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Anti-Semitism Was Not Just a Smokescreen

The Jewish part of Poland's 1968

This piece is being simultaneously published in Polish by Kultura Liberalna.

At its recent commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1968 protests at Warsaw University, the Law and Justice (PiS, in Polish abbreviation) government of Poland presented its official line: that 1968 was a “Polish national social movement against communism,” which “communists” then crushed by resorting to a reprehensible anti-Semitism. Note that PiS officials did not then go on to say that the Polish Nation (in whose name this government always claims to be speaking) must be especially thankful to its Jewish members for leading the fight in 1968. Without that leading role, of course, anti-Semitism in 1968 could not have been possible as a response. That is, the government did not initiate a campaign against Ukrainians or Germans in 1968. Setting such groups up as scapegoats would have been completely inappropriate, completely illegible to society, unable to refer with even the slightest bit of accuracy to the “troublemakers” of 1968. Blaming Jews, however, made some sense, because in some sense many of the troublemakers were Jews.

Since the passage of the Holocaust-speech law in January, Jews have been presented by PiS government supporters as a people who blame Poland for the Holocaust and are continually trying to extract money for lost property. In this context, the government’s firm rejection of 1968’s anti-Semitism seems like a good sign. And yet without any special positive mention of the role of Jews in 1968, the official line then is this: that 1968’s anti-Semitism was an example of communists slandering the Polish Nation by accusing Poles of being Jews. This is not much help.

Rather than denying the role of Jews in 1968, or saying Jews were a false foe for the regime, we should go a step further and say that Jewish Poles did play an important role in the 1968 protests. We should not challenge Gomulka’s rhetoric that 1968 was all about Jews with the response that it had nothing to do with Jews. We can help challenge ingrained Polish anti-Semitism not by acknowledging but by proclaiming that being Jewish was one of the factors turning some young Poles into militant oppositionists fighting for democracy.

But what can this mean in a context where most of those denounced by the regime as Jews did not consider themselves Jews? Most discussions of the topic alternate between understanding Jewry as either a religion or a nation. When those denounced by the regime in 1968 denied they were Jews, they first had in mind that they were not religious. They didn’t practice Judaic rituals or follow religious traditions, or even believe in God. They saw themselves as Poles. (Adam Michnik, for example, has always denied he’s a Jew, despite his Jewish communist father named Szechter. “I’m a Polish Pole,” he said in 2001. “And I can’t stand it when in a country with such strong anti-Semitic traditions, people speak of me as a Jew.”)

Yet they knew all too well that dominant theories of Polishness allowed only Catholics to be Poles, and they definitely weren’t Catholics. So most said they were “Poles of Jewish origin,” even though that phrase itself smuggles in a concept of Jewishness as “nation,” or Jewishness by blood, with which they disagreed. But religion or nation appeared to the only two ways to conceptualize the Jewishness they were “accused” of having.

Both concepts, however, miss the more important way in which they were distinctly Jewish. And that is in their political humanism, their commitment to tolerance and an open society. Generations of political observers have been struck by Jews’ commitment to political liberalism and democracy. Ruling classes east and west have always had troubles with Jews, continually fighting for freer societies. Jewish theorists played perhaps the key role in demolishing the claims of “scientific racism” that underpinned imperialism and colonialism worldwide. In Europe, Jews have always been aligned with the more democratic and inclusive political parties. In the United States, Jews were the closest allies of African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement. Jews have in fact been the most consistent advocates of that classic Polish motto – “For our freedom – and yours.”

Shlomo Carlebach, the Hasidic folksinger icon, once recalled visiting American universities and asking students who they are. “If someone gets up and says, I’m a Catholic, I know that’s a Catholic. If someone says, I’m a Protestant, I know that’s a Protestant. If someone gets up and says, I’m just a human being, I know that’s a Jew.”

Unfortunately, the typical Polish anti-Semitic response is to see this as subterfuge: the Jew saying he’s human just so he can better manipulate people to benefit the Jews. The truth, of course, is that this universal humanism, this inherent commitment to democracy for all, is the sincere belief of so many educated secular Jews. It’s time to recognize this, and champion it. This tradition is certainly part of the reason so many “Poles of Jewish origin” have played an important role in struggles for democracy.

