Polish Nationalist March of 60,000 Worries Jews and Poles

by Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA–The sight of far-right activists waving racist banners and shouting anti-Semitic slogans during a nationalist march in the capital of Poland over the weekend shocked many around the world.

It was an understandable reaction to witnessing tens of thousands in Warsaw marching near what used to be the largest Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust amid shouts of “Jews out” and “remove Jewry from power.”

The march, an annual event which began in 2009 with 500 participants on Poland’s national day, November 11, was not necessarily the largest so far. Similar numbers of marchers showed up last year. But it did showcase the rising strength of Polish nationalists who are feeling emboldened by the conservative government in Warsaw and to some extent by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.

Despite its size, the Warsaw gathering was not unusual or even particularly toxic compared to similar gatherings in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Similar or worse displays have occurred regularly in other post-communist countries, including in Ukraine earlier this year and annually in the Baltic states, where the far right is far more powerful and violent than in Poland.

In the aftermath of the march, JTA posed five questions on the situation to some of Poland’s leading experts on the issue and a former leader of its Jewish community.

Does Poland have a fascism problem?

Despite their growing visibility, ultranationalist Poles have neither the prominence nor the acceptance they seem to enjoy in Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and Ukraine.

Still, their popularity among young people is seen as a worrisome sign, according to Rafal Pankowski, co-founder of the Polish anti-racism group Never Again, who cited a 2013 survey of high school students showing 44 percent would rather not have Jewish neighbors and more than 60 percent would not want a Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend.

“The sociological data show us that the younger generation is more prone to xenophobia than that of their parents, which is perhaps the most alarming aspect of the phenomenon,” Pankowski said.

Though there were certainly racists at Saturday’s march, there were also “ordinary people, families who just wanted to do a patriotic act, which to them is just to march with the Polish flag,” said Piotr Kadlcik, the former president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland.

While some shouted offensive slogans about Jews, there were no known anti-Semitic banners on display, nor was there rioting or violence.

“In a way this is scary, too, because it shows the far right have their act together and can demonstrate the discipline of a political movement rather than a bunch of hooligans,” Kadlcik said. “But there was very little intimidation.”

Polish Jews are split on whether anti-Semitism has increased under the conservative Law and Justice Party which rose to power in 2015.

President Andrzej Duda in a post on Twitter Monday wrote: “In our country, there is no room, nor is there consent, for xenophobia, for insane nationalism, there is no room in our country for anti-Semitism.”

Polish Jews agree racist violence in their country is relatively rare. Only a few dozen anti-Semitic incidents are recorded annually, most of them verbal, though several anti-Semitic statements were made by Polish politicians.

Those are crucial differences, Kadlcik said, between Poland and other countries in the region.

In Hungary activists from the ultranationalist Jobbik Party, the country’s second largest, rally regularly in the thousands and sometimes terrorize Jews as well as Roma and gays. In Ukraine synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are routinely targeted and activists for the xenophobic Svoboda Party call for chasing “Jews out.”

In Latvia veterans of the Nazi Waffen SS march every year. In Bulgaria the Lukov march, named after a Nazi ally, also draws thousand of participants. In Lithuania nationalist marches often feature swastikas and other fascist symbols.

“Things are bad, but they’re not as bad as many people think, at least not yet,” Kadlcik said of Poland.

Why is the far right growing in Poland?

Full editorial here.