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Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe rears its ugly head again.

With the demise of communism, historic ethnic hatred is making a virulent comeback.

There is a long history of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. After World War II, it was linked directly to a specific communist policy of eliminating the infrastructure of Jewish life. Jews found it difficult, if not impossible, to attract younger members of the community because celebrating their religious identity was considered a hostile and anti-communist act. Contact with Israel and Jewish cultural and religious institutions worldwide was proscribed. Virulent attacks on Israel and Jews often were voiced by government bureaucracies.

The treatment of Jews by the communist regimes must be analyzed within the context of the treatment of other religious and ethnic minorities. Under communism, the pressure for assimilation was intense. The differences, both religious and ethnic, between the various groups - Jews as well as others - were ignored, hidden, or actively suppressed by government bureaucracies. Because Marxist-Leninist theory denied the legitimacy of ethnographic differences, they simply were declared to be nonexistent.

However significant the impact of communist policy, there is a long prior history of anti-Semitism in these countries, with social, economic, political, and religious roots. Under communism, it was not allowed open expression. There were little anti-Semitic graffiti or openly anti-Semitic articles in newspapers unless they were government authorized. Nevertheless, this historic animus never was eradicated. The speed and ease with which it emerged after the fall of communism is indicative of the fact that it long had festered under the surface.

Much of contemporary anti-Semitism can be attributed to the socioeconomic dislocation that has emerged since the demise of communism. While the often caustic debates over democracy, nationalism, and the role of an opposition have added fuel to the fire and fostered its increased expression, the entire issue would not have come to the surface had it not existed as an undercurrent suppressed by the previous regime.

Now that communism has been eliminated, Jewish life has improved dramatically. It is ironic, however, that, because of the more open expression of anti-Semitism, Jews in many Eastern European countries feel less secure. Many of the existing formal and bureaucratic obstacles which had prevented the free development of the Jewish community have been removed. Jewish schools, camps, youth groups, seminaries, and university-level Judaic studies programs have been established. Communal institutions that existed under the communists in a limited and precarious fashion are flourishing. This is an exciting and positive development and has prompted some to project the possibility of a reconstruction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Yet, at the same time, popular anti-Semitism has percolated to the surface. Anti-Semitic graffiti, articles, religious homilies, political slogans, and vandalism have appeared in virtually all Eastern European countries. The sale of traditional anti-Semitic material, including the infamous forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has been reported.

This anti-Semitism is not a new sentiment. In many respects, it is the same as before, but now, instead of emanating from official government circles, it is coming from other sources. On some levels, it is more frightening to Jews, being far less predictable and sometimes more openly virulent. Before, it could be attributed to a hated government policy. Now, it seems to be coming from one's neighbor, harking back to an age-old teaching: "The Jews are the cause of all our problems."

Blaming Jews for communism

In many of these countries, Jews are held responsible for the miseries suffered under communism. Because of the anti-Semitism they endured at the hands of the Nazis, there were Jews in each of these countries who embraced communism after World War II. Proportionately, far more non-Jews associated with the party, but this fact seems to be lost on anti-Semites, who echo a popular sentiment: "The Jews are responsible for the terrors of communism." Because post-war generations have not been taught about the specific horrors suffered by the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, they often fail to understand why communism seemed a welcome alternative to many of them.

Moreover, because a tradition of anti-Semitism has conditioned the populace to see Jews as a unified entity, they fail to differentiate between the actions of individuals and the fate of the Jewish community as a whole. This ingrained prejudice makes it rational to argue that, because some Jews supported communism, all are responsible.

It is ironic that this has become such a significant issue in an area that

essentially is devoid of Jews. The Jewish population of these countries is small. (It is infinitesimal compared to the pre-war population.) In many cases, it is composed primarily of elderly retired Jews, many of whom are supported by philanthropy. Richard Schifter, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, pointed out in June, 1991, in Bucharest that "only a negligible proportion of the population of the countries in this region is Jewish. But that ... has not put an end to anti-Semitism in this part of the world." The anti-Semitism that has emerged can be divided into a number of different categories:

Nationalist anti-Semitism. Much of the anti-Semitism directly is related to the emergence of a new and sometimes malicious form of nationalism. Within a number of Eastern Europe countries, different ethnic / national groups are vying for political autonomy. In those where there are a multiplicity of minority groups, this form of anti-Semitism has been particularly potent. Some of those involved in these struggles have used explicit anti-Semitism as a political tool, particularly in Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary.