Is there no self-interest in this stance? There is self-interest. Because, yes, democracy and liberalism were historically good for Jews. For a group seen as a separate and distinct community in a world embracing nationalism, liberal protection of minorities protected them. But the principle simultaneously protects everyone else, and it was this defense of everyone’s rights that drove so many historically Jewish students to be so active in anti-regime protests of 1968. This is the Jewishness that recollections of 1968 ought to celebrate today. So many activists at the time were Jewish not by religion, not by nation, but by their democratic commitments to a free society. Their activism was a sign of their Jewishness, and so celebrating the anti-regime protests of March 1968 should entail celebrating Jews, too.

A problem, of course, is that those protagonists denounced as Jews back then don’t wish to be celebrated as Jews today. Most of them still don’t identify as Jewish, because they’re all too aware that for too many Poles, being Jewish means they cannot be Poles, and throughout their lives they have striven to build a democratic Poland. (Some even converted to Catholicism, probably trying to convince themselves that they are “normal” Poles.) But that reluctance to acknowledge their Jewishness is just a sign of lingering anti-Semitism. We can help fight anti-Semitism by embracing Jewishness as part of the reason for the democratic activism of 1968. And describing March as a “Polish national social movement against communism” ought thus to include special praise for the contribution of Jewish Poles, and not a denial that there was anything Jewish about the movement.

Of course, some reservations are in order. The liberal, inclusive disposition was particularly prevalent among urban, intellectual Jews in Europe who began to find themselves marginalized more by modern nationalism than by traditional religious-based anti-Semitism. As nationalism took off in the 19th century, Jews were the only minority who had no chance of having a state protect them, if the state was committed only to serving the titular nation. Urban educated Jews who wanted to succeed could only do so if the political system was based on openness and equal opportunity for all.

Jews still living in traditional communities were less likely and had less reason to become democratic activists. Defending communities often means protecting difference more than insisting on equality. In some sense the real travesty of 1968 in Poland was less the repression directed against the students “unmasked” as Jews, as much as the repression against the non-political, “open” Jews in Wroclaw, Legnica, and elsewhere, whose social life was organized not by university discussion clubs but by the “Socio-Cultural Association of Jews” (Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów) financed in part by Jewish organizations from abroad. Activist students who engaged in protests knew what they were getting into. Their non-Jewish mentors Jacek Kuron & Karol Modzelewski had already been thrown in jail for promoting their left-radical ideas. The non-Jewish Professor Leszek Kołakowski had already been thrown out of Warsaw University for his calls for democracy. Anti-Semitism wasn’t necessary to persecute the “Commandos” (the radical student group, with a large number of Jews, that organized the first protests in Warsaw) in 1968 – though it did certainly help in defending that persecution to society. But the purges of 1968 extended to those who were religious, who did follow Jewish traditions, who studied in Jewish schools and still often spoke Yiddish. Most of them had nothing whatsoever to do with opposition politics. They found themselves in a political whirlwind ending with involuntary exile for no reason other than pure, old-fashioned anti-Semitism.

The irony, of course, is that many of these Jews could have been a key base of contemporary conservatism. Religious and nationalist Jews, after all, are not so typically liberal democrats. Those who focus on guarding their own religious community or state, and don’t aspire to full membership in a hostile world, can be as conservative as any right-wing nationalist. Just look at the Jewish Orthodox in the U.S. Look at the state of Israel, for which, not surprisingly, PiS and even the most extreme of Polish nationalists like Rafał Ziemkiewicz profess such admiration.

It was always so absurd for the Polish government to label 1968’s educated secular Jewish activists “Zionists.” They were as hostile to Zionism as was Marek Edelman, the surviving hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Like Edelman, 1968’s Jewish radicals had their traditions elsewhere – in the Bund, the Polish Socialist Party, Piludskism, or in the communist movement, whose adherents also believed they were fighting for freedom and justice for all. (Tellingly, virtually all the Polish Jewish once-communist parents of activist students supported their children in 1968, seeing them as reviving the democratic tradition they had hoped to be fighting for, too.)

Not all Jewishness is conducive to democratic activism. But the secular Jewish tradition is, and this is the one to which so many activist 68’ers were affiliated. That is why the Jewish tradition should not be ignored in discussions of Poland’s 1968 (and not just Poland’s). If 1968 is to be commemorated as a key part of a Polish social movement for democracy, as it should be, then Jews must be praised for playing a key role in it. Condemn the anti-Semitism, yes. But applaud the Jews, too. Anti-Semitism, after all, was not just a smokescreen.

David Ost is a 2010-2015 Joseph DiGangi Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

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