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What to make of the Polish parliament Hanukkah incident

Given the brazenness of the far-right politician’s attack, Jews may soon become more convenient political targets in Poland

On Dec. 12, the sixth night of Hanukkah, a far-right lawmaker sprayed a fire extinguisher on the burning candles of a Hanukkah menorah in the Polish parliament. Zach Smerin, a member of the Krakow Jewish community and a student at the University of Oxford in Britain, describes this incident’s ramifications for Jewish life in Poland.

This week was supposed to be an important one for Poland, marked by a long-awaited transition of power. Two months after the general election, the new prime minister — representing a broad coalition from the left to the center-right — gave his first speech, followed by parliamentarians submitting questions to him. Little thought was given to the Hanukkah candles that were going to be lit by the local Chabad rabbi in the parliament building, as Chabad has been doing for the past 17 years.

But Grzegorz Braun, a member of the parliament representing the far-right Konfederacja coalition, had an idea. He used a fire extinguisher to put out the candles of the Hanukkah menorah and returned to the chamber where he condemned the lighting of the Hanukkah candles as an act of “satanic Talmudic racist triumphalism.”

Braun was swiftly ejected by the speaker, Szymon Hołownia, who called for Braun to be prosecuted and then announced that the candles would be lit for the seventh night. Such explicit displays of bigotry like Braun’s are considered unacceptable by the vast majority of Poland’s politicians and political commentators. But if Braun’s aim was to draw attention to himself and galvanize far-right support, he has already succeeded in the former and will likely do so in the latter.

What can we make of this? Whenever my fellow Jewish students in England find out about my upbringing in Poland, they ask me about the antisemitism there. Usually, I respond by comparing the worrying levels of anti-Jewish bigotry as seen in opinion polls on the one hand, with the relatively few cases of discrimination, harassment and violent attacks against Jews on the other.

As someone who regularly wears a kippah in public in Poland, I do occasionally hear some taunting from passers-by but have never experienced a violent attack. I was also not a victim of discrimination when looking for work or requesting a government service. To me, this dichotomy indicates a sort of pervasive level of antisemitism within Polish society that isn’t noticeable on a daily basis but is still there. Unfortunately, this won’t go away unless it’s tackled systemically.

Because the antisemitism among a section of Poland’s population is subtle, the antisemitic and bigoted far-right seems to find it more expedient to attack Muslims, queer people and Ukrainians, as well as Asian and African migrants, instead of Jews. But this is true only for the time being and only for those who are not immersed in an esoteric, antisemitic culture based on the blood libel or the Protocols.

But that might change. The growth of those identifying as Jewish in Poland has risen dramatically in the past 20 years, considering the low point after decades of post-Holocaust emigration and assimilation. The 2002 census counted slightly over a thousand Jews in Poland. But by 2011, that number was 7,500, and by 2021, it rose to 15,700. Many Jews from Ukraine have arrived since then. The increase of those identifying as Jews is largely a result of Poles with Jewish ancestry choosing to identify as Jewish. However, the total number of this constituency is estimated to be between 100,000 to 200,000, and the surge in identification will depend on many factors, including the levels of antisemitism.

This development is not happening in a vacuum. Due to a significant labor shortage, Poland’s employers have been hiring workers from Ukraine (even before the 2022 invasion) and other countries. The “traditional,” albeit inaccurate, notion of ethnic homogeneity — a cornerstone of the nation’s self-image for over 70 years — is slowly crumbling.

In this climate, the far right can grow. Greater minority visibility, including Jews, might result in more direct attacks against Jews, inspired by the likes of Braun. This could result in a demoralized Jewish community and increased difficulties for those interested in connecting with their Jewish heritage. Given Braun’s brazenness, we may soon approach the point where we Jews are no longer “under the radar,” becoming more convenient political targets.

There’s also the danger of many more Poles beginning to believe a local version of the “great replacement” lie, in which Jews are seen as conspirators, pulling the strings behind mass immigration which will supposedly “steal the jobs” of ethnic Poles and result in some sort of national collapse.

The defeat of the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party, which has occasionally dabbled in antisemitic rhetoric, brings me great relief, as does the significant drop in Konfederacja’s popularity, compared to what was predicted a few months ago. Yet the 7.2% that voted for the Konfederacja party in October’s election was higher than in the last election. Of the right-wing party’s seven new parliamentarians, three belong to the microparty led by Braun.

If the new government is unable to deliver on its promises — reversing the previous government’s eroding of the democratic process, and improving public services, wages, inflation and housing — the far right will probably capitalize on it. The consequences for Poland’s minorities could be significantly worse than a few candles extinguished by an overzealous “fireman.”

It’s our job as Jews in Poland to prevent this from happening, and for communities around the world to stand with us. We can’t allow ourselves to be intimidated, or internalize the belief that we don’t belong in Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw and the other places we call home.

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