Jews looking at themselves
Looking for anti-Semitism in every word hides serious problems among trivialities – writes Jan ŚLIWA.
.Why are we interested in Jews? Our Polish fate has been tied to their fate over centuries, in a more or less pleasant way. Let us start by listing their achievements. First, they survived in the diaspora for 2,000 years – otherwise we would have no topic to talk about. Eventually, by profiting from a favorable political constellation they achieved their goal and created the Jewish state. They pushed back a massive attack of the Arab countries that wanted from day one to destroy the new state. In subsequent wars, they defended their existence, enlarged the territory and achieved domination over their neighbors. They turned the desert into a garden. They have integrated Jewish immigrants from many countries, ranging from Ethiopia and Yemen to Russia. They recreated and modernized the language that brought them together, as did a long service in an army that benefits from alliances, but is not dependent on them. Israeli political leaders are also now able to independently set goals and consistently pursue their implementation. They have become a power in technologies that determine security and future development, thanks to the effective cooperation of research institutes, the military and private business. So regardless of your liking, it’s worth taking a look at them, because we Poles would like to repeat many of their achievements, but we do not quite manage to do it.
Poles and Jews are similar in their long-term survival without a state under extremely unfavorable circumstances. For us Poles it lasted for about 300 years, for them 2000 years. Most of our population were living in the core region, also speaking the same language. Jews lived mainly in the Diaspora, adopting the languages and, in part, the customs of the local population. What kept them together, was faith and tradition, reinforced by the restriction of marriages outside the group. Especially the passage of a woman, a mother, to non-Jews was considered a great loss as it is the mother who passes on the belonging to the Jewish people. Kosher rules made it practically impossible to share the meal with others, and therefore also to engage into closer contacts in a convivial atmosphere. Self-isolation in the ghettos allowed for the observance of religious principles without foreign interference. Even today, in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim district, Orthodox Jews can live undisturbed their own way.
Before we get into the details – a little note about the limits of the discussion. When going off the beaten track, it is very easy to come across accusations of anti-Semitism. Racial hatred, attributing negative traits to an entire group is always wrong. Of course, we know that the Jews suffered under the Holocaust. But communities are divided into those that have been massacred and everyone knows about it, those that have been massacred and nobody knows about it, and those that might be massacred. It’s hard to bargain what is worse: 6 million Jews or 7 million Ukrainian peasants? Larger global number, smaller percentage. Is a death as a kulak different from a death as a Jew? We can also ask if we consider Jews as a special group or a nation like any other. After all, it is easier to treat everyone equally, distinguishing a certain group as a special, chosen one can have good but sometimes bad consequences. And looking for anti-Semitism in every word hides serious problems among trivialities. Many examples could be named, up to the luck-bringing Jew with a coin. Prejudice is in the mind of the observer. If someone offered a statue of an Ingenious Pole (and not a dumbbell from Polish jokes), I would put it on my desk.
However, the topic is still a delicate one, which is why we will mostly quote the opinions of the Jews themselves. Those opinions vary vastly. At one extreme, we hear that the land of Israel has been given to the Jews by God himself, and that ends any discussion. But there are also critics of Jewish history and tradition, especially of the present-day state of Israel. They are stigmatized as “self-hating Jews.” Their opinions sound more intriguing, but we have to carefully look if they are not just seeking sensation and provocation.
First, let us ask who is a Jew at all? The official version says that the Jews, after crushed uprisings, have been expelled from Palestine by the Romans and have spread throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Now, after 2,000 years, they return to their God-promised land. Alternative historians like Shlomo Sand say the actual story was completely different. According to Sand, the Jews in the diaspora are largely not really Jews but converts from other peoples, and the descendants of ancient Jews are the present-day Palestinians who have converted to Islam in the course of history. A persistently repeated hypothesis says that the Eastern Jews, the Ashkenazim, are really Khazars, the Turkish people who adopted the Mosaic religion in the eighth century. Khazars’ Judaism is a fact, but the thesis that all Ashkenazim are their descendants, and therefore genetically non-Jews, is questionable. The fact is that certain hereditary diseases are more common among Ashkenazim, which suggests their genetic distinctiveness. But it is not only a historical curiosity. Since Israel declared itself “the Jewish state” in 2018, it is important to establish who actually is a Jew. In addition, certain rituals, such as marriage, are religious, so it is important to confirm that the offspring will be Jewish. The Chief Rabbinate has decreed that a genetic test may be required for this purpose. This is especially true of Jews from Russia, where the continuity of tradition has been broken and there are often no relevant documents.
We were taught that treating Jews as a race, as defined by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, was an unacceptable discrimination. Here we see the equivalent rules, backed up by modern science, applied to guarantee the purity of the race, and this by the Jews themselves.
In the nineteenth century, when in many countries Jews have been granted equal rights, the problem of assimilation emerged. Should I remain an orthodox Jew or join the surrounding local society? How far to keep the tradition, how far to loosen the strict rules? Physicist Richard Feynman describes a situation in the 1960s when he entered an elevator with three traditionalist Jews on Saturday. Fire is forbidden on Sabbath, and this includes the electric spark in the switch. So, they couldn’t push the button, but they gladly accepted when Feynman did it for them. Without disregarding the problem of interpreting the Law, the more serious question was how to generally organize life in the new world. Having the obligation to read the Torah in a difficult Hebrew language and being engaged in commerce that requires good mathematical skills, Jews had an intellectual advantage over others, which is clearly visible in their scientific achievements like the number of Nobel prizes. The price was a dilution of identity, conversion to Christianity, or a departure from faith. However, there is something in their faith that haunts them so much that some return to it after many years. Leonard Cohen had sung about his love adventures for years, but before his death, his songs became like prayers, telling the Lord that he was ready to meet Him. With their banking experience, Jews achieved success in industry and finance. On the other hand, considering Talmudic problems could have enabled them to create speculative intellectual constructions – like Marx, Freud and Marcuse. Their penetration into society could give others a sense of infiltration by a foreign factor, that undermines the foundations of their own identity and make them lose their current dominant position. It is easy to guess that this will lead to a conflict.
Jews lived among other peoples – as a religion, race or nation? Some wanted to assimilate, keeping the tradition for private use. This was especially true where joining the local community was beneficial, like in America, Germany, France or England. Others, the Orthodox, focused on faith and tradition, the environment was only a neutral substrate. And finally, there were the Zionists who sought to build their own state. Where? It was yet to be defined. The modern nation-states where they lived could serve as models, and increasing anti-Semitism around them was an additional motivation to establish their own Jewish state. Life among others was becoming painful and dangerous. The advocates of assimilation were not interested in this idea, they even combatted it, considering it harmful. And the Orthodox believed that only the Messiah could rebuild the state of Israel, so building a state at present, especially a secular one, was a blasphemy.
In 1948, however, an opportunity arose and the State of Israel has been established. Its society was very mixed. Some of the inhabitants arrived before World War II and, imbued with the socialist idea, were building kibbutzim working together and sharing property. After the war, many Holocaust survivors arrived who wanted to leave Europe and their terrible memories behind them. They were not accepted too willingly. They were long disrespected as passive victims, contrary to the ideal of a new, strong and dynamic Jew. In addition, the question trailed behind them: Others died, what have you done to survive?
Only after many years, when the world learned about the history of the Holocaust, did it become an identifying factor and a moral capital in contacts with other nations. And the new Jew was to be strong, modern, and secular. Technology instead of Talmud. In order to shake off the remnants of the shtetl, politicians adopted biblical-sounding names. Surname as a declaration of identity. And so – while in Poland Goldberg became Różański – in Israel Grün became Ben Gurion, Biegun became Begin, and Mileikowsky became Netanyahu.
But going back to the structure of the society – Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, Yemen (Operation Flying Carpet), Ethiopia (Operation Solomon), USSR (Operation Bridge) were arriving in waves. They differed in language, cuisine and customs. However, the consistent use of Hebrew in offices and schools, as well as long military service for boys and girls in conditions of genuine threat and combat, led to the unification over time. This unification is especially difficult in the case of Russian Jews. They come in large numbers, which improves the position of Jews in demographic competition with Arabs. However, decades of atheism have interrupted cultural continuity, their genealogy is uncertain in the face of the strict requirements of the rabbinate, and in Russia probably every document anyway can be bought. Hebrew is difficult, so many of them remain mentally in the Russian world, they also have their own media. Their role was demonstrated at the 2020 Holocaust Forum, organized at Yad Vashem with the prominent role of the Russian oligarch Moshe Kantor, chairman of the European Jewish Fund. This forum provided a platform for Vladimir Putin to present a specific Russian version of the story. The maps shown there had more to do with surrealism than cartography, what showed that propaganda was more important than facts. World leaders and experts were present, nobody was bothered by it. Expecting the provocation, President Duda did not take part in this forum, which was accepted without regret, as in the meeting of the four powers that liberated Europe from the tyranny of Nazism, the presence of a Polish representative was not deemed necessary by the organizers.
