Two Farewells: One Warm, One Tearful


By Masha Leon

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.
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‘Polish society is most paradoxical,” said Poland’s consul general, Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, at the July 28 adieu luncheon in her honor, hosted by the American Jewish Committee at its headquarters. “It is the most pro-Israel in Europe today…. There is no such thing as being anti-Israel, yet antisemitism exists in Poland…. It’s kind of schizophrenic. Israel is seen as our country’s partner, but Jews [are perceived] in the old stereotypes, as strangers and a threat [with] no connection with Israel…. The general public is convinced that Israel not only has the right to survive, but has the right to fight back…. Poles know that freedom and sovereignty is not granted for always.”

About to return to Poland after her four-year posting in New York, Magdziak-Miszewska — a journalist who told me that her future plans include working for a nongovernmental organization — explained that Poland does not have a big Arab or Muslim community, “though there have been Tatars in Poland since the 17th century, and there are 4,000 now in Poland.” Still, “there is no pro-Palestinian propaganda in Poland…. There is no good memory of Moscow-sponsored Arabic students sent to Poland in the 1970s to the l980s.” She expressed concern about the new freedom — thanks to membership in the European Union — for students to study abroad at Oxford, Sweden and France, where they might be exposed to anti-U.S. attitudes now prevalent at European universities, “something not present in Poland,” she said.

Her consular associate, Marek Skolimowski, touted Poland’s diplomatic relationship with Israel (which it recognized in l989), noting the cooperation between the two nation’s “secret services on terrorism…” and Israel’s request that U.N. forces on the Gaza border include Polish troops. Skolimowksi informed of Israel’s investments in Poland’s private sector: mega-supermarkets in Warsaw, hospitals, low-cost housing, 3-star hotels and Israel’s rescue of Poland’s shipyards at Gdansk (birthplace of Solidarity) by commissioning two ships for Israel.

“This normative depth of relationship could not have happened [with] a representative of the Polish government before 1989,” said David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director. “Agnieszka befriended us in a post-communist Poland [and has helped] write a new chapter between Poland and the Jewish people.”

* * *

I first met ABC anchor Peter Jennings (who died August 7 at age 67 of lung cancer) when he emceed the December 5, 1995, Givat Aviva dinner at The Plaza, at which the awards presenter was Colette Avital, then Israel’s consul general in New York. Jennings introduced honoree Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, who reminded the audience, “My father [Robert F. Kennedy] was gunned down by a Palestinian terrorist [Sirhan Sirhan].” He also presented Camelia Anwar Sadat, who said, “Kerry and I were inspired by the sacrifice and inspiration of our fathers.”

Most recently, I exchanged pleasantries with Jennings at the June 11, 2003, Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and held at the United Nations Delegates’ Dining Room, at which he fielded an interactive session via live satellite with Prince El Hassan Bin Talal, “the 42nd generation of direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.” (Georgette Bennett founded the center in memory of her husband, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a pioneer of interreligious relations and a human rights activist whose many “yarmulkes” included director of interreligious affairs at the AJCommittee.)

The Jennings-Bin Talal transcript fills 60 pages of the prince’s elegant responses to Jennings’s framed statements-cum-questions, samples of which follow: “Sixteen people killed and 17 injured [today]… when a terrorist bomber dressed as an Orthodox Jew got on and blew himself to smithereens [on] a bus in Jerusalem a couple of hours ago. And in response, one assumed, the Israelis have now attacked in Gaza. Why should we not despair at the moment?”… “There has been criticism in the wake of the attack on America on 9/11 that proponents of tolerant peace-seeking Islam as yourself have not done enough to assert themselves in the face of more radical Islam.”…“Do you think that we are anti-Islam, and if as many people in the Arab world do, do you think that contributes to the chaos?” … “Do you think that Hamas or Islamic Jihad are driven by Islam, by nationalism, or by a pragmatic determination to either get rid of the Israelis or play the dominant role in the Palestinian territory?”… “As somebody here reminded me today, 80% of Palestinians in one poll do not believe that peace is possible.” An excerpt from Prince Hassan’s final comments: “… I would assure you that with millions of Arabs and Muslims in the United States and with millions… coming to enjoy their holidays in the United States, many of them… to have a child so they can claim dual citizenship… they’re a pain in my neck… because they express their views about people like myself when they’re here [Jordan], and then they go over [to the United States], have a wonderful time.… And you can’t get it right with the super-rich…. The imageries of burnt cadavers, whether Israeli or Arab, can render people incandescent with rage. And I think that this imagery is being carried by Arab satellite televisions to Europe and to the United States… And it’s unfortunate.”

Jennings once dated Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi, and one of his four wives was a Lebanese Christian. He was married from 1979 to 1993 to Kati Marton, the mother of Jennings’s daughter, Elizabeth, and son, Christopher. (She is now married to Richard Holbrooke.) Marton, born in Hungary, discovered as an adult that she was Jewish. Would that not make Jennings’s and Marton’s children halachically Jewish?

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