Bad romance: Poland and Israel’s “love story”

A Palestinian kuffiyeh scarf hanging from Warsaw’s iconic palm tree sculpture on Warsaw’s Jerusalem Avenue. (Kampania Palestyna)

“There is no more reliable and loyal adherent of your stance and aspiration for a better and a fairer world order in the European Union than Poland.”

- Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, 9 April 2008

“We cannot pretend that Iran’s behavior is normal and that a terrorist is a freedom fighter. You have a real friend in Europe and it is important that both countries will strengthen each other’s image.”

- Prime Minister Tusk at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 23 February 2011

“The Jewish people are an indelible part of Polish history, and Poland is an indelible part of Jewish history … Our deep bilateral cooperation is based on common values and a shared history, as well as on the aspiration to a common future in which we want to achieve the same goals.”

- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Tusk, 23 February 2011

Last month witnessed the launch of the first Polish-Israeli governmental forum held in occupied Jerusalem. The biannual dialogue accelerates an existing partnership between the two countries which includes trade agreements, joint military training exercises and arms deals under an ongoing “Polonization of Israeli Technology” drive.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s 55-strong delegation included the ministers of education, health, foreign affairs and defense, as well as senior intelligence, culture, environment and finance ministry representatives. All met their counterparts in the Israeli government.

Both states signed deals for the Israeli military to train Polish special forces as well as pilots of Poland’s fleet of 48 Lockheed Martin F-16 war planes. Further agreements included developing joint water and sustainable energy resource management projects; ongoing cultural cooperation with Polish “Year in Israel” events; research and development in health and medicine; Polish lobbying for an upgrade of relations between the EU and Israel; a deal on sharing access to national libraries; and initiatives to be taken between 2011 to 2013 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the start of the Holocaust in Poland.

Corporate crime

Poland is Israel’s freshest market for seeking legitimacy in Europe and one of its most lucrative. Israeli companies violating international law have found a green zone in the Eastern European country.

The firm ASBUD, for example, listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, is majority-owned by Ashtrom, Shikun and Binui Group and STR Development & Construction Group. While having built housing complexes in the neighborhoods of Konstancin, Tarchomin and Piaseczno in Warsaw, Ashtrom also supplies construction materials for checkpoints for the Israeli Ministry of Defense and is building housing units in the illegal settlement of Nof Zion in occupied East Jerusalem (Profile of Ashtom Group, Who Profits from the Occupation?). Meanwhile, Shikun and Binui Group subsidiary Solel Boneh is expanding the illegal colony of Ramot in occupied East Jerusalem (Profile of Housing and Construction Holding Co., Who Profits?).

Egged, Israel’s oldest and largest bus company, bought Poland’s Mobilis in 2006. Egged Israel is a stakeholder in the Jerusalem light rail project linking illegal settlements to occupied Jerusalem, and also runs bus services between illegal settlements in the West Bank. In Poland, Egged’s operations cover urban bus routes in Warsaw, Krakow and Bydgoszcz as well as suburban services, totaling some 240 buses (“Mobilis Sp. z o. o. przjmuje spółki PKS północnego mazowsza,” Ostroł ęka 25 June 2010).

Israeli water company Eden Springs Ltd. is the second-largest distributor of bottled water in Poland. Eden’s parent company Mayanot Eden sells mineral water from the Salukia spring in the occupied Golan Heights — Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967 — and also has a bottling plant in Katzrin, an Israeli colony also in the occupied Golan (Profile of Eden Springs, Who Profits?).

Last December, the Polish Ministry of Defense signed a $16 million deal with Israel’s Elbit Systems to provide multi-sensor monitoring and surveillance systems for the Polish army (“Elbit Systems Awarded $16M Contract by Polish Military,”, 20 December 2010). Elbit is responsible for reinforcing Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank (the route of which was declared unlawful by the International Court of Justice in 2004) by providing surveillance systems for it. Elbit also manufactures the Hermes 450 armed drone, a pilotless aircraft that was Israel’s weapon of choice during its winter 2008-09 assault on Gaza, when it was used to fire on and kill civilians.

Occupation normalized

In Jerusalem last month Netanyahu gave his Polish counterpart a gift — a reproduction of an 1850 painting by British artist William Henry Bartlett. He told Tusk: “It’s a depiction of Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish people. It is an expression of our longing to restore our ancient land and to restore our life as a sovereign people in our ancestral homeland. This is precisely Poland’s aspirations over the years, so I give this to you as a symbol of friendship and as a symbol of our hopes for a common future of peace and prosperity and security” (“Opening Remarks by PM Netanyahu …,” Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, 23 February 2011).

