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August 8, 2009

In his July 17 column “Who Is an Israeli?” Leonard Fein states that “Israelis haven’t a clue as to how to think about, let alone deal with, their society’s diversity.”

I would submit that there is indeed a clue, and it comes from a time and place where the proverbial shoe was on the proverbial other foot, namely the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939).

Just under 70% of the population of interwar Poland consisted of ethnic Poles. The remainder was divided among several ethnic minorities, of which Ukrainians and Jews were the largest.

The two men who played the leading roles in the restoration of the Polish state and in its subsequent political life were Marshal Jozef Pilsudski and Roman Dmowski. They were bitter enemies and held opposing views on the role of the minorities.

Pilsudski, an early leader of the Polish Socialist Party, provisional chief of state after independence and military hero of the Polish victory over the Russians in 1921, believed in “state assimilation,” meaning that all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, were entitled to equal rights, as long as they were loyal to the Polish state. In other words, Poland would be both a “Polish state” and a “state of all of its citizens.” Not surprisingly, the Jewish community regarded Pilsudski as its protector and gave him its political support.

Opposing Pilsudski was Dmowski, a scientist and diplomat and leader of the right-wing National Democratic Party. Dmowski wanted Poland to be a “national state,” in which only Polish Catholics would have citizenship rights. Members of other groups would have to become Polish Catholics or go elsewhere. He wanted to confiscate the property of middle-class Jews and Germans and distribute it to ethnic Poles. His followers organized boycotts of Jewish and German shops.

Dmowski was outraged when Pilsudski’s friend, Gabriel Narutowicz, was elected as the first president of the republic with the margin of victory in the parliament being provided by parties that represented the various minority groups. In his view, a leader elected by the votes of anyone other than ethnic Poles was not legitimate. (Similar views have been expressed by right-wing Israelis with regard to the possibility of a coalition being formed that might depend for its majority upon the support of one or more Arab parties.) A week after the election, Narutowicz was assassinated by one of Dmowski’s followers. Unfortunately, Israel has had its own experience in this regard.

After Pilsudski’s death in 1935, the Jews of Poland were exposed to the mob violence and boycotts by Dmowski’s National Democrats. That is responsible for much of the bitterness felt by many Polish Jews with regard to their former homeland. But it is the legacy of Pilsudski, the friend and protector of the Jews, that should serve as an inspiration for an Israel that is both a “Jewish state” and a “state of all of its citizens.”

Michael L. Ticktin

Roosevelt, N.J.

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