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Studies on Polish Jewery, The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916-1939 (Studies of the Center for Research on the History and ... Jews, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

jan peczkis|Sunday, November 11, 2012

The author begins with a middle view of Polish-Jewish relations, (quote) By an over-emphasis on pervasive Polish anti-Semitism, the Jewish treatment of Polish Jewish history emerges in a manner no less unbalanced and tendentious than those Polish apologetic works which trumpet `traditional Polish tolerance' of Jews." (unquote). (p. 15)

4.0 out of 5 starsThe author begins with a middle view of Polish-Jewish relations, (quote) By an over-emphasis on pervasive Polish anti-Semitism, the Jewish treatment of Polish Jewish history emerges in a manner no less unbalanced and tendentious than those Polish apologetic works which trumpet `traditional Polish tolerance' of Jews." (unquote). (p. 15).
Though this is not a book about religion, it unavoidably touches on religious issues. To get around Sunday-closing laws, creative Jewish owners would "sell" their property to a gentile, so that he could "own" and operate it on the Sabbath, and then "buy it back" shortly thereafter. (p. 109). Interestingly, some Orthodox rabbis extended the DAAT TORAH concept to teach the infallibility of rabbis on ALL issues, thus forming a parallel to, and even surpassing, the doctrine of papal infallibility in the Roman Catholic Church. (pp. 55-56).

Although the author does not mention him, Polish Cardinal August Hlond's much-condemned 1936 "Jews are freethinkers" statement finds inadvertent clarification. Bacon describes the situation of Jews at the beginning of the 20th century, "Individual rabbis increasingly found themselves unable to cope with cases of divorce, desertion, white slavery, as well as mass defections from traditional religious practice." (pp. 28-29). This process continued in interwar Poland, "Adding to the distress of traditional Jews was the fact that a considerable portion of the Jewish people had abandoned some or most religious observance, while new parties and groups, usually inimical to orthodoxy, pressed their claims to leadership of the entire Jewish nation." (p. 62). Jewish socialists, and some other Jewish deputies, pushed for the complete secularization of Polish schools. (p. 252). Jewish socialists also advocated the complete secularization of the kehillas. (p. 191).

In some ways, the Agudists outdid Hlond. With reference to Jewish private schools, the Agudists denounced the Zionist Tarbut and the Yiddishist [Bundist] Cysho [Tsysho] schools not only for abandoning Orthodoxy, but also more fundamentally as "nests of heresy and unbelief". (pp. 159-161). Aguda also objected to the fact that the Jewish teachers teaching Jews religion in Polish public schools were often indifferent to religion, or anti-religious (p. 155). Agudists considered the Jewish National Fund (KEREN KAYYEMET) as having irreligious aspects of its activities. (p. 215).

As for the "Jews as vanguards of Bolshevism" statement by Hlond, this, too, has some basis in fact, and goes far beyond the Communist Party. For instance, there was recognizably no sharp line dividing Jewish Communists from Jewish socialists, "...their [socialist] ideology and public behavior were secular and at times anti-religious. Furthermore, socialist activities could and did border on revolutionary agitation." (p. 101). In kehilla council meetings in Wilno [Vilnius], socialists attacked religion. (p. 190). Some Agudists allegedly stated that Bundist schools were Bolshevik. (p. 211).

Even Hlond's statement about Jews and morality finds an echo. Agudists opposed the funding of "immoral" Jewish theater groups. (p. 202).

The Agudists portrayed the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) as having "an openly leftist orientation." (p. 215). [If accurate, then the anti-Polish bias of Celia Heller's widely read ON THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION, which is largely based on pre-WWII YIVO sources, finds further explanation.]

Agudat Yisrael [Agudas Yisroel] was founded in order to give a political voice to Orthodox Jews, who heretofore had to deal with generally secular Jews (maskilim, Zionists, Bundists, socialists, etc.) owning the entire spotlight. Zionists believed that religion should be entirely a private matter [sound familiar?](p. 59), while the Agudists did not. However, many Orthodox Jews refused to support Aguda, suggesting that the Agudists themselves had made too many concessions to modernity. (e. g, p. 28, 193).