The following day, Polish and Palestinian activists from the Kampania Palestyna (the Polish Campaign of Solidarity with Palestine) scaled the iconic palm tree sculpture on Warsaw’s Jerusalem Avenue and hung a kuffiyeh scarf (a symbol of solidarity with Palestine) around it. The activists were protesting the Polish government’s acts of normalization with Israel’s violations of international law, such as holding a meeting with the Israeli government in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Palestinian human rights organizations Addameer, Al-Haq, Defense for Children International-Palestine Section, Jerusalem Centre for Legal Aid and Human Rights, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, Ramallah Center for Human Rights, Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, and Ensan Center for Human Rights sent a joint letter calling on the Polish government to undertake its responsibilities to abide by EU and international law and not normalize Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem.

Israeli academics, lawyers and activists from the group Boycott from Within also wrote to the Polish government to protest the meeting, as did Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Donna Baranski Walker, awarded Medal of Gratitude by Poland in 2010 and founder of the Rebuilding Alliance.

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs was forced to defend its decision by explaining that it was “normal” and that all state-level dialogue with Israel takes place in Jerusalem. However, until now only Italy and Germany have held such meetings in occupied Jerusalem.

One past, one future?

Not only Netanyahu but former foreign minister and honorary Israeli citizen Wladyslaw Bartoszewski has used Polish and Jewish history (which goes back 800 years in Poland) to promote a politicized, co-opted version of a European Jewish identity which concludes with Israel as its heartland, bastion and destiny. Not only is Jewish culture downsized and channeled into a Zionist narrative but Polish culture is also twinned with Israeli culture.

Bartoszewski recently told journalists “All political forces in our country are friendly toward Israel … Name any other country in Europe where over the past two decades three heads of diplomacy … were of Jewish descent, one has an honorary citizenship of Israel, and the current one’s wife is Jewish” (“Polish-Israeli Government Meeting Angers Palestine Supporters,” The Wall Street Journal Blogs, 25 February 2011).

He was referring to former foreign ministers Stefan Meller, Adam Daniel Rotfeld and Bronislaw Geremek. Current Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s wife is Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Washington Post columnist.

Bringing up the Jewish identity of these figures to demonstrate “Jewish” or “Israeli” influence has constantly been challenged by Palestine solidarity campaigners who believe such a conflation could feed conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, yet here Bartoszewski’s equation of Polish Jewish identity with support for and influence over policy on Israel appears to fuel this perception. While all political party forces may be uncritically supportive of Israel, there is a vibrant if small civil society current of Palestinian, anti-war, socialist, anarchist, some anti-fascist, Islamic and human rights organizations which are not. Most vocal have been the Polish-Palestinian Friendship Association and the one-year-old Kampania Palestyna, members of which are regularly quoted in the media and called in as a voice of opposition in the mainstream media.

Efforts to merge Israel’s and Poland’s cultural identities and political destinies also run in the other direction. Szewach Weiss, a former Israeli ambassador to Poland and now a lecturer based in Poland, wrote in Poland’s second biggest daily Rzeczpospolita: “Why are Polish-Jewish relations so special? The answer is simple. If you share the same land for 800 years, it cultivates a special bond that even a long separation is unable to break.”

Speaking of the first post-Nakba (the 1947-48 forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland) Israeli parliament comments: “Almost all the ministers of Israel [were of Polish descent] and were well aware of the language. Even today, Polish visitors walking the boulevards of Tel Aviv will hear the Polish language. Elderly ladies spend evenings playing cards in the terraces, gossiping in Polish. Just as they used to in Warsaw, Bialystok, Lvov and Vilnius” (“Szczególna wię ź między Polakami a Żydami,” Rzeczpospolita, 22 February 2011).

Again, the roots of the Zionist movement in Poland — catalyzed by Russian colonial and Polish state policies which reinforced racist ideas of the Jewish population as “a problem” and a Catholic church that had become institutionally hostile to the community — are seen as stretching homogeneously and seamlessly to Palestine. Zionism as an ideology and migration to Palestine were not universally supported by the Jewish community in Poland. Most of the organizations which fought the battle of the Warsaw Ghetto were focused on preserving and continuing the community in Poland, such as the anti-Zionist Bund socialist party, which in 1939 had the highest proportion of votes out of any Jewish party in the country.

Israel’s ambassador in Europe

Poland, which takes up the rotating presidency of the EU in July, has been one of the staunchest defenders of Israel within Europe.

