Standing up to anti-Semitism

Polish President Lech Walesa should hardly be labeled an anti-Semite. In fact, Walesa repeatedly has condemned anti-Semitism and voiced sympathy for Jews.

But Jewish leaders are rightly disappointed that in a meeting this week here in San Francisco, the president again declined to condemn a Polish priest who made overtly anti-Semitic remarks at a June 11 Mass attended by Walesa.

The Rev. Henryk Jankowski compared the Star of David to the Nazi swastika and Communist hammer and sickle. He also said Poles should know if their leaders "come from Moscow or Israel."

Walesa didn't immediately denounce the priest, who is a friend and political ally. Instead, Walesa waited nine days before pressure from Jewish groups apparently spurred him to make a general statement decrying anti-Semitism.

Less than satisfied, officials from the American Jewish Committee rightly pressed for a meeting with Walesa, who was coming here for three days to celebrate the United Nations' 50th anniversary.

Of course, Walesa deserves credit for fitting the AJCommittee meeting into his packed schedule. The Nobel Peace Prize winner easily could have avoided bringing up the messy incident again by simply bowing out because of time constraints.

But since he did agree to a meeting, one wonders why Walesa didn't take advantage of the opportunity either to censure the priest once and for all or distance himself from the man.

Some are implying that Walesa is gearing up for the presidential elections planned for this fall. Though fewer than 15,000 Jews live in Poland today — compared to more than 3 million before the Holocaust — anti-Semitism remains pervasive.

Five years ago, one candidate was dogged by rumors that he had Jewish roots. Vandals defaced posters of Stanislaw Tyminski, a Catholic, by drawing dollar signs over his eyes and scribbling "Juden raus!" (Jews out).

During the campaign, Walesa himself contributed to the problem by repeatedly claiming that Jews in politics were hiding their identity.

Hoping to avoid such painful outbursts of anti-Semitism, Jewish officials obviously were hoping that Walesa would take a definitive stand against anti-Jewish sentiments and lead the way to a campaign free of such ugliness.

While some might argue that Walesa has done enough already, Jews have every right to demand that those who declare they're not anti-Semitic should act on their words. Likewise, Jews must continue to expose these incidents of anti-Semitism to public scrutiny, providing a lesson in the ongoing evils of bigotry.