Israel has a surprising friend in Poland

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A Polish Israeli Nobel Peace Prize candidate? Sounds crazy, no? Yet this surprising idea was advanced by Polish President Lech Kaczynski during his visit to Israel last month and received the enthusiastic support of Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

The proposed Nobel candidate, 96-year-old Irena Sendlerowa, is a Polish Catholic who oversaw the children’s section of Zegota, a Polish underground body that saved 15,000 Jews during World War II. Through her singular efforts, 2,500 Jewish children escaped death at the hands of the Nazis or their collaborators.

The Nobel proposal is the latest example of the surprisingly close ties between Poland and Israel. Poland, in fact, is said to be one of the European countries most favorably inclined toward Israel. President Kaczynski was the first European head of state to pay an official visit to Jerusalem in the wake of the war with Hezbollah. Poland is a tough critic of Iran, and it has troops on the ground fighting with U.S. troops in Iraq and “doing a fine job,” as former Speaker of the Knesset Shevach Weiss told the Polish press.

If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then Israel looks to have a friend in Poland.

Poland is also willing to increase its United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNFIL), Kaczynski said during his Jerusalem stay. And he went even further, suggesting that, if asked, Poland might agree to help mediate the stalled Middle East peace process. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders appeared to be receptive to this notion, as Kaczynski learned when he paid a visit to Ramallah on the last day of his Middle East sojourn.

This burst of cooperation does not come out of the blue. When it toppled communism in 1989, Poland had offered to let Soviet Jews travel through its territory, terrorist threats notwithstanding, even before it became the second ex-Soviet bloc country to reestablish relations with the Jewish state. Weiss, also former Israeli ambassador to Poland, remembers that when Poland joined the European Union, the Polish foreign minister phoned to assure him that the Polish voice would be “decent,” Weiss says, “and it really is.”

Since then, political cooperation has been close, while business ties have boomed. Israeli businessmen, who have made investments in Poland globally amounting to some $2 billion (from real estate to shipbuilding), say that the climate they encounter in the country is very encouraging. Poland is also buying weapons from Israel and maintains close military and security ties with Jerusalem. “We don’t talk in public about those things. We just do them,” says former Polish Ambassador to Israel Maciej Kozlowski.

These policies, supported by all of Poland’s governments, left or right, also have the support of the country’s media, which are markedly more objective about Israel than their Western European counterparts. All main Polish dailies, for example, played up the recent Amnesty International report accusing Hezbollah of war crimes in the recent fighting in Lebanon, while Western European papers were less interested. And seminars about Israel at the country’s universities attract students genuinely interested in learning about the country, not the PLO sympathizers you’d expect in Paris or Rome.

But there are troublesome current realities, including the assault of Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, documentation of anti-Semitism both by visitors and Polish human rights nongovernmental organizations, and inclusion of the notorious League of Polish Families, heir to Poland’s prewar anti-Semitic Endecja party, as part of President Kaczynski’s own Law and Justice party. So how does the “decency” Weiss speaks of align with the dark pages of Poland’s recent past?

The best answer is, “uneasily.” Poland has squarely faced up to the debate about the wartime massacre of Jews by Poles in the town of Jedwabne, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has called that debate the frankest of all held in countries that had been under Nazi occupation. Rabbi Schudrich’s attacker was caught and sentenced, and Kaczynski’s party’s coalition has been generally viewed as a parliamentary marriage of convenience. When the Israeli ambassador to Poland justifiably refused to interact with the current minister of education (who is the leader of the anti-Semitic League), issues concerning the March of the Living were promptly transferred from the Ministry of Education to the Office of the President.

While President Kaczynski’s soft-pedaling of anti-Semitism in Poland is potentially troubling, the Jewish community in Poland, reborn after communist oppression, continues to flourish. It has not experienced an increase of anti-Semitism under the current government, and on other issues, Jewish concerns are being fairly addressed: Communal property restitution is proceeding regardless of claimants’ religious affiliation, and while Poland’s postwar change of borders has made this a devilishly difficult issue, the new law should be passed by Parliament later this year.

It is true that that the present government could be ousted. It is under heavy political attack for reasons quite apart from its stance on Israel or other Jewish concerns. Still, it seems reasonable to anticipate that any new Polish government would continue the course set by its predecessors since 1989 — that is, a pro-Israel administration that is sensitive to Jewish concerns. The expectation is that Poland will remain, as Kaczynski has said, “a friend of Israel.”

How many countries outside the United States are willing to stand tall and assert this claim? Supporters of Israel the world over should surely be grateful for the friendly overtures between Poland and Israel.

Tad Taube is chairman of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, which is hosting a Polish Jewish cultural festival in the Bay Area now through Oct. 27.