Enlighten me – please: Why all the squawking over Poland’s decision
to reaffirm its ban on kosher shechita? Is this such a shock, such a
scandal?! Could there possibly be a more underwhelming headline –
except, perhaps, “Dog Bites Man” – than, “Poland enacts anti-Jewish

The only people who could be truly outraged by an action such as this
are those who believe that somehow, the Poles have managed to
overcome their centuries-old tradition of anti-Semitism and started
loving the Jews. People who are convinced that Poland is ready to
reverse course and become a fine and fitting place for Am Yisrael to
reside, the kind of country that would justify the wistful and
idyllic description of Poland as “Po Lahn Ya;” here God dwells.” The
Ron Lauders of the world who are willing to pour hundreds of millions
of precious Jewish dollars down the sinkhole of wishful thinking they
call, “the resurrection and rebuilding of Eastern European Jewry.”

Please don’t count me among them.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I am fully aware that many Poles helped Jews
survive during the Shoa; it’s a fact that the majority of Righteous
Among the Nations honored at Yad Vashem are Poles. And I also know –
and am quite grateful – that Poland has been among the best friends
Israel has had in Europe over the last several decades. But that does
not in any way negate the fact that anti-Semitism still runs very
high in Poland – all the recent polls so indicate – and thus a
decision to restrict kosher slaughtering should not surprise us in the least.

I actually DO believe that every Jew should go to Poland at least
once, in order to witness, first-hand, both the fascinating, 800-year
history of the Jews in Poland, as well as its breathtakingly-rapid
decline and demise, culminating in the Holocaust, of which Poland was
at the apex. As our Rabbis tell us, “hearing (and reading) is
infinitely inferior to seeing,” and one cannot possibly scratch the
surface of the Shoa without actually visiting the camps, seeing the
mountains of shorn hair, gold teeth and suitcases of doomed Jews, and
standing in the many impressive Polish synagogues that once
overflowed with pious Jews but today are nothing more than
magnificent monuments to a long-vanished community.

In fact, I myself will be leading a week-long heritage tour to Poland
this October, my fifth trip to Eastern Europe. It is the best,
perhaps the only way to establish an emotional bond with our martyred
brothers and sisters who were so brutally plucked out of existence by
a continent only too eager to see them eradicated. Challenging as it
is, standing on Polish soil connects one in the most personal way to
this most critical event in Jewish history, and I encourage you to
take such a trip, if you have not already done so.

But in no way does it suggest that this is a place where Jews belong,
let alone where they might be able to experience the full expression
of their Jewish identity. That is a joy reserved for Israel,
Judaism’s one and only natural habitat.

My overall feeling about Poland can be traced to my very first visit
to Auschwitz-Birkenau three decades ago. As our group moved through
the complex, we noticed that a class of Polish high-school students
were also visiting, their tour guide explaining to them what had
happened in this horrible place. Suddenly, a member of our group – an
elderly survivor who spoke fluent Polish – began to argue quite
animatedly with the Polish guide. When they finished, I asked him
what they had been fighting about.

“He was telling the young people that millions of Polish citizens
were murdered here at the hands of the Nazis,” said the survivor. “So
I said to him: ‘Why didn’t you tell them that it was Jews who were
mainly killed here?’ ”

He answered me, “It’s enough that I called them Poles.”

We Jews are constantly faced with a dilemma: Considering the
repulsive behavior vis a vis Jews and the Jewish state that is so
rampant today, in so many countries, should we restrict our contact
with those nations, and only fraternize with “friendly” governments?
That may seem like a logical decision, but the world is too
inter-connected, and we have become much too cosmopolitan for it to
be a practical approach. We like to travel, we engage in business
with a global economy, and Israel must pursue its standing in the
community of nations, and so we are almost forced to interact on a
regular basis with the world at large.

That world includes Europe, which, through the European Union, is
increasingly hostile to Israel. It includes South Africa – which has
arguably the worst voting record regarding Israel in the U. N. – as
well as China and Russia, long-time advocates of the Arab position
and suppliers of arms to those nations to be used against us. And, by
the way, it also includes Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland,
where ritual slaughter has also been prohibited. We love to walk the
streets of Paris, despite a long history of French anti-Semitism that
includes the burning of the Talmud in 1240 and the embargo on weapons
to Israel when we fought for our independence. We enjoy visiting
London to take in a play or cruise the Thames, though the British
twice expelled its Jewish population, and prevented fleeing victims
of the Holocaust from reaching Palestine through the infamous “White Paper.”

Even America and Canada – arguably the two countries most benevolent
and supportive of Jews and Israel today, God bless them – have a few
Jewish skeletons in their closets, as they were less than helpful in
rescuing the Jews of Europe when they sought to escape the gas
chambers (see “None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe
1933-1948” by the Canadian historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper).

So, unless we restrict our international liaisons to Mexico and
Micronesia, we are bound to have a relationship, more or less, with
any number of countries besides our own. But that does not mean we
could, or should, expect those countries to be a Mecca – you should
pardon the expression – of Jewish life. I may be “Poles apart” with
some Diaspora cousins on this, but I truly believe that the moment we
returned to Israel and established the State, the die was cast.
Everything changed, and for the better. The arrow of history now
points directly to Jerusalem, and it is here, and only here, where
Jewish destiny will be centered and decided.

Genealogically, I have a strong connection to Poland. My grandmother
comes from Zamosc, and two of my great-uncles taught Torah in the
great Yeshiva of Chochmei Lublin. But that was then, and this is now;
that chapter of Jewish life is over and done with. It is significant
to note that even the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose emissaries have
created outposts in far-flung communities from Kyoto to Katmandu,
specifically forbade the opening of a Chabad House in Poland. He said
that Poland was “one large Jewish cemetery, a place unfit for Jews to
live.” (Regrettably, the Rebbe’s wishes have not been honored).

Of course, discrimination of any kind is never a good thing, and I
regret that Jews anywhere are prevented from fully practicing our
tradition. Those systems which deny basic human rights, such as
freedom of religion, should be condemned, and hopefully forced to
change their evil ways. But as long as there exists a place where
being Jewish is the norm, where Torah observance is rewarded, rather
than restricted, I can’t really get all that worked up about Jews who
choose to live in places where Judaism is denigrated or denied.

So when I read about places where shechita is outlawed, or brit mila
is restricted – heck, who knows, someday even the bagel may banned in
Brooklyn! – I just sigh and shrug my shoulders. My response to all
that, to all the Jews who are disenfranchised – and even to those who
aren’t – consists of two simple words: Come home.

(The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;
jocmtv@netvision.net.il; www.rabbistewartweiss.com)


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