Conference tackles thorny Jewish-Polish relationship

In a groundbreaking collegial but hard-hitting conference sponsored by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, a slate of top scholars, public officials, diplomats and Polish Jewish community leaders met to discuss the controversial and complicated relationship of Poles and Jews.

Titled “From Past to Present: The State of Research in Polish-Jewish Relations,” the international conference held Jan. 13 and 14 was originally envisioned as a closed, scholarly gathering around a conference table. But the topic generated such intense interest that it was moved to larger rooms on the UCLA campus to accommodate the approximately 20 conference participants and overflow crowds of up to 150 people.

“Few historical relationships are as complex as that between Poles and Jews. The Poles see themselves as prime victims of the Nazi onslaught. The Jews see themselves as the prime victims, adding the belief that the Poles were often willing collaborators,” said David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

The impetus for the conference came more than two years ago from Holocaust survivor Severyn Ashkenazy, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Warsaw and who has been at the forefront of Jewish renewal in Poland.

“I think the time has come to stop bashing one another,” Ashkenazy said, stressing that it is impossible to rebuild Jewish life in an atmosphere of mutual accusation.

Ashkenazy brought his idea to the Polish consulate in Los Angeles, currently headed by Consul General Paulina Kapuschinska, and to Myers, who received funding from the “1939” Club Holocaust Memorial Fund at UCLA. Both co-sponsored the event, with assistance from the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel and the American Jewish Committee.

The conference consisted of three academic panels, a reception and photographic exhibit at UCLA Hillel and a concluding roundtable. What made it unique, however, in addition to the invitation to the public, was the format of the panels — a senior historian moderating and two junior historians presenting papers based on cutting-edge research.

These younger scholars have access to troves of new archival sources that only began opening up after the communist regime collapsed in Poland in 1989, according to Myers, and are self-critical, rather than bogged down in old stereotypes and interpretations. Additionally, they feel almost a sense of obligation, in Myers’ words, “to repopulate the landscape of Poland with a Jewish cultural presence.”

The historians presented papers on particularly thorny issues in Polish-Jewish dialogue. Marci Shore of Yale University, for example, spoke on “Zydokomuna: The Family Romance of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism.'”

Zydokomuna, essentially an untranslatable word meaning Jewish communist, is fraught with the anti-Semitic accusation that the Jews were responsible for the introduction and operation of communism in Poland. Shore asserted that this was not necessarily a stereotype, since even though the total number of Jews in the Communist Party was small, they were overrepresented as a group, especially among the party elite.

Joshua Zimmerman of Yeshiva University presented a paper on “The Attitude of the Home Army to the Jewish Question During the Holocaust: The Case of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”

Zimmerman, who referred to the Polish home army’s relationship to the Jews as “highly emotional and not uncontroversial,” showed that it also changed during the war years. As he and the other presenters consistently demonstrated, the situation between the Poles and Jews was not black and white but many shades of gray.

Jan Grabowski of the University of Ottawa offered a more somber note in his presentation titled, “Re-writing the History of Polish-Jewish Relations From a Nationalist Perspective: The Recent Publications of the Institute of the National Remembrance.” He described the Institute of National Remembrance, a clearinghouse of information established by the Polish Parliament, as an organization with a decidedly nationalistic view of the past.

What was clear in all the presentations is that there is a need for Jews to be reinserted into the Polish historical picture. During the half-century of communist rule, Jewish history was deleted from textbooks and either erased or manipulated in peoples’ memories. Even the word “Jew” was removed from Poland’s vocabulary.

“If Poles write Jews out of their history, they deprive themselves of the basic knowledge of who they are,” historian Samuel Kassow of Trinity College said.

The sentiment was echoed by Jolanta Zyndul, a scholar at Warsaw University who grew up in communist Poland and who never heard the word Jew throughout her childhood, except in church. “I felt cheated when I learned Poland had a Jewish presence,” she said.

Conference presenters emphasized that the mostly opposing Polish and Jewish historical narratives have to be accurately confronted, and many old stereotypes were debunked during the two days.

Natalia Aleksium of Touro College, for example, in her presentation “Re-thinking Polish Jewish Intelligentsia in Interwar Poland,” addressed the fact that Jews did not all live in hermetically sealed Orthodox communities, and a large percentage were fully integrated into Polish society.