In general, the Aguda pursued a form of quietist (p. 254) and accomodationist (p. 226) politics with the Poles. Bacon opines that Agudist policies in Poland were a failure (p. 233), thus implying that Poles were no more reasonable in dealing with conciliatory Jews than with confrontational Jews. Is all this a matter of a half-glass-full or half-glass-empty perspective? In fact, Bacon identifies several political initiatives in which Aguda was successful (pp. 147-149, 183, 272, 275, 278-279). Interestingly, the Aguda sometimes found support from the Polish right instead of the Polish left (p. 242), and even a modus vivendi with the Endeks was in the offing (p. 243), provided that Jews began to support the Polish cause on the international scene. (p. 243).

Pointedly, Bacon undermines his contention, about the futility of all Jewish politics in Poland, as he acknowledges the limited base of information, "Even writers on parliamentary politics, regarded as the pinnacle of the political world of Polish Jewry, have confined their efforts to the presentation and analysis of party programs and doctrines. Very few accounts have tried to evaluate how these parties functioned in the Sejm, and what successes, if any, they garnered in the political arena." (p. 225--Ref. 1).

Although Bacon does not analyze it from this angle, he provides information that enables the reader to see why the Polish response to Aguda may not have been more favorable. Aguda, no less than the secularist and separatist Jewish political parties, had not been "Polish": It had been an international party (p. 33). What's more, the Aguda operating on Polish soil had originally been pro-German (p. 41). It did not become pro-Polish until 1916 (p. 40), the very eve of Poland's independence, and did not become actively pro-Polish until independence was actually achieved (1918). (p. 46).

Aguda, it turned out, was not a solution to, but part of, the Jewish separatist problem in Poland. Pointedly, Aguda was originally part of the opposition National Minorities Bloc (p. 149) with its attendant Polish-Jewish polarization. The Aguda did not join the Minorities Bloc the second time around in part because the interests of the other minorities did not closely coincide with that of the Jews. (p. 266).

Agudists clung to Yiddish (p. 230)--another wall separating Jews from Poles--even to the point of Agudist parliamentarians in the Sejm being able to speak only broken Polish. (p. 211, 203--ref. 124). Clearly, despite its later professions of unswerving loyalty to Poland (pp. 235-236), Aguda's overall conduct may have encouraged suspicions--of ephemeral loyalties little different from those of the obviously Pole-hostile Jewish political parties.

Close examination also belies the premise that Aguda was in a position to be palatable to Poles because it limited its politics to religious issues and because it eschewed Jews as a nationality. Aguda actually dealt with all issues of perceived interest to Jews, not only religious ones. (p. 71). In addition, Aguda did treat Jews as a nationality--albeit a nationality defined by religion (p. 45), and was partly separatist in that it demanded cultural as well as religious autonomy for Jews. (p. 245). In fact, only the Galician assimilationists reckoned Jews strictly a religion, and Poland's Jews as members of the Polish nationality. (p. 246).

Poland's Jews, of all political stripes, complained of discrimination. However, it is obvious that this was not discrimination for discrimination's sake, but rather an effort to reign-in Jewish privilege, notably economic dominance. The numerus clausus at universities in well known. At Warsaw, a proposed new law would have limited the percentage of Jewish-owned stalls to that of the Jewish share of Poland's population. (p. 274). Sunday-closing laws, probably enacted to reduce Jewish economic dominance by encouraging Jews to be idle two days a week, were never comprehensive. In time, they applied mostly to large Jewish enterprises, and they never forbade independent employee-less Jewish artisans from working on Sundays. (p. 250). [Since very many, if not most Jews, at that time, were independent self-employed artisans, this takes on further significance.] The SCHECHITA law was recognizably enacted in order to reduce the Jewish dominance of the meat industry, and it did not abolish kosher slaughter according to the food needs of the Jewish population. (p. 278).
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