1. “Top-Down” versus “Populist” Movements: Accounting for a Nation’s Intolerance

On 23 October 2018, I attended a lecture/discussion at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. The speaker was Dariusz Stola, a professor of history at the Institute for Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, and Director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Stola’s oeuvre includes ten books and over a hundred scholarly articles on the political and social history of Poland in the 20th century, the Holocaust, international migrations, and the communist regime. His lecture, “The ‘Anti-Zionist’ Campaign in Poland, 1967-68, and Its Echoes Today,” was impeccably researched, engaging, and accessible. The large audience for Stola’s talk spanned several generations. Most attendees had ties (however near or distant) to Poland. Some had been expelled from Poland amid the communist-era purges of Polish Jews that began in March 1968. Some left as children and only learned they were Jewish decades later, when aging parents finally revealed secrets of migration, like the forced surrender of their Polish passports. And some were probably like me: children of Polish Catholics who fled during World War II, or immigrated voluntarily later, though for different reasons than Jews ousted via the “Anti-Zionist” Campaign.

I mention these generational and cultural factors to foreshadow the intense and moving question period following Stola’s lecture. In that roomful of people, many estranged from Poland due to their Jewish ancestry, the emotions that lingered were not clear-cut anger or contempt. Rather, attendees revealed their sustained yet conflicted interest in Poland, and their search for candid answers to Poland’s rejection of its own citizens. Pared to its core, the question that troubled listeners the most had to do with a population’s complicity: Were the “anti-Zionist” purges really a government-led movement, or did everyday Catholic Poles also participate in and shape this movement’s success?

This painful question must be explored in its historical context, which Stola did throughout his lecture, carefully mapping the actions that precipitated and followed March 1968. He concluded that the communist-era campaign to rid Poland of “Zionists” was led and executed by communist party leaders, whereas the escalating anti-Semitism in today’s Poland is more grassroots–voiced by everyday people via the Internet. I want to examine and perhaps unsettle Stola’s distinction by looking at the arguably overlapping relations between “top-down” and “populist” movements. I wrote this article during a record-long government shutdown that President Trump initiated to secure 5.7 billion tax payer dollars for a wall dividing Mexico from the United States. On Friday, Feb. 15th, Trump bypassed Congress and declared a national emergency [1], even after congressional negotiators agreed in principle days earlier to provide 1.375 billion for fencing and other physical barriers at the Mexican border. I suspect that Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Central Americans will struggle for generations with questions like the ones raised at Stola’s talk: Was their isolation and dehumanization part of a hierarchical Republican crusade over which average Americans had little control? Or were countless ordinary people complicit in backing Trump’s agenda, in adopting his rhetoric for their own ends, or in failing to speak and act against it?

The question posed on Melania Trump’s army-green jacket when she visited migrant children at a border detention center seems sorely relevant here: “I really don’t care. Do U?” Melania Trump—First Lady, naturalized U.S. citizen, and civilian mother of a teenage son—blurs the lines between official policies initiated at the highest levels of power, and everyday American attitudes. I thought about Melania Trump’s jarring jacket much longer than decent people probably should in the weeks after she wore it. Her public performance forced me to confront my private thoughts: Did I really care? Yes, I reacted with sadness to articles on social media about Trump’s family separation debacle. Yes, I wept silently at the thought of strangers forcibly taking my daughter. Yet I did not protest or contact my elected officials. I did not speak out. Melania was right: I didn’t care enough. I even shifted the blame at times, wondering why migrant parents would take such risks. There is more I can do—more all of us can do—to materially support those shamed as “illegals” or demonized as “criminals” and “human caravans.” Perhaps most importantly, we should actively resist the colonization of our minds and emotions by a regime that constantly uses mainstream and social media to assess what range of “alternative facts” the public will accept, what kinds of abuses we will tolerate, and what forms of bigotry can be legalized or normalized. [2]

Stola’s distinction between the “top-down” approaches that Polish communist leaders took to alienate Jews in 1968 and the “populist” anti-Semitism that finds fresh fervor in Poland via the Internet ultimately led me to see jarring connections between these different sources of intolerance. My purpose in what follows is to consider the intersections and odd reciprocities between official government policies, and various popular movements that mimic or amplify state-sponsored xenophobia in the public sphere.

