Leaders of Poland’s Jewish community were deeply upset last month when President Trump defied precedent to be the first American leader in decades to forego visiting the monument that commemorates the doomed revolt of Warsaw’s Jews against the Nazis.
Worse yet, Trump went to a different monument hailing Polish heroism in World War II where he referenced Jews, briefly, only as victims.
But Trump received a hearty defense from an unlikely source: Jonny Daniels, a 31-year-old, increasingly influential and highly controversial Jewish activist in Poland.
“It would have been a good thing” for Trump to have visited the Warsaw Ghetto, Daniels acknowledged in a July 6 post on his Facebook page. “But then what about the Gypsy victims, what about the Homosexual victims, what about the victims of other crimes?” he asked. “The list is never ending, IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT US!”
Daniels went on to castigate Poland’s chief rabbi and major Jewish lay leaders for criticizing Trump. But that only made it more clear as to where the British-born activist stands. He is very much in step with Trump, with whom he has had a longstanding professional and personal relationship. He is in step, too, with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, a right-wing populist faction whose leaders he regularly entertains at his home.
And when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for whose party he has worked, meets in Budapest Wednesday with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło and leaders of several other East European countries led by hard-right nationalist parties, Daniels will be cheering.
Daniels lives in Israel these days. But he spends much of his time in Poland directing his Holocaust remembrance activist group, From the Depths, a foundation with opaque finances. He has, among other things, used the group to bring people close to Trump to Poland and has facilitated their meetings with high-ranking officials in the Law and Justice party government.
In March, he even brokered a meeting between two of those Trump confidantes — Christian conservative activist Ralph Reed and former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell — with one of Poland’s most prominent anti-Semites: Father Tadeusz Rydzyk.
Rydzyk, a member of the Catholic Church’s Redemptorist order, is head of Radio Maryja, an influential radio, TV and print media empire whose anti-Semitic broadcasts have been condemned repeatedly by the U.S. State Department, the Council of Europe, the Vatican and by the Polish government’s own National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council.
In one notable episode, the Anti-Defamation League denounced Radio Maryja in 2008 for sponsoring a church meeting with publicity posters blaring, “The Kikes will not continue to spit on us!”
More recently, Poland’s National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council criticized the station for a program in which commentators blamed U.S. policies they opposed on the fact that many senators were Jewish.
Despite this, Poland’s government recently issued a grant of $7.5 million to Radio Maryja to fund several projects, including two that aim to highlight non-Jewish Poles who saved Jews during World War II.
That might seem strange for an outlet widely condemned as anti-Semitic. But it’s a grant that is consistent with a drive by Poland’s current government to counter recent scholarship showing that many Poles cooperated with the Nazi campaign to liquidate Jews.
“The nationalists in power…are obsessed with national myths and ideology,” said Jan Grabowski, a professor of Polish History at the University of Ottawa, whose book, “Hunt for the Jews. Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland,” is part of the scholarship the government seeks to rebut. The government, he noted, is even seeking to outlaw such scholarship through legislation. “It’s not a sideline, but a core concern,” Grabowski said.
Daniels, he claims, is a Jew “who is being used to legitimize the myth of Polish suffering and the Polish glorious past.”
“If you have high dignitaries from the United States saying Poles were brave, saving the Jews, and choose Father Rydzyk for their venue, it’s an outrage,” said Grabowski. “It adds fundamental legitimacy to Father Rydzyk.”
Indeed, Rydzyk’s meeting with Reed and Blackwell, who both served as senior members of Trump’s presidential transition team, took place at a Warsaw Redemptorist event highlighting the role of Poles who saved Jews.
“This is something special,” Reed told reporters there, “to learn about the history of the Righteous Among the Nations, who helped save the Jews from the Holocaust during the German occupation.”
The men’s presence at the event that Daniels brokered was reported effusively on Radio Maryja’s TV channel; like much of the rest of the Polish media, the station portrayed their visit as a meeting with Trump envoys. But Blackwell told the Forward they were not there in that capacity.
Blackwell said he and Reed were invited to Poland by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Ralph and I were not blind to the father’s history,” Blackwell said when pressed about Radio Maryja’s record of anti-Semitism. “But we were also keenly aware that he was an instrumental part of things in Poland…He was presented to us an an influential person directing an influential sphere that was helpful and essential to the reconciliation process.”
As for Daniels, “My understanding is that he was the link between both the invited guests and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs…I’d imagine their agent was Jonny.”
