WARSAW — Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich has recently mastered the art of juggling.
On a given day, he makes sure new Polish legislation doesn’t end up banning kosher slaughter (Schudrich himself is a longtime vegetarian). Or, perhaps he’s playing devil’s advocate to a Jewish community member or politician –or both — at loggerheads over a controversial recent law that could impact Holocaust education.
After the Polish legislature recently passed a law that could see people doing hard time for the crime of accusing the Polish government or nation of complicity in the Holocaust, the US-born Schudrich has had to explain the implications of said law to miffed Poles and infuriated Jews around the world.
Playing leader to a small but stalwart Central European constituency of roughly 8,000 that is still dusting off the ashes of the Holocaust requires some dexterity. Chief rabbi since 2004, Schudrich has lived in Poland since the early 1990s so seeing from the perspective of both Jew and Pole isn’t a foreign concept.
As a US-citizen, he’s also familiar with the rise of the far right, and the complicated — sometimes contradictory — relationships with Jews and Israel that this political niche can have. This is something Schudrich has seen mirrored in the rise of Polish President Andrzej Duda, whom Schudrich sees as a fierce friend of the Jews, despite a portion of the president’s base being openly anti-Semitic.
“I disagree with the [Holocaust] law because it’s written poorly and with lack of clarity, and second, I’m personally not a big fan of imprisoning people for things that they say,” Schudrich told The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the Global Forum on Combating Anti-Semitism, organized by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem recently.
“You know,” he said. “I’m American. I’m a big freedom of speech guy. Although I understand where it’s coming from. But if the goal is to educate, the way to do that is not necessarily by throwing people into jail.”
The Times of Israel managed to again catch up with Schudrich on his home turf and spoke with him recently in his office in Warsaw’s well-secured Nozyk Synagogue.
The following interview is edited for both cohesion and length.
You’ve expressed that “Polish Holocaust Bill” is a misnomer, because that’s not what the legislation is all about. If we don’t call it the “Holocaust Bill,” what should we call it?
What they call it here is the IPN, it’s about the Institute of National Memory (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej). But you can call it the Holocaust Bill if you want. You’re not the only one.
Can you tell us what the bill says?
[The controversial part of the bill] is only a few lines – anyone speaking an untruth claiming complicity of the Polish state or nation with Nazi German crimes can be convicted of up to three years in prison. This doesn’t apply to artists or academics… But the way the law is written is so imprecise as to leave such a huge area of misinterpretation — or different interpretation, to put it more accurately. And that’s why the president, although he signed it, he said he’s not sure it’s even legal, so he sent it to the Constitutional Tribunal to clarify.
And that’s where it’s at now?
Yes. They’re testing the constitutionality of it. Because there are several problems. First of all, what is the Polish nation? Is that one person? Is that 20 million people? At what point when you’re claiming complicity – if you say “this village was complicit” is that the Polish nation? So it’s so vague – and also, what does it mean against the truth? Suddenly every local judge decides historical truth?
How long is that going to take?
No idea, the Constitutional Tribunal could take a month, could take a year. Everyone’s hoping they do it quickly because we just don’t want to be hanging in the air like this.
Is there any hope of it improving?
I think what Ambassador Anna Azari said was a very clear and accurate analysis. Either they’ll accept everything, they’ll reject everything, or they’ll change it. What many people say – and I have no inside information – is that the constitutional court will redefine it so that basically no one can ever get convicted. To make it such a limited definition you’d have to sit down and figure out how to violate it.
Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking out strongly enough about all these developments?
First, it’s very clear to the Poles that it’s unacceptable.
So you’re saying you’re satisfied with the Israeli government’s response.
I certainly understand the response of Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think that in this situation it has been effective, and it’s not throwing the Jewish community off the bus.
What the Polish government did was wrong. The Polish government has also done very right things. Their motivation here is to protect their good name, it’s not to deny the Holocaust. And another important thing to put it into perspective, is the problem that we face further east, where governments are now glorifying people who killed Jews – no one normal in Poland, no one in the government is glorifying people that killed Jews. But they don’t like to talk about it.
But the president has openly talked about Polish collaborators, and two deputy prime ministers clearly condemned anti-Semitism. And I’m of the approach that at this point, the condemnation is clear, now is the period of engagement to push as far as we can the fight against anti-Semitism.
So this law is not about the Jews at all. It’s only about protecting the Polish people.
From a larger perspective, for sure. The question is, were they trying a little bit in some ways to attack certain voices which they say are overstating the Polish responsibility. But it really is about Poland. The parliament should have been more sensitive when touching on this subject that could backfire – that there are Jewish sensitivities. I mean, the Jewish community wasn’t conferred at all. The Israeli embassy did speak a little about it, but not seriously. And everybody was told that it’s on the back burner, don’t worry about it. And then a week later it came onto the floor of the parliament.