In other instances, politicians have relied on more implicit expressions of anti-Semitism, publicly claiming that they have "pure blood" or making a point of stressing that neither they nor any of their family members have any "Jewish roots." This tactic has been utilized by national leaders, members of the opposition, and politicians engaged in election campaigns.

In depicting Jews as "other," inherently "cruel," and consciously working to thwart the desires of the majority population, they have drawn upon a long-standing anti-Semitic stereotype. This sets up a familiar enemy upon whom a wide array of woes can be blamed.

Entrepreneurial anti-Semitism. The change to a free market economy has caused severe economic dislocation in much of Eastern Europe. Moreover, ambivalent feelings exist among the population towards those who have achieved or seemed poised to achieve economic success due to new commercial opportunities. In certain areas, entrepreneurs - both Jews and non-Jews - have been condemned by the same people who called for an end to the communist economic system. Anti-Semitic canards with economic overtones have been used. This kind of anti-Semitism builds upon traditional imagery that long has accused Jews of money lending and usury.

Populist ("peasant") anti-Semitism. (Though labeled "peasant" anti-Semitism, it seems to be as prevalent in the city as in agricultural areas.) This form of deeply seated anti-Semitism exists among the general populace, rooted in both national and religious stimuli. It has been described as a form of "mob" anti-Semitism that sees the Jews as the source of a broad range of ills. It often exists among those with absolutely no contact with Jews, but who nonetheless are convinced that their personal troubles - as well as those of their country - are the fault of "the Jews. " This type of anti-Semitism easily is stimulated by religious and national sentiments.

The emergence of post-communist anti-Semitism has been exacerbated by the absence of democratic tradition. Even those who fought for the overthrow of despotic regimes often are unwilling to tolerate political opposition. They find it difficult to countenance the fact that, now that they have attained power, there are those who continue to speak out against them. They have no familiarity with this aspect of the democratic system. Consequently, they will engage in tactics designed to delegitimatize the opposition. One way of doing so is to accuse opponents of being supported by Jews or "Jewish interests." Not only those in a position of power have utilized these tactics. In a number of cases, those in the opposition have used anti-Semitic canards to undermine elected officials.

Anti-Semitic voices in Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Bucharest, Warsaw, or a myriad of cities, towns, and villages not only are expressing hostility towards Jews, but also towards the basic notion of European democracy. Adam Michnik, one of Poland's leading journalists, notes that "Anti-Semitism has become a code and a common language for people who are dreaming of a nationally pure and politically disciplined state - a state without people who are |different' and without a free opposition.... When anti-Semitic opinions are express[ed] ... Jews are not the issue. ... The question is whether there will or will not be ... democracy."

Though the situation in each of these countries may differ in its details, the general profile is the same. There is an urgent need for government officials consistently to speak out against anti-Semitism. They must do so in their own country and to their own media, not just when they visit Jewish leaders on trips abroad.

Educational programs to teach non-Jews about the insidious impact of anti-Semitism must be established. These steps must be seen to have a significance that goes beyond the Jewish population. It must be understood that, if anti-Semitism is allowed to flourish, there is serious doubt whether democracy will succeed. The two can not co-exist for long.

The fight against anti-Semitism is a critical part of the struggle for a democratic future. Only when those in positions of political, religious, and economic power recognize that these two struggles are connected intimately is there any chance that this age-old hatred can be eradicated and that democracy will be secure.


There have been a number of anti-Semitic incidents in Poland during recent years, including a September, 1991, attack on the Warsaw Synagogue. Far more disturbing has been the appearance of anti-Semitism in political and religious circles. At the same time, there have been positive developments which, if emulated by other countries, significantly could ameliorate the situation.