A Polish diplomat who declined to be named because of his position explained, “These gentlemen were presented by Jonny Daniels as the only way to get to the Trump administration.” Using Daniels to arrange these meetings, he said, “shows the world the Polish government is not nationalistic or anti-Semitic.”
A spokesman for Reed said he could not be made available for an interview.
This was not Rydzyk’s first breakthrough into legitimacy with prominent figures whose positions inoculate him — and the government that supports him — against charges of anti-Semitism. Last September, to the shock of many Polish Jews, Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, invited Rydzyk to her embassy for a private one-to-one meeting, Prominent members of Poland’s Jewish community protested the meeting in a letter to the embassy.
Daniels said he had nothing to do with this meeting. But he was happy to take credit for bringing Rydzyk, Azari and several senior government officials together at his home last November for a Friday night Sabbath dinner.
Rydzyk, Daniels told the Forward, is “absolutely not” an anti-Semite. “Truly not,” he said.
In an interview during a visit to New York in May, he explained, “Does he have incorrect ideas regarding Judaism and Jewish issues? Yes. But that is no different than anyone else who has never spent time with Jews before.”
Daniels, a solidly built man with a bullet head and a well-trimmed beard, is a public relations specialist whose impact in Poland under the current government has been pronounced. Raised in London, where he attended a Jewish day school, Daniels left home at age 18 for a gap year in Israel. There, he studied at a yeshiva and then resolved to settle in Israel.
According to the bio on his public relations firm’s website, Daniels served in the Israeli Army in an elite paratroopers unit and is today a “strategic adviser” for the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson unit. After the army, he worked as a senior adviser for Likud party stalwart Danny Danon, who was then a deputy speaker of the Knesset and is today Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
In 2013, when Netanyahu was running for re-election as prime minster, it was Daniels who persuaded Trump, then a reality TV star, to record his now-famous video urging Israelis to back their prime minister (“Vote for Benjamin—terrific guy; terrific leader!”). Daniels produced the video but says he did this at his own initiative and expense.
Today, it’s in Poland that Daniels is having a real influence. There, his impact is on national discourse about the Holocaust and Poland’s much debated role in it.
“I think Jonny Daniels is some kind of go-between” between Israel and Poland, said Grabowski, who believes that for reasons of realpolitik Israel has agreed to support the Polish government’s narrative of Polish heroism during the Holocaust.
Daniels emphatically denies this. “I’m not promoting any government narrative,” he said. “I believe what I’m doing is the right thing.” Rather than stress a one-dimensional view of non-Jewish Poles during the Holocaust, “I talk about good Poles and bad Poles.”
It is impossible to learn who contributes to Daniels’ organization or anything about its finances. Daniels raises funds for From the Depths in the United States and the United Kingdom via a fiscal sponsor in each country. The Giving Back Fund, the group’s fiscal sponsor in the United States, does not list separate information about From the Depths on its publicly available tax report; revenue and expenses for all the groups under its umbrella are simply aggregated. Michael Pollick, the group’s executive director, referred questions about From the Depth’s funding to Daniels, who declined to offer any information. He would say only that the group receives no money from the governments of Poland or Israel. “The Foundation is funded entirely by private donations,” he wrote in an email.
In pursuing his agenda, Daniels goes where others will not. He himself appears frequently as a guest of Rydzyk on Radio Maryja, and is happy to defend his role. Asked about Radio Maryja publicizing its 2008 meeting with publicity posters declaring, “The Kikes will not continue to spit on us!” he replied, “Father Rydzyk is by no means a perfect individual. There are definitely things in his past that are questionable. But without a doubt in Poland today, he’s the most influential voice in the country.”
Daniels portrayed his own appearances on the station with Rydzyk as an effort to educate both the priest and his listeners.
“On a personal level, I find him very different than how the media portrays him,” said Daniels. “I was aware of his radio comments. We spoke about it. I found a very open and interested person.”
Moreover, he said, Rydzyk’s willingness to have him on Radio Maryja as a guest “in my very humble opinion is not something a staunch anti-Semite would do.”
His frequent appearances on Radio Maryja are good for the Jews, he argued. First, in a country where there are now only an estimated 25,000 Jews left from a pre-war population of 3 million, he takes questions from listeners, offering many their first chance to talk directly to a Jew and have their prejudices challenged.
