In Plain Language: Poles apart

Why all the squawking over Poland’s decision to reaffirm its ban on shechita (kosher slaughter)?

Ritual slaughter 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Ritual slaughter 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Enlighten me, please: Why all the squawking over Poland’s decision to reaffirm its ban on shechita (kosher slaughter)? Is this such a shock, such a scandal?! Could there possibly be a more underwhelming headline – except, perhaps, “Dog Bites Man” – than “Poland enacts anti-Jewish legislation?” The only people who could be truly outraged by such an action are those who believe that somehow, the Poles have managed to overcome their centuries-old tradition of anti- Semitism and have started loving the Jews. These people are convinced that Poland is ready to reverse course and become a fine and fitting place for Am Yisrael to reside, the kind of country that would justify the wistful and idyllic description of Poland as Po Lahn Yah, “here God dwells.” They include the Ronald Lauders of the world, who are willing to pour hundreds of millions of precious Jewish dollars down the sinkhole of wishful thinking they call the “resurrection and rebuilding of Eastern European Jewry.”
Please don’t count me among them.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I am fully aware that many Poles helped Jews survive during the Holocaust; it’s a fact that the majority of Righteous Among the Nations honored at Yad Vashem are Poles. And I also know – and am quite grateful – that Poland has been among the best friends Israel has had in Europe over the last several decades. But that does not in any way negate the fact that anti- Semitism still runs very high in Poland – all the recent polls so indicate – and thus a decision to restrict kosher slaughter should not surprise us in the least.
I actually do believe that every Jew should go to Poland at least once, in order to witness, firsthand, both the fascinating, 800-year history of the Jews in Poland, as well as its breathtakingly rapid decline and demise, culminating in the Holocaust – of which Poland was at the apex. As our rabbis tell us, “hearing (and reading) is infinitely inferior to seeing,” and one cannot possibly scratch the surface of the Holocaust without actually visiting the camps, seeing the mountains of shorn hair, gold teeth and suitcases of doomed Jews, and standing in the many impressive Polish synagogues that once overflowed with pious Jews but today are nothing more than magnificent monuments to a long-vanished community.
In fact, I myself will be leading a week-long heritage tour to Poland this October, my fifth trip to Eastern Europe.
It is the best, perhaps the only way to establish an emotional bond with our martyred brothers and sisters who were so brutally plucked out of existence by a continent only too eager to see them eradicated. Challenging as it is, standing on Polish soil connects one in the most personal way to this most critical event in Jewish history, and I encourage you to take such a trip, if you have not already done so.
But in no way does it suggest that this is a place where Jews belong, let alone where they might be able to experience the full expression of their Jewish identity. That is a joy reserved for Israel, Judaism’s one and only natural habitat.
My overall feeling about Poland can be traced to my very first visit to Auschwitz- Birkenau three decades ago. As our group moved through the complex, we noticed that a class of Polish high-school students were also visiting, their tour guide explaining to them what had happened in this horrible place. Suddenly, a member of our group – an elderly survivor who spoke fluent Polish – began to argue quite animatedly with the Polish guide. When they finished, I asked him what they had been fighting about.
“He was telling the young people that millions of Polish citizens were murdered here at the hands of the Nazis,” said the survivor. “So I said to him: ‘Why didn’t you tell them that it was Jews who were mainly killed here?’” He answered me, “It’s enough that I called them Poles.”
We Jews are constantly faced with a dilemma: Considering the repulsive behavior vis-à-vis Jews and the Jewish state that is so rampant today, in so many countries, should we restrict our contact with those nations, and only fraternize with “friendly” governments? That may seem like a logical decision, but the world is too interconnected, and we have become much too cosmopolitan for it to be a practical approach. We like to travel, we engage in business with a global economy, and Israel must pursue its standing in the community of nations – and so we are almost forced to interact on a regular basis with the world at large.
That world includes Europe, which, through the European Union, is increasingly hostile to Israel. It includes South Africa – which has arguably the worst voting record regarding Israel in the UN – as well as China and Russia, longtime advocates of the Arab position and suppliers of arms to those nations to be used against us. And, by the way, it also includes Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, where ritual slaughter has also been prohibited.
We love to walk the streets of Paris, despite a long history of French anti- Semitism that includes the burning of the Talmud in 1240, and the embargo on weapons to Israel when we fought for our independence. We enjoy visiting London to take in a play or cruise the Thames, though the British twice expelled its Jewish population, and prevented fleeing victims of the Holocaust from reaching Palestine through the infamous White Paper.
EVEN AMERICA and Canada – arguably the two countries most benevolent and supportive of Jews and Israel today, God bless them – have a few Jewish skeletons in their closets, as they were less than helpful in rescuing the Jews of Europe when they sought to escape the gas chambers. (See None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948, by the Canadian historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper).
So unless we restrict our international liaisons to Mexico and Micronesia, we are bound to have a relationship, more or less, with any number of countries besides our own. But that does not mean we could, or should, expect those countries to be a Mecca – you should pardon the expression – of Jewish life.
I may be “Poles apart” with some Diaspora cousins on this, but I truly believe that the moment we returned to Israel and established the state, the die was cast. Everything changed, and for the better. The arrow of history now points directly to Jerusalem, and it is here, and only here, where Jewish destiny will be centered and decided.
Genealogically, I have a strong connection to Poland. My grandmother came from Zamosc, and two of my greatuncles taught Torah in the great Yeshiva of Chochmei Lublin. But that was then, and this is now; that chapter of Jewish life is over and done with. It is significant to note that even the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose emissaries have created outposts in far-flung communities from Kyoto to Katmandu, specifically forbade the opening of a Chabad House in Poland.
He said that Poland was “one large Jewish cemetery, a place unfit for Jews to live.”
(Regrettably, the rebbe’s wishes have not been honored.) Of course, discrimination of any kind is never a good thing, and I regret that Jews anywhere are prevented from fully practicing our tradition. Those systems which deny basic human rights, such as freedom of religion, should be condemned, and hopefully forced to change their evil ways. But as long as there exists a place where being Jewish is the norm, where Torah observance is rewarded rather than restricted, I can’t really get all that worked up about Jews who choose to live in places where Judaism is denigrated or denied.
So when I read about places where shechita is outlawed, or brit mila is restricted – heck, who knows, someday even the bagel may banned in Brooklyn! – I just sigh and shrug my shoulders. My response to all that, to all the Jews who are disenfranchised and even those who aren’t, consists of two simple words: Come home.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected];