Poland currently holds the presidency of the European Union (EU) – a position that rotates every six months – and one that will end at the end of December. Poland, with its long history of anti-Semitism has, ironically, become one of Israel’s closest allies in Europe, and it is now in position to render support to the Jewish nation by promoting Israel’s narrative in the EU. For Israel, it is an opportunity to drum up support in Europe, where the delegitimization campaigns against Israel have increased, particularly in western European media and on campuses.
Poland, during the Middle Ages, served as a refuge for scores of persecuted Jews fleeing Germany. The population of Jews in Poland just prior to the outbreak of WW II, was the largest in all of Europe and, Warsaw, Poland’s capital, boasted a vibrant Jewish cultural life. More than a third of Warsaw’s residents were Jews, and the 3.3 million Jews of Poland represented 10% of the country’s population - the highest such demographic in Europe. The Holocaust, which took place on Polish soil, decimated Polish Jewry. More than 90% of the Jews perished in Nazi run death camps - including Treblinka (where Warsaw’s Jews were sent to their death) Auschwitz, Belzec, Maidanek and Sobibor. Those who were not murdered in death camps died of starvation, beatings, and betrayal by anti-Semitic Poles. Conversely, many individual Catholic Poles risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors.
Poland’s Communist past is another sorry episode in the history of this former Soviet satellite and the Jewish nation. State sponsored anti-Semitism was pervasive throughout the 43-year long Communist rule. Poland, however, emerged from the fall of Communism as a strong constitutional democracy. Lech Walesa, the famed Solidarity Trade Unionist leader, became Poland’s first democratic president and he made a conscious effort to improve relations with the Jewish nation. The New York Times reported on May 21, 1991, that in an unusual, emotional speech to the Israeli Parliament, President Lech Walesa of Poland apologized for the anti-Semitism in Polish history.
Walesa, addressing the Knesset chamber filled with Israel’s leaders – some of whom were survivors of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps built in Poland after the Germans overran the country, said, "Here in Israel, the land of your culture and revival, I ask for your forgiveness." He issued his words knowing that many in the audience and others, who would read the account, blamed the Poles for not having done more to protect Jews from the Nazis.
"I am a Christian, and I cannot weigh with a human scale 20 centuries of evil for both of our people," he said.
Responding to Walesa, Israel’s Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir, who was born in Poland and whose father was murdered by anti-Semitic Poles during WWII said, "The Polish president represents in his history and character the new Poland, liberated and rejuvenated, a Poland which aspires to join the era of integration into democratic, free nations," Shamir said, "We want to hope and believe that the first official visit is a sign of the opening of a new page in relations between our people."
Pragmatic considerations, no doubt, influenced the Polish government rapprochement with Israel. Hoping to capitalize on Jewish clout in Washington’s corridors of power, and the need to rehabilitate the ailing Polish economy were indeed some of the factors. The desire to benefit from Israeli expertise also played a crucial role. And, Poland’s normalization process with Israel was a way to assert its independence from Soviet control. With the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (the Oslo Accords); the Polish government was encouraged to seek a role in the peace-making process.
Strangely, nostalgia over the once rich Jewish culture of Poland among many Catholic Poles is creating a revitalized, pro-Israel dimension. This writer recalls a conversation with a young Polish student in Warsaw 1996, during which he said “The Jews gave Poland culture, and without the Jews Poland is much poorer.”
For Israelis, Poland represents an important market of 38 million customers. Poland is a dynamically developing country, populated by well-educated young people who are ambitious and eager to succeed. Poland’s geographic location, at the juncture of east-west and north-south trans-European communications routes, makes it a preferred station for exporting products not only to Western Europe but also to the east. Poland is also an emerging European Union power, and a key NATO member. Its economy grew faster than most EU states in 2010 with a GDP rate of 3.8%, and it sent 1200 of its troops to Afghanistan in support of NATO. Israel’s investment in Poland has past the $1.5 Billion mark.
Poland and Israel have held joint cabinet meetings, and both Poland’s current government and main opposition party are strong supporters of Israel. Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski have been outspoken defenders of Israel in international forums and Poland voted against the Goldstone Commission Report at the UN. Moreover, Poland joined the U.S. along with several other countries in boycotting the 2009 Durban Conference, and stayed out of the UN General Assembly hall during the address by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad.
When Prime Minister Tusk was in Jerusalem last February, he declared that Israel “can always count on Poland.” The Polish PAP news agency reported on September 19, 2011, that PM Tusk opined “Poland will certainly not vote for a resolution which would directly jeopardize Israel’s security." He clarified that, "If the text of the resolution on the table will not constitute a threat to Israel and will somehow advance the Palestinian case, and it seems there is a shadow of a chance for a compromise, and then we will be ready to vote for this.”
A moral obligation by Catholic Poland to take responsibility for the past and the iniquities perpetrated on its Jews is one factor that makes for the growing closeness between Poland and Israel. It also means that the anti-Zionist and pro-Arab foreign policy of Communist Poland is an anathema to the current government. Poland, unlike the countries of western Europe, characterized by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as “Old Europe,” is more pro-American than pan-European. Their historical fears of neighboring Russia and Germany make it easy for the Poles to identify with Israel’s security concerns and existential struggle. And Poland depends on the U.S. (though not on Obama) to defend against Russian aggression.
Unlike Western Europe, Poland has no significant Muslim minority to consider, and they harbor no romantic notions about the Arabs like Britain and France, the former colonial powers. The Polish people, whose democracy they guard fiercely, have a natural affinity with Israel, as the only democracy in the Middle East. Public opinion in Poland, contrary to what is being expressed in Western Europe, is overwhelmingly pro-Israel – which has impacted on government policies.
In the past, countries like Denmark and the Netherlands were considered to be Israel’s natural friends in Europe. Today, however, it is countries in Eastern Europe, like Poland and the Czech Republic, which stand alongside Israel in support.
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