2. The “Anti-Zionist” Campaign of March 1968

Stola began his lecture by stating that he would switch between two different moments in time. First, the events leading up to March 1968. Second, the spring of 2018, when Warsaw’s Polin Museum launched an exhibit titled “Obcy w Domu” (“Aliens at Home”), commemorating those expelled in 1968-70. As it happened, the exhibit coincided with a law passed by Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Feb. 2018, threatening anyone who accused Poland of complicity during the Holocaust with a jail sentence of up to three years. Controversy over this law, both in Poland and abroad, set off new eruptions of anti-Jewish hatred voiced via what Stola called “the most democratic medium”—namely, the Internet. [3]

In 1967, approximately 25,000 to 30,000 Jews remained in Poland, a tiny fraction of the 3.4 million Jews that lived in Poland before World War II. Several prior waves of Jewish emigration had occurred between the war and 1968—the largest in 1946, when over 60,000 Jews left Poland after forty-two people, including women and children, were brutally murdered in the Kielce pogroms. Yet by 1967, the integration of secular Jews into Polish culture was at its apex. Polish communism was also relatively accepting of Jews. By all appearances, Polish Jewry was finally firmly enmeshed in the nation’s sociopolitical fabric.

Stola identified the Six-Day War, fought in June 1967 between Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, as “the key moment that anticipated 1968.” The communist media in Poland initially sympathized with Israel. Poles also voiced popular support for Israel (and hostility toward the Soviet Union), famously bragging, “Our Jews Beat Russia’s Arabs” [4]. However, the Soviet Union soon directed Poland’s Politburo to condemn Israel as an “aggressor” against peaceful Arab nations. In “How the Global Left Greeted the Six Day War,” Colin Shindler describes the Soviet spin on Israel’s quick victory: “little Israel could not possibly have defeated its assailants without the help of ‘the unseen, immense, and powerful empire of Zionist financiers and industrialists’” [5]. After a Moscow summit with other communist leaders, Poland’s Władysław Gomułka (who greatly feared a nuclear confrontation) fell in line with the Soviet narrative. He returned to Warsaw and delivered a two-hour speech on the history of Israel, mostly criticizing Israel as an American lackey. Yet Gomułka abruptly gave the Middle East conflict what Stola described as a “local, Polish dimension.” Specifically, Gomułka’s speech targeted Polish Jews: “Israel’s aggression in the Arab countries is met with applause in Zionist circles of Jews—Polish citizens […] We do not want a fifth column to emerge in our country” [6]. Fifth column, a term credited to Emilio Mola Vidal, a Nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), refers to a clandestine group of subversive agents who attempt to undermine a nation’s solidarity by any means at their disposal. Gomułka strongly implied that Polish Jews who failed to condemn Israel were subversive agents working against Poland.

Today, accusations of Zionism circulate regularly among secular leftists. Articles in the mainstream media claim a mounting “schism” between American and Israeli Jews, locating the stalemate over Palestinian rights and autonomy as one crux of this conflict [7]. Yet Stola stressed that Gomułka’s 1967 claim about “Zionists” in Poland was deeply shocking. It was the first time the term had been used since the Stalinist era. Stola added that Gomułka specifically invited “those who feel that these words are addressed to them to emigrate” [8]. The leader was privately criticized by members of Poland’s communist Politburo for not consulting with them before making such inflammatory remarks; his invitation for “Zionists” to leave Poland was deleted before the publication of his speech. Nevertheless, the damage was done. The Polish army dismissed nearly all officers of Jewish origin. In the media, prominent Jewish editors and writers were also let go. The Polish Secret Service (an organization strongly under Soviet control) held secret meetings in Fall 1967. Members were given an order to find hidden Zionists—anyone who had a Jewish grandparent.