“It’s been mind-blowing,” he said. “People call in who’ve never talked to a Jew before. I was surprised at broad level of interest from the listeners.”
Still, he acknowledged, “There remains a lot of bad blood. Nothing gets changed overnight. But the fact is, I have a platform. I can go back whenever I want.”
Beyond this, said Daniels, he uses his appearances to solicit recollections about the Holocaust from the station’s largely elderly, rural audience.
“We are asking people over Radio Maryja to give us information. And we’re getting a lot of elderly people reaching back to us.” He claims, among other things, to be getting new information about where Jews killed by the Nazis have been buried in previously unknown mass graves.
Daniels is excoriated by prominent Polish Jews. They decry him as an outsider who offers a prized fig leaf of Jewish support to far-right nationalist leaders whom they view as a threat to Poland’s nascent democracy; some cite him also as a threat to their own struggle to live as Jews in the former killing grounds of the Holocaust.
“Jonny Daniels has been going around Poland saying he is an adviser to Netanyahu and a close friend of Trump,” said Konstanty Gebert, a prominent journalist and early activist with Solidarity, the movement that brought down communism in Poland in the late 1980s. But he said, “If Daniels had any credibility, he’s lost it because of his extremely dubious maneuvering.”
Gebert, the son of a high-ranking Communist Party official from the Soviet era who is himself a traditionally observant Jew, says the nationalism Daniels effectively legitimizes as a public Jew in Poland poses dangers to Jewish life there.
“Likud has something in common with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party,” said Gebert, alluding to Daniels’ role as a bridge between these parties. “Both parties are right-wing, authoritarian and very much committed to a simplistic view of the social world in which ethnicity trumps most other factors.”
That might work out well for Israeli Jews, he suggested; but not for those in Poland.
Some empirical data suggest that Gebert may have a point. According to a study released in January, negative feelings in Poland against Jews — who constitute less than .2% of the country’s population — have spiked since the Law and Justice party won control of Poland’s government in 2015.
The study, conducted by the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, took actual examples of anti-Semitic statements found in different media and asked respondents if they found these statements offensive. In all cases, the anti-Semitic statements were found to be less offensive in 2016 than in 2014.
Among other things, more than half of Poles – 55.98% – would not accept a Jew as a family member, a jump from 45.53% in 2014. But Daniels, in a July 2016 interview with Algemeiner, a Jewish news outlet, avowed, “Antisemitism is frowned upon in Poland and is by no means mainstream.”
Daniels pointed to Polish President Andrzej Duda’s strong public condemnation of anti-Semitism that same month at Kielce, the site where some 40 Jewish Holocaust refugees were killed by their non-Jewish neighbors when they returned to the village in 1946, after World War II.
Just days after Duda’s statement, Poland’s minister of education, Anna Zalewska, appeared to question whether non-Jewish Poles had indeed slaughtered Jews at Kielce — or killed Jews at a separate massacre in 1941, during the Holocaust, at Jedwabne, where 300 Jews were burned alive. But Duda, whose father-in-law is Jewish, said at Kielce, “In a free, sovereign and independent Poland there is no room for any form of prejudice. There is no room for racism, for xenophobia, for anti-Semitism.”
Asked about these contradictions, Daniels said that when it comes to the record of non-Jewish Poles during World War II, “I talk very openly about the good, the bad and the ugly. At Jedwabne, there was only the bad and ugly. When I speak about that, I speak against those in the government who are calling for exhumation of the bodies to find ‘the truth.’”
Sigmund Rolat, a philanthropist who survived the Holocaust as a child in Poland, is known for sympathizing with Polish complaints that the country’s complex role in the Holocaust is demonized. Currently, he is funding a memorial to so-called Righteous Gentiles — non-Jews who saved Jews — in the historic Warsaw Ghetto district against the wishes of many others in Poland’s Jewish community. But he told the Forward, “I know many Polish Jews, and I have yet to find one who has a kind word about Jonny Daniels.”
Daniels is unabashedly pragmatic. “At the end of the day, the majority of Poles voted for this government, and its popularity is rising,” he said. Moreover, “This government has been willing and open in strengthening bonds with Israel. Few governments send top officials to Israel every single year.”
He added, “I very much don’t agree with some things they’re doing. Their legislation to prosecute ‘offensive’ history is stupid. It won’t work. But they do have a point. We do have to be honest to history.”
Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at firstname.lastname@example.orgContact Don Snyder at email@example.com