LONDON – The European Jewish Association, a Brussels-based group, has hired the former leader of a political party that has been accused of anti-Semitism to launch a legal challenge to the shechita ban in Poland, the Times of Israel has learned.
Roman Giertych is the former chair of the League of Polish Families, a far-right party that in 2001 and 2005 elections received eight percent of the vote, but later collapsed. While Giertych has never himself been accused of anti-Semitism, the then-Israeli ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, refused to work with him on Holocaust issues when he served as education minister and deputy prime minister in 2006-7, citing the “anti-Semitic policy” of his party.
For his part, Giertych accepts that his family has a history of anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic associations, but told the Times of Israel, “It is not the history of myself. There is no anti-Semitism in my life.”
Philip Carmel, a spokesman for the European Jewish Congress, called the Giertych appointment “ill-advised” and “misconceived.”
“It looks extremely weird that of all the lawyers in Poland, they picked one who was a leader on the far-right,” he says. “I wouldn’t say he is personally anti-Semitic, but the League of Polish Families is not the kind of political group known for its closeness to the Jewish community.”
The director of the European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, defended the appointment, which he made because Giertych is “an excellent lawyer and has good contacts in the corridors of power where this decision will be made.”
‘Some of our best friends in the European Parliament are former anti-Semites who want to fix the past and help us’
The fact that he has “repented” his past “only adds,” said Margolin. “Some of our best friends in the European Parliament are former anti-Semites who want to fix the past and help us.
“I don’t see what the sin is in trying to reach a solution. If he has the right connections, not to take him on would be ridiculous. The exact same organizations [which are critical of EJA] would speak to any anti-Semite in order to reach a solution.”
Giertych, who opened a law practice after his party lost all its seats in 2007, has been engaged to petition the Polish Constitutional Tribunal regarding the legality of ritual slaughter in Poland. There is currently uncertainty as to whether shechita is allowed, as a ban on shechita for the purpose of export has been in place since January, while another law, the 1997 Act on the Relation of the State to the Jewish Communities in Poland, protects religious slaughter for the local Jewish community.
A bill aiming to reverse the ban failed to pass earlier this month.
Carmel claimed that Giertych had a political interest in defending shechita because the ban on exporting kosher and halal meat cost the Polish economy hundreds of millions of euros, and the League of Polish Families “were defenders of agricultural interests in Poland. They had very close links to the meat industry.”
‘It is not our job to defend the rights of the meat industry in Poland’
It was irresponsible, he argued, to frame the issue as one of economic interest: “Our position is to defend the rights of the Jewish community in Poland to practice their religion. It is not our job to defend the rights of the meat industry in Poland.”
Carmel added that it was “almost unthinkable” that the EJA approached the constitutional court at the same time as the local Jewish community, which had been advised to do so by the government, calling it an “interference” in internal Polish-Jewish affairs.
His comments were echoed by the president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, Piotr Kadlcik, who expressed “surprise” that Giertych was hired. Although he would not comment on his political background, he noted that Giertych is not a constitutional lawyer, and said he “highly doubts” that his political connections could be helpful in the constitutional court.
The battle for shechita, he said, should be left to the Polish Jewish community and other Jewish organizations, without the uncoordinated involvement of organizations like EJA.
“This law affects us directly,” said Kadlcik, who had just come out of a meeting with government officials aimed at advancing a solution.
‘This is not an internal Polish matter but a European-Jewish one’
Margolin, however, countered that “this is not an internal Polish matter but a European-Jewish one,” as a successful ban in Poland will automatically encourage opponents of shechita elsewhere on the continent to launch legal battles.
“It has been absolutely proven that we cannot rely on the local Jewish community” to reverse the ban, he said, following the failure of the bill intending to-reinstate shechita earlier this month.
He called the EJC’s objection to his involvement “hypocrisy”, as multiple European-Jewish organizations have railed against the decision of the Polish Jewish leaders to handle the recent shechita bill alone, claiming they should have accepted offers of help from groups with experience fighting shechita bans elsewhere.
Margolin himself is on the record calling for the resignation of Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich following the failure of the shechita bill.
He noted that he has already had intensive talks about shechita with the Polish representatives in the EU Parliament, including the Polish Ambassador to the EU, Marek Prawda, and blamed the controversy on internal politics and jealousy between Europe’s Jewish organizations.
“I condemn with disgust the attempts of interested parties to stop us finishing dealing with the subject exactly at the point where we are winning the complete cooperation of the Polish government,” he said. “These attempts degrade the name of the Jewish communities they represent.”
The League of Polish families was established in 2001, declaring itself a successor to the pre-war National Democracy party, which had an extensive program meant to push Jews out of social and economic life. One of its active members was Roman Giertych’s grandfather, Jędrzej.
Although the League was particularly associated with anti-gay and anti-European policies, several of its members were also blasted for their views on Jews, including senior activist Ryszard Bender who claimed in 2000 that Auschwitz was not a death camp. Giertych’s own father, Maciej, another party member, wrote in 2007 that the Jews segregate themselves and described them as a people who “settle among the rich.”
He was a member of the European Parliament at the time.
The previous year, the party ran a television ad claiming that Polish lives were put at risk in Iraq on behalf of the Jews, complete with pictures of worshipers at the Western Wall. Both the party and Giertych personally were also affiliated with a youth group, All-Polish Youth, which had members who had been documented making Nazi salutes and which shared its name with a pre-war, anti-Semitic youth group.
In 2006 Giertych promised to expel any members of his party who made anti-Semitic statements and, when Ambassador Peleg refused to deal with him, made a pilgrimage to Jedwabne, the site where around 1,600 Jews were burned alive in 1941.
His declaration there that “there is and will be no place for anti-Semitism in Poland” was dismissed by Peleg, who told a news agency, “Our problem was never with Roman Giertych personally, but with his party, which has an anti-Semitic policy.”
Giertych said that it is “significant” that he was the only senior conservative politician to have visited Jedwabne on the 65th anniversary of “this horrible crime.”
‘I was accused by my supporters and had many problems, but I said publicly I have to do it’
“I was accused by my supporters and had many problems, but I said publicly I have to do it,” he told Times of Israel.
His interest in the shechita issue, he claimed, is one of freedom of religion.
“We have a very long tradition of life together with Jews, there is no reason why they decided to change the rules of co-existence… No work was done to properly explain to [the ruling Civic Platform party] that it’s a serious move – a problem of the relationship between Poland and the Jewish minority.”
The quickest solution will still be political, he said.
“To convince the government to convince Parliament to change the law can be done by September. The tribunal proceeds take a very long time.
“We need to manage the case in a few months. I’ve already spoken to people from Civic Platform. I hope there will be a solution soon.”