Shortly following the passage of the IPN, the Polish legislature also passed into law a new holiday on March 24, honoring Poles who saved Jews. Some people view this as the continuation of a campaign to shift the focus away from Polish culpability.
What’s even more disconcerting and what worries me is the exceedingly acrimonious discussion – or rather, yelling match – that these laws have triggered. Because for 25 years we kind of lived in a wonderful bubble where there was a social taboo that you cannot express anti-Semitism in Poland in polite – or not even semi-polite – company. And you really didn’t – you heard some things at soccer games, which is wrong, and we condemned it – but not at the level in which you’re hearing it in the last seven weeks. It’s classic Der Shturmer type anti-Semitism.
Has this anti-Semitism always been there and this debate is just allowing it to come out?
There’s no way of testing it really, but I believe that the anti-Semitism was always there, which, everybody knew it was there. It wasn’t against the law, but there was social pressure and people just did not say it. And now people are.
Having said that, there’s two other major parts that are exacerbating the situation, which is the fact that there are statements coming out from Israel and other parts of the Jewish Diaspora which are also anti. Not anti-Semitic, but anti-Polish.
Claiming that 200,000 Polish Jews died without ever seeing a German is simply not true. That’s falsification of the Holocaust and there’s no historical basis for it. That 200,000 Polish Jews died because they were informed upon by Polish collaborators, that’s a discussion. But to say that they died without ever seeing a German is simply not true.
And therefore we need to be able to understand that when a Polish person hears that, they get outraged. I also get outraged when I hear wrong things, even when they’re said by our side.
Now to be clear, anti-Semitism has led to pogroms and the Holocaust. Anti-Polanism has led to hurt feelings. I’m not trying to downplay the hurtfulness of anti-Polish speech, but clearly one is worse than the other.
On the Polish side, have there not been whitewashing efforts by the government? There’s the new holiday, or even arguably the Polin museum which celebrates 1,000 years of coexistence but doesn’t really mention the bad parts as well.
The Holocaust is there, but it’s about 1,000 years [of shared history] so a decision was made that it would be put into perspective. There’s a major exhibition on the Holocaust, but it’s not a Holocaust museum. How can we put into perspective 1,000 years, a lot of which was very positive, and also talk about the very negative. I think it struggles and I think it comes up with a very good balance.
This new holiday is a wonderful idea. Giving praise to chasidei umot ha’olam, there are no better people in the world…
Was the holiday planned in advance, or is it a direct consequence of this controversy?
It was definitely planned in advance, it had been talked about. This idea definitely predated [the law] because I knew about it before the law came out, and it’s something the new president was very much involved with. There were very significant voices from within the Jewish community, from within the parliament, from within civil society, that said this is very important but now is not the time because it’s going to look exactly like tokenism – “Hey guys, we did one bad thing, we did one good thing.” And there were serious efforts to persuade the parliament not to pass the date right now. That effort failed. Why did it fail? I’m not sure. But I can tell you that very significant political figures said “Don’t do it now.”
President Duda’s speech at the March of the Living was very positive, but did it omit some of the more difficult details of our shared history?
I think that when the new [Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews] was dedicated in Markowa, President Duda was there, and there he spoke very clearly about collaborators and traitors to Poland. It would have been important to hear that sentence also.
You’ve been living here since 1990, and so you can look at the United States from a bit of distance now. Are you feeling any concern about the status of the anti-Semitism there vis a vis what you’re seeing today in Poland?
I think that a major concern in both places is the reluctance of too many political leaders to condemn anti-Semitism. When I try to put into perspective what’s happening even before the law was passed, I just say, “Charlottesville.”
There’s a reluctance to disenfranchise the extreme right, because they vote both Trump and this government, and that’s a challenge in a democracy, how to motivate politicians to speak out against people who vote for them. That’s a tough one. And unfortunately, it’s not a moral question, it’s a political question.
President Duda may be a great ally, but given the fact that a segment of his base does have anti-Semitic leanings, can you imagine having a better ally than him?
He’s sincerely supportive of the Jewish community, he’s sincerely against anti-Semitism. And he is part of a general political movement that is right of center and contains elements that do not appreciate his supportiveness for the Jewish community. He gets ridiculed by the far right for being too pro-Jewish. So he’s taking a hit from the extreme right for being supportive of Jewish life.
Should he be speaking out against this sort of language?
President Duda has spoken out against anti-Semitism in general. I believe that he has rarely spoken out against specific acts of anti-Semitism.
Do you think he has a responsibility to?
I think the first way to fight anti-Semitism is in a general statement against it. But once we get more serious, then we need also to condemn actual acts of anti-Semitism.