(Updated in light of new evidence; see end of article)
Another article has appeared in the international media expressing concern at the actions of the new Polish government, this time from the Washington Post, which reports on fears of a ‘creeping coup d’etat’ taking place. However, as with much foreign coverage of the country, the piece is over-simplistic, exaggerated and fails to provide context.
In particular, the description of the new defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz, as an ‘outspoken anti-Semite’ is rather far-fetched. The accusation – which has recently appeared in a number of Western media outlets – is based on a slightly ambiguous statement made 13 years ago by Macierewicz in a radio interview, in which he appeared to partially endorse the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He recently attempted to clarify his remarks, claiming that his words had been ‘manipulated’ and confirming that he ‘condemns anti-Semitism in all its forms’.
Macierewicz’s original statement – whatever spin he puts on it – was certainly unpleasant, and is likely to have been a deliberate appeal to the listeners of Radio Maryja, which has a reputation for propagating Jewish conspiracy theories. It also must be noted that his recent denial is rather unconvincing: he says only that ‘most historians’ believe the Protocols to be a forgery; and, far from retracting his claim that there are Jews ‘who think in a cunning way and act deliberately to the detriment of…Poland’, he merely excuses it as a reference not to Jews in general, but to certain specific ‘Jewish groups attacking Poland at that time’. Nevertheless, this single incident is far from sufficient to label Macierewicz an ‘outspoken anti-Semite’.
Moreover, the author’s suggestion that Macierewicz’s alleged antisemitism is indicative of Law and Justice’s (PiS) general attitude towards Jews is an even greater distortion. He claims that the party’s ideology is based on a mix of ‘xenophobia, anti-Semitism, right-wing Catholicism and autocratic impulses’, and supports this with a quote from Poland’s chief rabbi (whose name he misspells) saying: ‘anti-Semites…are under the belief that they have support from this new government for [their] actions’. But, significantly, he leaves out the rabbi’s next sentence: ‘We are certain that this is not true’.
In actual fact, PiS has played a relatively positive role in Polish-Jewish relations. The late president, Lech Kaczynski, was regarded as a ‘fervent friend’ by Poland’s Jewish community. During his time as mayor of Warsaw, he helped initiate the project to build the recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews. He and his party have also been strong supporters of Israel.
None of this is to deny that there remain some worrying signs of antisemitism in Poland (not least the recent burning of a Jewish effigy by radical nationalists in Wroclaw); nor to deny that these signs are particularly prevalent on the conservative right, from which PiS draws much of its support. But the situation is far more complex than many foreign commentators – quick to turn to the old trope of the Polish antisemite – acknowledge. Given the bold, rapid and controversial nature of the policies so far undertaken by Poland’s new government, there are many areas of genuine concern for the international media to focus on (and, in fairness, these are covered in the Washington Post piece). Playing the antisemitic card is lazy, gratuitous, and unnecessarily substantiates the feeling – widespread among PiS and its supporters – that they (and Poland) are unfairly treated by the outside world, thereby further reinforcing their paranoid insularity.
Update (July 2016): revelations by journalist, Tomasz Piątek, who has found extensive examples of anti-Jewish material in a newspaper Macierewicz owned and edited in the 1990s (including a few pieces under his own name), do now appear to confirm that Macierwicz subscribes to (or at least has been willing to exploit) a conspiratorial antisemitism.