Early 1968 marked what Stola identified as the unfurling of the Polish political crisis. A few thousand students protested at Warsaw University on 8 March 1968, calling for freedom of speech. Communist Party activists and the police came to intimidate protesters, but the riots soon spread from Warsaw to hundreds of localities. Significantly, most of those arrested were not students, but young workers. Stola explained that a major reason for the police brutality and impending “anti-Zionist campaign” was the Politburo’s fear of strikes spreading to industrial workers, who had recently protested rising food prices. Industrial workers’ calls for economic reform would cause far more unrest than students demanding free speech. About three days after the riots began, the first article appeared in the Polish press, disclosing a “horrible secret”—that the student protests were actually instigated by Zionists, neo-Nazis, and former Stalinists. “From that point,” Stola wrote in an essay on this topic, “the quantity and intensity of the attacks against Zionism snowballed in the media and in public speeches” [9].

Stola emphasized the top-down, government-led nature of the March 1968 campaign. Polish communist orders worked in the usual way: from the central committee, to regional committees, to municipal ones. He said there was “no popular violence,” but “organized violence by the police.” In a parliamentary speech in April 1968, Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz spelled out the government’s new official position: “Loyalty to socialist Poland and imperialist Israel is not possible simultaneously” [10]. Once Poland’s communist party members realized they could use claims of “Zionism” to settle personal vendettas and achieve political ends, an open purge began. Roman Zambrowski, born into a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1909, became a leader of the Union of Polish Patriots (1943), and Head of the Polish Army in the Soviet Union (1944). He rose in the Polish Workers’ Party both during and after the Stalinist era. At the height of his long career, Zambrowski was Vice-President of the Supreme Chamber of Control (1963-68). Then, in 1968, he was accused of Zionism and of inciting the political crisis. Zambrowski was abruptly expelled from the Polish United Workers’ Party and removed from his position in the Supreme Chamber of Control. The message was clear: if a seemingly untouchable titan like Zambrowski could fall, then anyone was vulnerable. Hersh Smolar, a leading Jewish communist, was also expelled from the Polish United Workers’ Party and from his editorial role with a popular Yiddish newspaper. Next, his children were arrested. At that point, Smolar gave up and promised to emigrate if they were released. Smolar, nearing 70, left for Israel in 1971.

According to Stola, “Anti-Zionism” is a misnomer for the campaign that led an estimated 25,000 Jews to flee Poland between 1968-71, leaving only between 5,000 and 10,000 Jews in the country: “The campaign began as an anti-Israeli policy but quickly turned into an anti-Jewish crusade, and this anti-Jewish character remained its distinctive feature” [11]. The government even promised Jews “simplified exit papers” if they left by 1 Sept.1969. The catch was that they had to change their Polish citizenship to Israeli, thus forfeiting their legal bond to their country. Only about 25% of departing Jews actually went to Israel. Many took a chance and decided to go elsewhere. Stola described it as “Emigration from Poland, not immigration to somewhere. A lot of Jews did not have a clear destination in mind when they left Poland.”

Curiously, Stola dubbed the anti-Zionist movement “a campaign of symbolic violence.” Jews who left Poland between 1968-71 feared deportation or pogroms. “Nobody had plans to do it,” Stola explained, but such research could hardly have mattered to a community for whom the Holocaust and Kielce were still fresh. Another dimension of the campaign’s “symbolic” nature was the unstable and expansive term, “Zionist.” It was clear to everyone that “Zionists” were Jews—but the curious thing was that anyone, Jewish or not, could be accused of Zionism. After two decades of communist rule, Poland’s population was trained in stifling opinions that might be unpopular with the government. Yet the “Anti-Zionist” campaign empowered many Poles to feel they could finally speak what they thought. Stola emphasized that this circumstance “was not just traditional anti-Semitism, but a time when ordinary workers could criticize their bosses if they used the right words: ‘You’re pro-Zionist!’ or ‘You’re not sufficiently anti-Zionist.’ In ironic and roundabout ways, the “Anti-Zionist” campaign briefly gave anti-communist protesters (and many others) the freedom of speech they had sought. Poles abruptly had the freedom to attack and depose important party leaders, as well as lesser higher-ups, neighbors, and coworkers.