Adam Daniel Rotfeld, the former Polish foreign minister, who was born in 1938, survived the war in a monastery, where he had no idea of the serious risks undertaken by his rescuers.

Rotfeld remained in Poland after the war, and he said that the punishment for aiding Jews in Poland, unlike that in any other country occupied by Nazis, was death to the person and to his or her entire family.

“Poles, as a society, are proud that Yad Vashem has over 6,000 trees planted for the Poles,” said Rotfeld, pointing out that Poland has more people recognized as Righteous Among the Nations than any other country.

Rotfeld stressed that stereotypes against Poles continue to prevail because of the enormous number of Jews who trace their ancestry to Poland and because the Nazi crimes were perpetrated on Polish soil.

While the conference was primarily academic, its hot-button topic attracted observers who came for personal reasons. These included Jewish survivors and those of Polish ancestry who wanted to learn about their parents’ or grandparents’ country. The conference also attracted non-Jewish Poles, such as Chris Justin, who left Poland in 1980 and who now lives in Huntington Beach. “I have lots of Polish friends and lots of Jewish friends,” he said.

Shoah Denial Conference: Damage Assessment

While world Jewry recovers from the shock of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust conference in Tehran, emotions are slowly giving way to analysis.

Why is Ahmadinejad pursuing this foolish crusade against the Holocaust? After all, even he must know that the Holocaust is one of the most documented events in human history and, hence, that denying its reality or even questioning its magnitude and significance is likely to end up in embarrassment. Why then is he so insistent?

The three main reasons analysts cite for Ahmadinejad’s obsession with the Holocaust are themselves questionable. We understand, of course, that by questioning the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad hopes to undermine what he believes was the main justification for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

We also accept Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria’s explanation that “Iran is seeking leadership in the Middle East, and what better way to do so than by appropriating the core grievance of the Sunni Arabs: Israel.”

Finally, Ahmadinejad clearly enjoys ridiculing what he sees as a European double-standard — criminalizing Holocaust deniers on the one hand and advocating free speech on the other.

But these reasons, if they are the real reasons, entail heavy risks for Ahmadinejad. First, a serious risk exists that driven by all the media attention, curious, bright youngsters in Iran and Arab countries will venture to dig into the vast evidence for the Holocaust and upon realizing its magnitude and veracity, begin to ask what other parts of history were purged from their state-controlled education.

Second, promoting the Palestinian cause through Holocaust denial tarnishes the former with all the absurdities of the latter, in much the same way that post-Sept. 11 conspiracy theories have discredited Muslims and weakened their claims.

Lastly, using Holocaust denial as an instrument for delegitimizing Israel may actually backfire. Columbia professor Joseph Massad argued (Al Ahram, 2004) that Arabs’ preoccupation with Holocaust denial creates the impression that the Holocaust, if it were true, suffices to justify the establishment of Israel. This, according to Massad, serves the Zionist agenda, hence, “All those in the Arab world who deny the Jewish Holocaust are in my opinion Zionists.”

My concerns lie elsewhere. I fear that as the buzz winds down and the dust settles, there will be only one thing remembered from the Holocaust Conference in Tehran: Israel and the Holocaust are one. That is, Israel owes its existence to one and only one factor: European guilt over the crime of the Holocaust. Once this is established, the next obvious question is: Why should the Palestinians pay for Europe’s crime?

We, of course, do not see things that way. For us, the State of Israel is the culmination of a long historical process of collective homecoming, not a rescue boat from the claws of Germany. While the Nazi genocide definitely accelerated that process, it did not initiate or redirect it.

The concepts of “Holy Land,” “Shivat Zion,” “Kibbutz Galuyot” — the ingathering of the exiles — three vital engines of Jewish history, are as old as Judaism itself. The majority of the 600,000 Jews who immigrated to Palestine prior to 1940 did not flee the Holocaust nor did the 580,000 Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries in the early 1950s.

Jews are generally aware of the immutable connection between Eretz Israel and Jewishness. We know deep down that Shimon Peres is not less indigenous to the Land of Canaan than, say, Mahmoud Abbas. Yet, we seem unwilling to openly assert it.

Take the movie, “Munich,” for example, written and produced by two educated Jewish artists. While a Palestinian terrorist in the movie is shown yearning for his father’s orchard, you will be wasting your time combing the script for a hint that Israeli society has any clue why they are in Israel and not, say, in Uganda. Tony Kushner knows why; he also knows that every Israeli knows why, yet he apparently did not feel comfortable enough to articulate it anywhere in his script.