In 2005, a year after Poland joined the European Union, the state co-instigated a campaign by members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to have the Lebanese resistance movement and political party Hizballah included on the EU terrorist list. Following Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, when Israel was facing accusations of war crimes, then Polish Prime Minister Lech Kaczynski was the first European leader to visit Israel, his handshakes and embrace of Ehud Olmert intended to signify Poland’s unshakeable support.

In August 2007 Polish MEPs supported Israel’s assertion that an international civil society conference dedicated to analyzing Israeli restrictions and violations of international law in the occupied Palestinian territories was “anti-Israel” and boycotted the event. MEP Bronislaw Geremek argued that the conference was biased and called for the EU to stop being so “completely pro-Palestinian.” Konrad Szymanski accused the conference organizers, the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, of providing “a platform for activity of various extremists,” while Boguslaw Sonik, another Polish MEP, said, “This is not the first such initiative. [The] Pro-Palestinian lobby is very active here. If in fact, the conference will become propagandist, Israelis can count on the Poles.”

Poland voted against the UN General Assembly Resolution on the Goldstone report on war crimes committed during Israel’s attack on Gaza, and along with five other European countries, refused to participate in the Durban II conference (the 2009 Durban Review Conference or the United Nations World Conference Against Racism) or ratify its resolutions.

In 2008 the Polish Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs embarked on a campaign of cultural cooperation, spearheaded by the “Poland in Israel Year” of initiatives timed to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s declaration. Organized by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute — funded by the Ministry of Culture — the Year involved, according to its website, 110 cultural events “including film showings, operas, theatre festivals, seminars and conferences,” and “aimed to strengthen cultural, economic, scientific and tourism-related contacts, as well as to initiate a long-term cooperation between institutions of the two countries.” The Polish government also sponsored the twinning of twenty Israeli and Polish towns and cities over the years 2008 to 2009, building on 15 already twinned. Only two Polish towns — Poznan and Czestochowa — are twinned with a Palestinian towns - Nablus and Bethlehem respectively.

A Polish-Jewish-Zionist trajectory

The Polish Year in Israel merged Polish Jewish heritage and cultural identity with Israeli identity and the political and economic interests of the Polish governing class with those of their Israeli counterparts. In a 2008 piece written about the initiative for the economic portal Polish Market, titled “Special Relations,” then Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said “There is something special about relations between Poland and Israel. Even though the two countries lie on different continents, and in spite of their very different geopolitical circumstances, any Pole visiting Israel, and indeed many Israelis visiting Poland, are instantly struck by how much at home they feel in the respective countries.”

Last month in Jerusalem, the foreign minister took the Zionist-Polish mutuality narrative further in statements that could easily apply to the Palestinian experience but instead authenticate and normalize the Zionist colonialist narrative, cleansing Palestinian history and conditions of occupation out of the picture.

Referring to Poland and Israel, he said “Both nations have lost their independence in the past, and we know what a painful experience that is … In Poland, the term ‘solidarity’ has great significance. We identify profoundly with your pain, as we too have lived in condition of occupation, of loss of statehood and under the threat of cultural and physical annihilation. So we know how precious it is to have your own state to express your interests” (“Polish FM to Haaretz …,” Haaretz, 27 February 2011). The current Polish government consensus on Zionism and Israel is one that buys into the idea of “The Jewish People” as a nation without a state and in doing so, the racist and exclusionary idea of “The Jewish problem” as a reality, and a state as the solution.

And the “love-in” continues with Haaretz English Edition Editor Adar Primor’s waxing lyrical on “a love story — the surprising, against-all-odds love affair between Poland and Israel” during the state visit last month.

Only its not that surprising. Polish and Israeli Zionist narratives of the victim turned victor, masking and justifying the victim turned victimizer are similar. Brought to the brink of destruction, now anything is justified in preventing the name of “never again,” whether that threat is real or not.

Guilt, turned into responsibility turned into censorship and a reproduction of the crime of silence in response to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine dominate the culture of Israeli-Polish state level relations. In twinning Polish and Zionist Israeli history and now a present and future, Poland and Israel’s ruling elites are creating a meta-narrative that denies and eliminates Palestinian history, present and future in Palestine, as well as alternative Polish, Jewish and Israeli identities and possibilities.

Parts of this essay are extracted from Ewa Jasiewicz’s book Podpalic Gaze (Razing Gaza) by WAB Publishers.

Ewa Jasieiwcz is an activist and writer and member of The Polish Campaign of Solidarity with Palestine (Kampania Palestyna).