During the Polish presidential campaign, Lech Walesa was criticized severely for using anti-Semitism for political purposes. He accused two leading members of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki's campaign team of "hiding their Jewish origins." Walesa also called on voters to support him because "I am a full-blooded Pole with documents going back to [my] ancestors to prove it." His rallies consistently attracted anti-Semites who yelled slogans such as "Jews to the gas." To the consternation o f many Poles - Jews and non-Jews alike - Walesa never disavowed them.

Before the run-off election, Walesa admitted that he had been wrong to identify himself as a "full-blooded Pole." Subsequently, he announced that a Warsaw Ghetto museum would be established near the Umschlagplatz, the square from which Jews were transported to the death camps. During his visit to the U.S. in March, 1991, Walesa met with various Jewish groups and spoke at a ceremony at the site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He repeatedly distanced himself from the anti-Semitic remarks he made during the presidential campaign, acknowledging that he had blundered. He also denounced the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Poland.

His disavowals and condemnation were welcome, but not new. He often had made these types of statements in meeting with Western Jewish leaders. Of far greater importance was his decision, announced shortly before his departure for the U.S., that he planned to create a "permanent task force" to combat anti-Semitism by designing educational programs for Polish youth stressing the close links between Poles and Jews; submitting to the Ministry of Education and the church proposals that promote better understanding between Poles and Jews; reacting to incidents of anti-Semitism; and examining any issues that might arise between Poles and Jews. The Under-Secretary of State in the President's Chancellery explained that "the council [was] an institutional expression of the President's commitment" to not "allow anti-Semitism to increase."

The council's inaugural statement stressed the interconnections between Poles and Jews. "With no other people have Poles been so strongly linked as with Jews. No other people helped so much to create our economic life, culture, literature and art." If the council continues to have the support of the President and is allowed to become a true policy-making body, it well may be in a position to take concrete steps to reverse the spread of anti-Semitism in Poland.

Other major developments have taken place in the religious sphere. In August, 1989, at the shrine of the Black Madonna, Poland's holiest icon, Polish primate Cardinal Glemp issued a homily accusing Jews of "getting peasants drunk" and "breeding communism," and warned them not to speak to Poles "from a position of a people raised above all others." He stated that "Jewish power lies in the mass media" and that the media are at the disposal of the Jews. His statements, which drew on traditional anti-Semitic imagery, deeply disturbed Jews and non-Jews in and outside Poland. Prominent non-Polish church leaders denounced the Cardinal's anti-Semitic accusations.

The negative impact of the Cardinal's statements was followed by the issuance on Jan. 20, 1991, of a letter by the Polish Episcopate strongly condemning anti-Semitism. This was interpreted as a sign that the Catholic Church in Poland had decided to oppose anti-Semitism. It was particularly encouraging because it came from the highest levels of the Catholic Church and was signed by all the cardinals, archbishops, and bishops at the 244th Plenary Conference of the Polish Episcopate. It was mandated by them to be read in all churches and chapels at Mass. Finally, and most importantly, the letter acknowledged the "greatness and variety of links between the Church, Mosaic religion and the Jewish nation." It noted that with "no other religion does the Church remain in such close relationship, nor does the Church find itself bound to any other nation so intimately." In addition, it conceded that, though many Poles rescued Jews during the Holocaust, "there were those who remained indifferent to this inconceivable tragedy." It "deplore[d] especially the action of some Catholics who contributed in any way to the death of Jews." On behalf of those Christians who "could have helped but did not," it asked "forgiveness of our Jewish brothers and sisters." It described anti-Semitism as "incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel" and Poland as a "common Fatherland for Poles and Jews for ages." It remains to be seen to what extent this letter will be followed up at the parish level and catechesis. Only if it filters down to local and community levels - to those with continuous and sustained contact with the population - will it have significant impact.