I see a similar pattern in the criticism of the Holocaust Conference in Tehran. I hear tons of well-deserved condemnations of Ahmadinejad for orchestrating such an offensive conference but not one voice saying: Hey man! What a waste of time. We don’t need a Shoah to justify a Jewish state on that sliver of land. Our history was born there, and our collective consciousness has remained there.

The main danger that I see emerging from Ahmadinejad’s conference is that the international community, busy to rectify his misconceptions about the Holocaust, would ignore, and in fact mimic, his wanton disregard of the historical, national and religious ties that bind the Jewish people to their ancient land.

They ought to be reminded, and Ahmadinejad has given us a stage to do so.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation

Yiddishe Shvestern

Women always have been the private voice of Yiddish, which is, after all, called the mameloshn (mother tongue). When we think of women and Yiddish, we hear Jewish mothers crooning lullabies, whispering prayers, gossiping over fences. With few exceptions, the public voice of Yiddish — its poets, playwrights, novelists, singers, journalists — has been male.

Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and USC’s Center for Feminist Research, however, will amplify the public voice of the Ashkenazic woman — and take it way beyond the stereotype of the yiddishe mame — next weekend, when it presents an all-day conference Sunday, Feb. 25, titled "Women’s Yiddish Voices."

In keynote addresses and workshops, participants can explore a number of topics concerning the history, politics, and sociology of Eastern European Jewish women and their North American granddaughters and hear women’s voices in several Yiddish literary and performance genres.

Conference coordinator Susan Lerner, who is a co-chair of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, said Los Angeles is a great venue for such a program because of "the broad diversity of the Jewish community here." She told The Journal she hoped to attract not just the usual core audience for Yiddish programming in Los Angeles but also young people and members of the religious and non-Ashkenazic communities.

"So few people know that Yiddish has a very rich literature," said actor and director Sabell Bender, a member of the conference planning committee. "They think it’s a joke language; many don’t even think it is a language. It’s been buried before it’s dead, and we want to show it’s living."

The conference will be preceded on Sat., Feb. 24, by a Yiddishkayt-sponsored performance of the all-women klezmer group Mikveh at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park. The quartet, billed as "four of the top musicians on the international klezmer scene," performs new as well as classic Yiddish music.

Putting together "Women’s Yiddish Voices," a process that took almost a year and a half, was "a wonderful exploration of the contemporary scene," Lerner said.

Among sessions that don’t often turn up at Yiddish conferences are a presentation by contemporary female poets; a selection of autobiographical sketches written as entries to a 1942 contest sponsored by YIVO, some of which were by women who had just learned how to read and write; and a panel titled "Lesbian Identity in Today’s Yiddish American Community."

The conference session that reaches furthest back into history, Lerner suggested, probably best represents the day’s themes. The presenters of "Medieval Women," she said, using newly discovered writings, will demonstrate the independence, intelligence and strength — along with the faith and Jewish commitment — of women in European Jewish communities hundreds of years ago.

"It’s not that they didn’t have anything to say," Lerner said. "They just weren’t recorded."

"Women’s Yiddish Voices" will take place 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun., Feb. 25, on the USC campus. Mikveh will perform at 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 24, at Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd. For ticket prices, conference fees, registration, exact location and other information, call Yiddishkayt Los Angeles at (323) 692-8151.

L.A.’s Own Zionist Conference

As Zionism turns 100 and Israel approaches 50, a Sept. 14 conference re-examines our affection for the Jewish State.

Photo from Jerusalem in 3000 Years, Konemann, 1995.

To many American Jews in their 20s, 30s and 40s, Zionism, the ancient dream of a Jewish homeland that spawned a political movement and the birth of Israel almost 50 years ago, is little more than a footnote in a Sunday-school textbook. Pursuing their own professional and personal goals in this country seems a lot more important than worrying about a tiny Jewish state on the other side of the world. And, besides, Israel doesn’t seem to need as much financial or political support these days.

But Los Angeles’ Jewish organizations are out to challenge these assumptions, for their future depends on attracting younger members and engaging the next generation’s commitment to Israel.