3. Blurred Lines: Presidential Rhetoric Goes Viral

As recently as the Presidency of Barack Obama, there were meaningful distinctions in America between “top-down” government communication and the Internet’s “populist” discourses. Former President Obama generally used social media to share news about his Administration’s accomplishments and policies; he also used it to connect with the public in warm and positive ways. Obama was a leader who occasionally tweeted. By contrast, President Trump seems to lead, in large part, by means of his tweets. According to Amanda Wills and Alysha Love, political analysts for CNN, “President Donald Trump is running both a personal and an official Twitter account as leader of the United States” [12].

Unlike former President Obama, President Trump doesn’t just share official information about pending or passed legislation. Trump often leaks or frames such information long before it is official—in effort to destabilize governance procedures, undermine opponents, and/or test public opinion. Trump is a social media influencer who has a tremendous impact on users of the “democratic” Internet—the medium that Stola distinguished from “top-down” approaches to power near the end of his talk. Of course, Poland’s sociopolitical context vastly differs from that of America. For one thing, none of Poland’s current leaders use the Internet like Trump. They tend to be more formal and predictable. Nevertheless, even in Poland, “top-down” sources of rhetoric have begun to overlap with (and reportedly fuel) populist hatred. Most recently, the grieving widow of Pawel Adamowicz, the Gdansk mayor assassinated at a charity event in January 2019, attributed her husband’s death to what she identified as “hate speech” against him broadcast on government television [13]. Just three days before his murder, an antisemitic satire aired on prime-time TV. The satire portrayed the charity whose event Adamowicz planned to speak at—and where he would be stabbed—as something “dubious, run by opaque forces” [14]. As Mayor of Gdansk for over twenty years, Adamowicz had forged a reputation as a champion of civil rights, GLBT people, and immigrants, which made him a target of attacks from the far right. He had also criticized Poland’s ruling right-wing populist party, Law and Justice (PiS). His murder spurred debates in Poland about whether the polarizing rhetoric that PiS uses to target opponents encouraged Adamowicz’s killer to act.

In thinking about Poland’s Adamowicz and recent acts of violence that have stunned America, I contend that Stola’s distinctions (between official and unsanctioned, government-led and populist) are eroding—especially when it comes to the dissemination of xenophobic intolerance. We can argue that Trump’s use of Twitter is partly responsible for these erosions. Yet long before Trump and his much-followed tweets, Poland’s communist regime used official party policies to influence popular opinion and off-the-record actions. During the question period that followed Stola’s talk, a man in the audience said he had worked with Polish Jews displaced by the “anti-Zionist” purges. The man recalled that some Jews with whom he spoke were not allowed to leave Poland with proof of their Polish education: their transcripts were taken at the border. The man wanted to know if confiscating Jewish credentials had been a government policy. Stola confidently answered “No,” yet acknowledged that some unprincipled customs agents might have acted independently to take Jewish documents and/or return them in exchange for bribes. Despite their lack of official sanction, it is easy see how such “individual” acts of degradation were tacitly fostered by the government’s formal policies regarding Polish Jews—namely, disparaging Jews who supported Israel as traitors, and forcing Jews to give up their passports and citizenship in order to expedite their exit from Poland.

