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Poland's Jews: Minority Rights or Special Separate-Nation Rights?

jan peczkis|Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Jewish author Oscar Janowsky is quite even-handed on this subject. He presents a wealth of information. I organize the topics as follows:



By way of introduction, (quote) On the other hand, the vast majority of the eastern Jews, including those of Galicia and Bukowina, still lived in compact masses apart from the rest of the population; they spoke the Yiddish language and maintained separate educational and cultural institutions. Groups of intellectuals had even begun to demand that the Jews be recognized as a nationality and that they be endowed with what were vaguely called "national rights." (unquote). (p. 16).

The concept of "Jews as nationality" was not merely a politicized continuation of the centuries-old Jewish particularism and separatism. Janowsky quips, (quote) The ancient constitution had segregated the Jews as aliens, and the self-governing institutions, which the latter maintained, also bore a strong religious coloring. The Jewish nationalists of the twentieth century envisaged something radically different. The Jews were not to be segregated in modern ghettos. On the contrary, they were to be incorporated in the state organism as a national unit along with the other nationalities who clamored for recognition in eastern Europe. (unquote). (p. 49). Note that Janowsky's statements map unto what some Poles thought of Jews wanting it both ways--simultaneously being part of Poland and not being part of Poland.

The concept of "Jews as nationality" may be confusing to some people, and other terms may be clearer. President Woodrow Wilson used the term "separate corporate body". (p. 351). Jewish delegations referred to the Jewish national movement as one where Jews would have "group rights". (p. 265).


Nowadays, Poles are often condemned for not embracing Poland's Jews as Poles, for having seen Jews as the "other", and even for not including Jews within the Poles' "sphere of moral obligations." However, there were many times in the past that Poland's Jews had overtly excluded themselves from the Polish nation, and the "Jews as nationality" concept only enhanced and formalized this self-exclusion.

After the KULTURKAMPF, with the attempts to Germanize forcibly the Polish children of German-ruled western Poland (west Prussia), Jewish nationalists opposed this policy because it made Jews an agent of Germanization, which Poles thought also. However, these nationality-minded Jews made it clear that they were not Poles (nor Germans). They considered themselves a separate national entity. (p. 206).

This also occurred in the other two Partitioned regions of foreign-ruled Poland. In the first elections to the Duma (Russian parliament), the Jewish candidates supported national rights for Jews. (p. 89). Although Janowsky does not discuss the much-maligned 1912 Dmowski-led boycott of Jews that occurred in the wake of a later Duma election, it is easy to see that Jewish participation in the Duma elections implied a decisive rejection of Polish interests.

The Jews of eastern Galicia declared themselves neutral in the Ukrainian-Polish conflicts that led up to the war of 1918. Furthermore, the Jews demanded national minority rights from whoever emerged victorious. (pp. 273-274).

As Poland was in the process of being resurrected (1918), a MAJORITY of local Jews supported the total dis-affiliation with Poland. Janowsky comments, (quote) The Jews of Posen [Poznan] had become thoroughly German in sentiment, but the defeat of Germany, the uncertainty as to the ultimate disposition of that Polish region, and fear that the Jews might suffer in the struggle between Germans and Poles led to a demand that the Jews be recognized as a third nationality in the region...with the support of a majority of Jews of the contested territory, it appealed to the Peace Conference to assure the Jews of Posen [Poznan] the rights of a national minority. (unquote). (p. 279).


The experience of the Israelitish Magyars is instructive: (Quote) Hungarian Jews, too, though they had been least affected by Jewish nationalism, and had long considered themselves Magyars of the Mosaic persuasion, were moved to espouse Jewish national demands. On December 15, 1918, representatives of Jewish communities met in conference with the local Jewish at Temesvar, and together adopted a national program. Hungarian Jewry was declared to be a national minority and demands were made for a broad national autonomy, including a national register. This action of Hungarian Jews appears surprising; but sufficient explanation can be found in the fact that the Banat of Temesvar was expected to be annexed by Rumania [Romania]. Magyars of the Mosaic persuasion would be doubly unwelcome in the latter country; even if it were possible for Hungarian Jews to transform themselves overnight into Rumanians of the Mosaic persuasion, it was doubtful whether Rumania would take kindly even to that species. (unquote). (p. 275).

Now consider the following. Roman Dmowski, while always realizing that some Polish Jews become genuine patriotic Poles, cited the example of Hungarian Jews as ones whose assimilated status, and patriotic identification with Hungary, turned out to be a chameleon-like ephemeral loyalty. He feared that the same could happen with Poland-identifying Polish Jews. Janowsky's statements, quoted above, though not presented as such, indicate that Dmowski's concerns had some basis in fact.


President Woodrow Wilson supported the granting of racial, religious and linguistic rights for minorities. However, he opposed "national rights" for Jews as harmful. (p. 351).

The obvious separate-nation claims of Jews were not accepted as part of the eventual Minorities Treaty. Janowsky writes, (quote) The Council was informed that the "wide reaching" claims of some of the Jewish representatives for the recognition of a definite Jewish nationality in Poland, with separate electoral curiae, had been unanimously rejected because such action would constitute a "State within a State" and would "very seriously undermine the authority of the Polish government." (unquote). (p. 363).

Ignacy Jan Paderewski opposed the eventual Minorities Treaty because the treaty did not confer similar rights to the Polish minority in Germany. In addition, he pointed out that Jews themselves disagreed whether special Jewish schools and official Jewish language (Yiddish) were necessary. Finally, the distinguishing of Jews from the rest of the Polish population, through special privileges, would only increase Polish resentment against Jews. (p. 356).


The Endeks pointed out "assimilation" has varying connotations, and that the assimilation of Jews into Polish society did not necessarily transform them into Poles. Interestingly, Janowsky arrived at essentially the same conclusion about the nebulous implications of assimilation: (quote) The "assimilationists", however, did not constitute a definite party, for many of them had little in common beyond an aversion for Jewish nationalism. Those who had discarded religious beliefs and practices manifested no interest whatever in specifically Jewish problems. Others remained associated with the Jewish group in spiritual and charitable affairs...The "assimilationists" differed widely in their political and social views. They were even divided in their cultural and national allegiance. (unquote). (p. 33).

The resistance of many Polish Jews to assimilation is often blamed on the uncongenial Catholic-majoritarian atmosphere in Poland ("Polish Jews had nothing to assimilate to."). The real reason was the desire of many Jews to maintain an extreme distinctness, particularism, and cultural separatism, as evidenced by their rejection of even the pluralism offered by the secular western nations. Nahum Sokolow, a member of a Jewish delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, made this obvious. Janowsky writes, (quote) Sokolow also maintained that 85% of the Jews of Poland knew no Polish, but spoke Hebrew or Yiddish. They possessed a communal life with flourishing educational, social and charitable institutions. Mere emancipation of the western type would destroy, in his view, this communal life. (unquote). (p. 300).
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