Not only Jews live in Israel, there are also Arabs, who make up one fifth of the population. The story is long, let us just mention the last step here. In 2018, the Knesset passed a law defining Israel as the “national state of the Jewish people,” with the undivided Jerusalem as its capital and the Arabic language downgraded to a “special status.” It emphasizes the strengthening of cooperation with the Jewish diaspora. And this diaspora is again divided into several groups. Some (Jewish lobby) unconditionally support all actions of the State of Israel, assisted by fundamentalist Christian evangelicals, otherwise often anti-Semitic. The Orthodox are interested in studying the Torah, not in politics. Finally, for others, Israel’s brutal actions against the Palestinians are unacceptable. And the forms of that actions vary: harassment at the border, house calls of the military in the middle of the night (sometimes for no reason, as a part of exercise) – and many more. It seems that the Jews want to make the life of the Arabs so unbearable that they finally leave the country themselves. These types of methods, visible today thanks to social media, are becoming such a burden for the image of the Jews worldwide so that they can finally backfire. Therefore, America’s support for Israel is not so certain in the long run, because it is also evident that Israel wants to use American resources in its own interest rather than be a loyal ally.
What can we say about their psychology, visible and hidden? In his book “Memory Monster”, the writer Yishai Sarid takes the role of a guide of the tours to the places of the Holocaust in Poland. It can be said that it is only a novel, but a good observer is better than bad statistics and surveys where the respondents know in advance the (politically) correct answers. And Sarid is a good observer.
My impression is that the described reactions of the students visiting the camps are realistic. They hate Poles for pogroms, collaboration and anti-Semitism. However, they do not harbor any aversion to the Germans. Tall blondes, racially selected, look elegant in their uniforms. A posthumous victory of Hugo Boss. In addition, Germans exported their genocide to Poland. Germany means now well-kept, cozy cities: Nuremberg famous for its gingerbread, Munich known for the Oktoberfest. The concentration camp in Dachau is not far away, but nobody makes a detour to see it. Poland, on the other hand, is for many just Auschwitz and surroundings.
When the students look at traces of brutal violence, they think about themselves and their attitude towards Arabs. Whispers can be overheard that the same could be done to them. Violence raises respect. For the victims they have only pity. These Ashkenazim slaughtered without resisting, the students don’t want to be like that. After all, they make this journey before the military service in order to recharge themselves with determination that they will not permit anything like that ever to happen to them again. At the farewell evening, a student stands up and says: “We should be like them, the Nazis. Ready to ruthlessly kill even innocent children, because a child will grow up and become a terrorist tomorrow. It’s either us or them. ” The same words were used by the torturers of their parents and grandparents. Either us or them. A brutal analogy. A similar feeling of being endangered and trapped that justifies own violence. Is it just a novel, just a fantasy? The Babylonian Talmud teaches, “When anyone comes to kill you, rise and kill him first.” Ronen Bergman used this verse as the motto of his book on Mossad’s targeted assassinations, “Rise and Kill First”.
Escalating hatred is not the only option. The guide from Sarid’s book encounters in his travel a sympathetic Hasid and starts to talk to him. He does not go to Treblinka, but rather wants to visit the tomb of Elimelech, the miracle worker rabbi, still revered in Leżajsk, a small town in Southeast Poland. For him, Poland is not the land of death, but the land of life. Compared to the angry death camps visitors, the singing, dancing and drinking Hasidim offer a pleasant relief.
Gilad Atzmon in the book “The Wandering Who?” asks if the aversion to Jews, so frequent in history, is not influenced by their own behavior. He noted, for example, that the boycott of Jewish shops in Germany, recently under Nazi rule, (March 28, 1933) came immediately after the American Jewish Congress called for a boycott of German goods. For this, he was labeled a Holocaust denier and Hitler’s apologist. First, the facts are facts. Some are only unwillingly mentioned, like the Haavara Agreement (August 25, 1933) between the Zionist leaders and Nazi Germany, which allowed the departure of 60,000 Jews. The very question of whether the problem lies within us is painful, but there is nothing wrong with it. It resembles the Polish question “why are we losing all the uprisings and are unable to regain independence”. Maybe we regularly repeat the same mistakes.
This question seems to make sense as Jews are often depicted as a passive crowd that has been persecuted for 2,000 years by others, Christians, motivated by paranoid superstitions, without any factual basis. Jews in this narration do not have agency, sometimes they only give to the world a Nobel Prize winner or a violinist. It’s like shadow boxing, one side is absent. In pre-Holocaust books, such as “The Promised Land” by Władysław Reymont (early textile industry in Łódź – Poles, Germans and Jews), they are living people, fighting for their interests, sometimes fiercely. Today, many of these texts would be difficult to publish. Without special reverence, they present life as it was. Similarly, anti-Semitism is analyzed in every detail, and little is said about the attitude of the Jews towards Christians. Language barrier hinders access to these texts. The topic of anti-Christian passages of the Talmud is dismissed as anti-Semitism. Authors who emphasize the unequal treatment of Jews and non-Jews in the Talmudic law, as does Israel Shahak in “Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years”, are treated with reserve. More recently, Orit Hirt-Ramon and others in “Jesus was a Jew” have objectively addressed the delicate question of the portrayal of Christians and Christianity in Israeli schools. This analysis of the behavior of Jews does not justify the thesis that “Jews are themselves to be blamed for their fate” because no nation, ever, deserves a genocide. Instead, there was natural interaction and competition between them and other groups, just like between the Chinese diaspora and local people in Asia. The Chinese spoke an incomprehensible language, had their own international network of connections, were educated and rich. They were strangers, maybe haughty, they were envied. The situation is analogous, and leads to similar antagonisms. But from aversion to genocide is a long way. Especially systematic, industrial genocide requires a few more factors, which we can discuss another time.