However, these positive actions on the Church's part have been thrown into question by the emergence of a chauvinistic anti-Semitic electoral alliance which appears to be supported and encouraged by segments of the Church. As reported by the left wing liberal newspaper. Polityka: "Invitations were sent out by the Church authorities for a conference to create a Christian electoral pact-the suggestion coming originally from the Christian Citizens Movement, the Christian National Union and representatives of parish and deanery communities. "According to the report, the Christian Citizens' Movement and the Christian National Union-both regarded as anti-semitic-have allied themselves with parish and deanery communities, the grass roots elements of the Catholic Church. In contrast, the Centre Citizens' Coalition, a combination of the Centre Alliance and the Citizens' Committees of Solidarity, has distanced itself from the anti-Semitic Christian National Union and other similar groups. One of the political parties known to have engaged in anti-Semitic accusations is the National Party. Its paper has accused Jews of being responsible for the troubles that have afflicted Poland.

Even more disturbing than the actions of political parties, which have limited followings, are public opinion polls revealing how deeply rooted anti-Semitic feelings are in Poland. Surveys have found that 40% of Poles said they were unwilling to have Jews live near them. Similar surveys were conducted in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where the response was 23 and 17%, respectively.

In April, 1991, a poll revealed that one Pole in three feels that "the influence of people they believe to be Jewish is too great" in Poland. According to the survey, five percent admitted to being extremely anti-Semitic, 10% were strongly anti-Semitic, and 16% claimed to be moderately or slightly anti-Semitic. The results were interpreted by the polling institute as "evidence of the existence of strong negative stereotypes," unrelated to the facts. An earlier poll taken before the October, 1990, presidential election revealed that 22% of Poles believed that "Jews [were] the ones with the greatest influence on the Mazowiecki government." The most strongly anti-Semitic statements were made by agricultural and industrial workers, who typically had not advanced past grade school. There was no discernible difference between city and country dwellers.

Other countries

Romania. Since the December, 1989, coup, there has been a steady rise in anti-Semitism in Romania. A journalist there maintained that "everyone ... feel[s] in danger now for political or ethnic reasons. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism are no longer under control." Anti-Semitic articles regularly have appeared in a number of newspapers. The charge frequently is made that Jews brought communism to Romania and that the government is "overwhelmingly Jewish." Commemorations of the Holocaust have been marred by demonstrators. In certain towns, the celebrations of Jewish holidays have been canceled because of fears of anti-Semitic attacks. Cemeteries and synagogues have been vandalized.

The tabloid press has produced numerous anti-Semitic stories, some blaming Jews for the hardships Romania is enduring as its economy falters. The weekly newspaper Europa regularly publishes anti-Semitic articles. Those by its publisher, Ilie Neascsu, frequently contain citations of classic French, English, and German anti-Semitic literature. The paper published a story in May, 1991, claiming that Jews "were occupying the majority of decision-making functions" in the government.

Another newspaper, Romani Mare, with a circulation of 500,000, also runs numerous anti-Semitic pieces. In an article on the "Jewish problem" in April, 1991, the editor wrote that he had nothing against Jews as long as they " leave this country alone. " He complained that they held too many "key jobs" and that Parliament and the government were "full of Jews." The paper claimed that, "While there are 20,000 Jews in Romania, 5,000 of them are in the country's leadership ... the heads of TV and radio are all Jews, and in Parliament, it rains Jewish by the bucket. It's not their fault - domination has been their style since the dawn of time - but can't they let us breath a little, instead of trampling on us as they have been doing since 1947?" It also accused the Jews of "trying to disintegrate" the country.

Though the Romanian government has condemned Europa's anti-Semitism, two of its principal ministers sent the publisher letters thanking him for giving 10% of the weekly profits to the Defense and Interior Ministries. The ministers' letters were published in the paper. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Schifter subsequently described anti-Semitism as having "been injected into the political dialogue" in Romania in the "form of attacks on prominent personalities based on the ethnicity of their ancestors."

In July, 1991, a visit to Romania by Jews from abroad, including Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, to mark the 50th anniversary of anti-Jewish pogroms was marred by anti-Semitic outbursts. In addition, Romania's Chief Rabbi Moshe Rosen had death threats made against him.

The manifestation of anti-Semitism in Romania can be traced, in part, to economic troubles, the political uncertainties caused by a weak government, and a population angry about the slow pace of reform. The profound social, economic, and political problems plaguing this country have proved to be a prime breeding ground for Jew hatred. There are dozens of political and ethnic groups who share no common ideology or culture. An ideology which attacks those who are "other" - eg., Jews - is one of the few things that unites the disparate groups.