Links between “top-down” and “populist” movements have always existed. In today’s divisive political climates, however, these connections between leaders’ rhetoric and followers’ actions are ever more volatile. The F.B.I. reports that hate crimes in the United States jumped 17 percent in 2017, with a 37 percent spike in crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions [15].  We can question whether a President’s refusal to condemn white supremacists has anything to do with this uptick in violence against America’s racial, religious, and sexual minorities. We can grieve the anti-Semitic rhetoric that the right-wing unleashed as “comedy” against Adamowicz, who was known as an ally to Poland’s Jewish communities. In any case, the junctions between “top-down” and “populist” xenophobia are growing, as are the stakes of these convergences. As Karen Grigsby Bates cautioned a year ago, “we should worry at the constant stream of racist, crude remarks this president unleashes on the public. Normalizing that kind of behavior leads to what sociologists call “otherization” — making the subject of one’s remarks different from one’s self to the point that it is easier to neglect, harm, even kill people one doesn’t see as people” [16].

4. The Past is Not the Past

Like a sizable number of attendees, I waited in line to meet Stola after his talk. Person after person wanted to ask him a question or tell him a story. For many in that line, he seemed to physically embody a desired connection to Poland, as well as the hope of answers to an unresolved past. “Many people realize that the past is not the past and find something relevant in the exhibition,” Stola said of “Obcy w Domu” (“Aliens at Home”), the 2018 interactive presentation at the Polin Museum. As I waited, I thought about Stola’s account of the ways the “anti-Zionist” campaign had changed the demographic and sociopolitical landscape of Poland, ironically destroying the integrated society that Polish communists had successfully built. I thought about my mother, who left Poland in 1970, though she was not Jewish. I thought about the years she spent in Canada, haunted by fears of the secret police, but also by fears of Polish friends and neighbors turning on her. I think now about how Trump’s relentless rhetoric of division and humiliation has changed America, both in the minds of immigrants who want to be here, and in the minds of those of us who are here, watching our homeland become alien, trying not to become monsters ourselves in the process. “I really don’t care. Do U?” Lately, I recall that question often. I try to answer quickly, but take longer than I should. I find myself thinking that there is no successful top-down movement without an eager (or passive) mob. If we don’t want to be that enabling mob, we need to think concretely now about what we can do to resist.


Photo © Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett


Works Cited

Barnes, Tom. “Polish Mayor’s Widow Blames His Murder on State’s TV ‘Hate Speech’ Against Him.” Independent.co.uk, 23 Jan. 2019. Web.

Buras, Piotr. “The Killing of Gdańsk’s Mayor is the Tragic Result of Hate Speech.” The Guardian, 17 Jan. 2019.

Baker, Peter. “Trump Declares National Emergency to Build Border Wall.” New York Times, 15 Feb. 2019.

Davies, Christian. “Poland’s Jews Fear for Future Under New Holocaust Law.” The Guardian, 10 Feb. 2018. Web.

Gera, Vanessa. “Exhibit Explores Persecution of Jews Amid Brutal Response to 1968 Polish Revolt.” Times of Israel, 9 Mar. 2018. Web.

Grigsby Bates, Karen. “‘Rapists,’ ‘Huts’: Trump’s Racist Dog Whistles Aren’t New.” NPR.org, 13 Jan. 2018. Web.

Jurecic, Quinta. “The Moments After Trump’s Tweets.” The Atlantic, 25 May 2018. Web.

Shindler, Colin. “How the Global Left Greeted the Six Day War.” The Jewish Chronicle, 5 Jun. 2017. Web.

Stola, Dariusz. “The Anti-Zionist Campaign in Poland 1967-1968.” Marxists.org. <https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/stola.pdf> Web.

Weisman, Jonathan. “American Jews and Israeli Jews are Headed for a Messy Breakup.” New York Times, 4 Jan. 2019.

Wills, Amanda and Alysha Love. “All the President’s Tweets.” CNN.com, 11 Feb. 2019.