With this in mind, the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles decided that the confluence of Israel’s 50th anniversary, in 1998, and the 100th anniversary of the First Zionist Conference, celebrated last week in Basel, Switzerland, was the opportune time to reintroduce a new generation of Jews to the idea of Zionism and Israel.

Along with nearly 40 other organizations, the JCRC is co-sponsoring an all-day event on Sept. 14 at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica. “A Celebration of Israel” will include workshops, speakers, and networking at an “information fair,” and kosher food will be served.

The idea, said 29-year-old co-chair Norman Becker, is to attract people who normally wouldn’t go to organized Jewish events. The event will be geared toward Jewish identity and the relationship — or lack of it — that the participants feel to Israel. “We’re trying to light a fire under people and turn them on to any number of issues that might involve them in the community,” Becker said.

There will be a photo exhibit on the history of Zionism, workshops on politics, economics, art, history, music and the media, and a wine, nosh and dance party to cap the festivities.

Among the workshop topics will be:

* Religion and the Jewish state: Who is a Jew?

* Zionism: From Herzl to Hebron to Hollywood.

* Which Promised Land? Israel in the minds of American Jews.

* Gender myths and realities in Israel.

* Israel and the world: How bad is the neighborhood?

Keynote speakers will be Avrum Burg, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, and Joseph Alpher, director of the American Jewish Committee in Israel and the Middle East.

Among the other speakers: Yoav Ben Horin, senior fellow of the Wilstein Institute; former U.S. Congressman Mel Levine; composer Lucas Richman; UCLA Hillel Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller; Renee Rothstein of AIPAC; Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America; writer-filmmaker David Notowitz; Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles and the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Gerald Bubis, founding director of the School of Communal Service at Hebrew Union College and an active member with Americans for Peace Now; Rabbi David Eliezrie of North County Chabad Center in Orange County; and Gene Lichtenstein, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal.

A 32-person committee co-chaired by Becker and pro-Israel activist Larry Greenfield helped plan the event. Although the group included a spectrum of views on Israel, there was a unity of purpose that kept things civil, said JCRC Israel Commission Director Elaine Albert, who served as the coordinator. “Everyone said, ‘No politics.’ All of us love Israel. We may not agree, but we all want this day to bring in another generation that loves Israel.”

Not that the process of putting together the conference was without its moments of drama. The use of the word “Zionism,” for example, sparked intense debate among the committee members. Some thought that it would turn off those who associated the term with their gray-haired grandparents or with a negative nationalistic or racist fervor. Others, steeped in the historic lore of such great Zionist heroes as Theodor Herzl, organizer of the first Zionist Congress, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, said that Zionism was an essential part of the message. Still, the invitation to the event relegates to smaller print the fact that the day is intended to celebrate “100 years of building the Zionist dream.”

To committee member Kelly Baxter, 27, a native Angeleno who spent four years in Israel and has a degree in Jewish studies from UCLA, Zionism has only positive connotations. “I feel that whatever goes on in Israel is happening in my own front yard,” said Baxter, who markets Israel programs on college campuses for the World Zionist Organization.

The conference will provide a great opportunity to show the positive side of Zionism, said Lili Steiner, another committee member. “It’s the reason that Israel exists. At the time of the first conference, 100 years ago, people didn’t have television, CNN and telephones. Yet they managed to build a movement of people that eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel,” she said.

Born in Russia and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Steiner said that she was brought up “culturally religious” and that anything Jewish or related to Israel stirs her passions. Australian Jews, who number about 100,000, tend to be more emotionally connected to Israel, she said, probably because a majority are Holocaust survivors or descendants of survivors.

The conference is not intended as a “rah-rah campaign for Israel,” said Greenfield. “My deepest belief is that an honest dialogue showing Israel’s strengths and difficulties will inspire us to be supporters of Israel.”

Zionism, according to Greenfield, is still relevant for young American Jews. “I still think we’re building the Zionist dream. Israel is still about the rescue, relief and safe haven of Jews seeking their own land,” he said. “[Zionism itself] is a success story. Lots of other ‘isms’ have come and gone — Nazism, socialism, communism, even anti-Semitism in America, for the most part.” But Zionism, the glittering dream of the Jewish state, though embattled and bloodied at times, still survives.

Up to 500 participants are expected to attend the conference. Reservations are mandatory, since space is limited. Cost for the event, which includes a kosher breakfast and lunch, is $50 per person. For information, call (213) 852-7866.