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Forged in Blood

Viewpoints, July 2016
Dr. Laurence Weinbaum

Bilateral relations between Israel and Poland can fairly be described as “special.” Behind them lies a great legacy of 1,000 years of history of Polish-Jewish coexistence, punctuated by moments of triumph and tragedy.

For many centuries, much, if not most, of world Jewry lived on the territory of Poland, which eventually became the heartland of the Zionist movement and produced many of Israel’s greatest luminaries. Influenced by the dramatic rebirth of Poland, some saw in their native country an inspiring example of a national struggle to be emulated one day in the Land of Israel.

That story, of course, came to an end when the Germans chose Poland as the killing grounds of local and European Jewry – and the country became embedded in Jewish consciousness as the epicenter of the Holocaust.

President Reuven Rivlin, on an official visit to the European Union in Brussels, meets the President of the European Council (and former Polish Prime Minister) Donald Tusk, June 21. Credit: Mark Neiman / GPO.

President Reuven Rivlin, on an official visit to the European Union in Brussels, meets the President of the European Council (and former Polish Prime Minister) Donald Tusk, June 21. Credit: Mark Neiman / GPO.

In the years leading up to World War II, the government of Poland had actively supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as a means of fostering Jewish emigration and covertly aided the Jewish underground movements that struggled against the Arabs and the British. After the war, it initially continued supporting the Zionist cause. Although Poland found itself in the Soviet orbit, its relations with Israel continued up until 1967.

With the outbreak of the Six Day War, Warsaw followed Moscow’s lead and severed relations, though privately many Poles, contemptuous of Soviet Russia and its Middle Eastern proxies, were gratified that “our Jews beat their Arabs.” Only at the end of the 1980s, with the onset of Glasnost and the gradual disintegration of Communist rule, was Israel able to reestablish its foothold in Poland, a maverick among the so-called “people’s democracies,” and the most important country in the region.

“Polish scholars have not recoiled from dealing with the most excruciating aspects of the Polish-Jewish past”

By 1990, with the shackles of Communism shattered, Poland reemerged on the map of Europe as a country finally able to determine its own destiny – including its own foreign policy. Today, more than 25 years later, Poland is one of Israel’s staunchest well-wishers in Europe. A member of NATO and the European Union, Poland is the largest and most successful economy in post-Communist Europe. With the imminent withdrawal of Great Britain from the EU, the country’s influence in the pan-European organization, as leader of the East Central European bloc, can be expected to grow further still.

As a state that has traditionally seen itself upholding a distinct national identity, in Poland there is an understanding of, and even admiration for, Israel. Nowadays in other parts of Europe, such a weltanschauung is often seen as anachronistic and outmoded. Moreover, as there is no appreciable number of non-indigenous Muslims in Poland, it has been immune to the widespread unrest plaguing many Western European countries, and its policy toward Israel has thus been unaffected. Fortunately, Poland has also not seen the kind of terrorist outrages that have plagued Western Europe – which does not mean, however, that traditional nativist anti-Semitism has been eliminated.

Today, there are innumerable professional and people-to-people contacts between the two countries. The constantly growing tourist traffic is facilitated by an increasing number of flights. Polish-Israeli trade has flourished in recent years, and turnover presently stands at over $1 billion. The field of hi-tech is seen as especially promising, and Polish firms are working closely with Israeli start-ups as they seek to replicate on the Vistula the experience of the “Start-Up Nation.” Cooperation in the military and intelligence spheres has also been particularly intense and fruitful and Poland is particularly interested in Israel’s advanced cybersecurity technology.

The unsatisfied claims of the heirs of those who lost property during the German occupation and Communist rule remain an ongoing bone of contention, though not one that will likely affect the overall positive ambiance characterizing relations.

Polish scholars have been especially active in shedding new light on the history and culture of Polish Jewry. To their great credit, they have not recoiled from dealing with the most excruciating aspects of the Polish-Jewish past.

There is understandable concern that in Israeli and Jewish circles, particularly among the tens of thousands of Israeli high-school students who visit every year, Poland is primarily seen as a place of Jewish suffering and death. In recent years, however, many efforts have been made to reveal the face of modern-day Poland as a thriving democracy, whose people played a major role in the struggle to end Communism, and as a vast repository of Jewish history and creativity.

The new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto is the symbolic centerpiece of those efforts and has become a place of pilgrimage and dialogue for both Israelis and Poles who seek to explore their common heritage and to map a common future.

Dr. Laurence Weinbaum is the director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and Chief Editor of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.