just how endemic pedophilia and its cover up had been in it. While the Catholic Church has a diversity of pastors and views, the Church in Poland is largely hostile to reforms. Even if they come straight from the Vatican.
For those who are angry, protesting outside churches during mass is legitimate because the church, as they understand it, doesn’t respect their basic human rights. This led to the radical right-wing call to “defend the churches” by sending activists to assault protesters.
“My mother and sister protest [against the new abortion policy],” Wolenski said. “A friend of mine was arrested, another was tear-gassed. I felt very emotional about this and so protested [in Tel Aviv]. At worst, I thought: I’ll be given a stern talking to and a warning.” A source close to the Israeli cultural scene expressed great regret over the decision to fire Wolenski, saying that his “range of contacts and deep intimacy of Israeli cultural life would be impossible to replace.”
“They really shot off their own kneecap with this decision,” the source said.
According to protester Maja Hawlasewicz, the protest outside the Polish Embassy was a small affair set-up by the various social media groups serving the Israeli Polonia.
She is careful to point out that while the Polonia does have Poles with Jewish roots, “we’re a diverse bunch, we have Israelis with Polish roots and [non-Jewish] Poles who came here because they met an Israeli person and fell in love.” Saying that she is “not a political person,” she confessed to a great feeling of “vulnerability and discontent with the tribunal’s decision” which made her one of those who volunteered to help with the protest.
“PiS took over everything [in Poland],” she said, “not just the Tribunal Court, also the [state] television [channel] which is now a mouth piece.”
Hawlasewicz is not alone, a satirical social media group harpoons state-media by depicting it as being allegedly North Korean in nature. They hint that PiS is attempting the impossible, to brainwash a population that is living in the EU.
“In a democracy, which Poland is and should be, people have a right to decide on their own,” she said. “Religion should be kept out of the state, being pro-life does not mean anti-choice.”
Concerning the slogan, Hawlasewicz doesn’t see an issue. “People have a right to use their own identity to voice their opinions, in this case, a Jewish one.”
She warned that the public sacking of Wolenski and Jakubowska is in line with what Polish Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek promised teachers he would do. Fire them if they encourage students to protest for abortion rights.
This policy of “toe the party line... or else” reminds Hawlasewicz of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) and its methods.
WOLENSKI AND Zuzanna Jakubowska hold the sign ‘Jews too f*** PiS’ outside the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv. (Photos: Courtesy Tadeusz Wolenski)WOLENSKI AND Zuzanna Jakubowska hold the sign ‘Jews too f*** PiS’ outside the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv. (Photos: Courtesy Tadeusz Wolenski)
In the one-party socialist state, 20,000 Polish Jews were sacked in the late 1960s and “informed” it would be a good idea to leave Poland during the antisemitic campaign led by Mieczysław Moczar. “This is what my parents have seen during the PRL,” Hawlasewicz said, “this is incredibly worrying and I hope we’re not going in that direction.” Ironically, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski and former Polish president on behalf of PO Donald Tusk used to be allies in the fight to topple the PRL and transform Poland into a modern Western-style democracy. The thing Poles are unable to agree on is what does “Western-style” mean, exactly?
Those who fear the unnamed “enemies of Poland” warn that the allegedly German-controlled EU is a plot to reduce Poland into a nation in servitude. Young poles will leave for Berlin and London to work as nurses and bus drivers. The Polish family will be destroyed as the country becomes pansexual and polygamist. Poles will become extinct as birth rates drop, to be “replaced” by immigrants from Ukraine and Muslim countries (PiS made history by offering 500 pln in child support. The first such government program since the PRL). The Jews too, aided by the US Congress no less, will reclaim their pre-war homes and Poles will become homeless, such alarmists cry out.
This nightmare vision doesn’t concern itself with data, facts or even rationality. It finds a way out into the world by declaring zones of the country to be “LGBT Free,” calling on Germany to pay Poland for the horrors it had committed during the Nazi occupation of that country, and urging the cross is placed again on the head of the Polish Eagle. Some say, why not? Call for a return of the Polish monarchy too.
The other side wants to see a Poland strongly embedded within Western European values.
Wolenski, an openly gay Jewish man living in Israel, suggested those who want a better understanding how it is like when society doesn’t accept you should read the 1946 poem “To Poland” by Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever.
“Instead of brothers and sisters, thorns grow in the burnt ruins,” the poet wrote. “Until today I know not the full reason why, on the road again stands with great rage a Pole, once known as a knight.” 
The Polish Embassy declined to comment on this article.