Hungary is unique in that it has a much larger Jewish population - approximately 80,000 - than any of the other Eastern European countries. There has been a resurgence in Jewish life since the fall of communism. A wide range of Jewish activities take place on a regular basis, many of them being held under the umbrella of the Association for Jewish Culture. The synagogue is filled on major religious holidays. In addition to Jewish religious schools, a secular school that emphasizes tradition, history, and culture - as opposed to religion - has opened.

Anti-Semitism also has emerged. In the spring of 1990, during the national elections, some leaders of the Democratic Forum, an anti-communist political party, played upon Hungarian anti-Semitism. In a radio broadcast, Istvan Csurka, a prominent writer and a member of the Forum executive, urged Hungarians to "wake up." He warned them that a "dwarfish minority" was robbing Hungarians of their national culture and symbols and called Jews "rootless cosmopolitans." Other well-known Democratic Forum members have engaged in similar tactics. Though the leadership of the party has distanced itself, it has not condemned them. A prominent Hungarian sociologist acknowledges that the Forum, while not an anti-Semitic party, did "deliberately play the ethnic nationalism card of |us' versus |the strangers' during the campaign. And they won."

Though there have been various manifestations of anti-Semitism, there also have been positive signs. Pres. Arpad Goncz has condemned anti-Semitism. During a visit to Israel, he announced that his country would "do everything to ensure that Jews .. are able to feel at home, live in peace, security, and dignified honor. " A poll conducted in May, 1991, found that, while 12% of the population had negative views of Jews, 67% had favorable ones. In April, 1991, an Interparliamentary Council against anti-Semitism was formed. Many of the country's leading writers and intellectuals have spoken out against anti-Semitism in a timely and forthright fashion.

About 10% of Hungary's population belongs to designated minorities. They are entitled to certain privileges including special schools financed by the government. Some within the Jewish community would like the Jews to apply for this special status. Others object because it would be acknowledging what the anti-Semites have been claiming-that Jews are "other." It also would deny the fact that the vast majority of Hungary's Jews are culturally Hungarian and do not consider themselves a national minority.

A number of positive steps have been taken to counter the emergence of anti-Semitism. Political leaders in many of the countries in Eastern Europe have spoken out forcefully against it. Some primarily have done so in their meetings with Jewish or Israeli representatives. While representatives of the Jewish community have appreciated these sentiments, they sometimes have wondered if they are being expressed solely for their benefit.

There is a self-serving reason for the countries of this region to fight this prejudice. They realize that anti-Semitism makes them suspect in European circles. They also are aware that anti-Semitism well may jeopardize the aid and trade agreements they wish to make with Western European countries.

Some political leaders have not hestiated to condemn anti-Semitism as soon as it manifests itself. They have done so publicly and unequivocally to their own media as well as foreign journalists. This is the response that is likely to have a positive impact on the fight against anti-Semitism, for it is not the victims or their children who need to hear the condemnation, but the perpetrators and their heirs. Because this is such a deeply seated prejudice, they must hear it more than once.

In certain cases, verbal condemnation must be accompanied by action. Such a step was taken by Poland's Pres. Walesa when he established a Presidential Commission on Anti-Semitism. This type of response, if it receives sustained support from the highest political levels, can be important. Otherwise, it will be relegated to the category of prestigious, but meaningless, actions, designed to placate foreign opinion.

In a few notable instances, church leaders individually and collectively have condemned anti-Semitism as antithetical to Christian principles. The most effective example is the Polish Episcopates letter of January, 1991. However, such steps only can be effective if they are transmitted to the grassroots of the community. If cardinals and archbishops condemn it, then parish priests also must speak out and educate about the evil of anti-Semitism.

While there has been some discussion, no broad-based programs to educate about anti-Semitism have been established, though a few individual efforts have been made. Since the younger generations have such a murky sense of the Holocaust, this is one area that must be included in any education program.

Dr. Lipstadt, professor of Jewish studies, Emory University, Atlanta, Ga., is the author of Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945. This article is based on an Anti-defamation League International Report.
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Author:Lipstadt, Deborah
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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