And we can watch the behavior of the Jews today. In front of our eyes some of them are doing everything they can to destroy their image and reject their friends. After the article by Masha Gessen in the New Yorker, who blamed Poles (nation and state) for the death of 3 million Jews, a certain line has been crossed. There were more such acts. As a son of a Righteous, I found the speech of Ambassador Azari in Auschwitz in 2018, emphasizing Polish complicity, as a personal offense.
Recently, Gazeta Wyborcza published a text by the New York author Mikhal Dekel, who had to cry when she saw that Poles in Poland commemorate the heroic Polish woman who gave her life for Jews. What is the lesson from that? If you help the Jews and destroy in this way the myth of the Polish anti-Semite, your grandchildren who want to commemorate you will be accused as ugly right-wing populists and nationalists, obsessively (and falsely) portraying Poles as noble heroes.
What is the goal of all that? Does Israel really have too many friends? The accusations of anti-Semitism can enforce compliancy, but not sympathy. The ultimate question is, what is Israel’s plan B? For now, it can do anything, and the Iron Dome protects it from Hamas missiles. Up to 90%, so 10% of the rockets reach their target anyway. What if Hamas improves quality and 20, 30% missiles hit Israeli homes? And that’s not the worst of it. We saw street fights, lynching scenes – from both sides. Even in mixed cities like Lod and Haifa, where peaceful coexistence was hoped for. What if these riots spread over the whole country? We saw the scene of Jews dancing at the Wailing Wall, staring at the flame next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Just a tree was on fire, but fire could have jumped onto the mosque. And if that mosque burned down – what then? The technical advantage ceases to matter here. Israel has a nuclear bomb. But on which target will it fire it – on Ramallah?
Maybe someone thinks that in the West people are waiting for the Jews with open arms. I doubt it. We saw what was happening now. Moreover, masses of eagerly imported Islamic immigrants also play a vital role. Reasonable observers have recognized the problem years ago, but they were dismissed as Islamophobes. At the moment of the climax, reality appears with all brutality. Additionally, there are anti-Israel sentiments, especially on the left. We saw such strange political constellations like a joint demonstration by Muslims and anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews under the slogan “Free Palestine”. A small signal what are the real sentiments – the son of the aforementioned Mikhal Dekel, a Jewish boy in New York, for a week was afraid to go to the school. In France, life for Jews was becoming increasingly difficult for years. Many emigrated to Israel in the hope that they would at least be among their own people there. But what if both options become impracticable? The eyes of the armchair moralists will probably turn towards Poland again. But it may not work. When we look back at WWII, we see how much better are judged the nations that have closed their doors to Jews, especially keeping them at distance, like America. This bitter observation makes us reconsider our choices. We also hear all the time that Polish soil is soaked with Jewish blood, where their foot will never be set again. So it is better to look for other options.
In addition, there are still minor but characteristic incidents. Naftali Hananya, a young PR-adept working for Prime Minister Netanyahu, sent a series of tweets suggesting a link between the current beating of Jews and the situation in Poland in the 1940s. Why? For some people petty maliciousness is more important than solving real problems. It looks like asking for trouble. So now we can connect the dots – what is logical, although politically incorrect – and ask: and how was it in other times? I do not know.
All criticism of Israel should not be understood as the support for Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that aim to destroy Israel and possibly exterminate the Jews. The fall of Israel in this part of the world could lead to a chaos that would make Iraq look like a child’s play. The effect of removing the keystone would make the whole structure collapse and cause a fight for domination, with the participation of external players who want to win something for themselves. And a bloody slaughter and a stream of refugees, this time not economic ones but really fleeing from war. Their migration to Europe (where to?) would destabilize the already fragile situation. Importing hot Middle East conflicts to Europe, where we have an already large Muslim population and a less numerous Jewish one, is a recipe for an explosion. And in the background, there is also a post-Christian population, passive – for now. In France they are called les petits blancs. Trained by the media in fighting both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, ashamed of their own tradition, history and culture. All that makes an overly complex situation. Too many variables and nonlinear dependencies. A mathematician would say: this system of equations has no solution.
.To the external observer, trying to have a balanced, honest look at both sides is like trying to stay in the middle position in a boxing match. One can only hope that the fighters will sooner come to their senses than a disaster will occur.