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Prewar Polish Anti-Semitism. Jewish Economic Privileges in Poland

jan peczkis|Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Jewish scholar Joseph Marcus eschews the knee-jerk anti-Polish generalizations that typify material on this subject in favor of a thorough examination of the Jewish situation prior to Polish independence (1870-1918) and in preWWII Poland (1918-1939). It soon becomes obvious that all the indignities and injustices that Polish Jews experienced occurred within the broader context of overall Polish tolerance in the face of considerable development of Jewish economic life. Ironically, Polish anti-Semitism festered and grew primarily because Polish Jews had been so successful in the first place-actually and perceptively at Polish expense.


Marcus notes that Poland, under foreign rule, had missed the Industrial Revolution. He claims that what little industrial infrastructure Poland had acquired by the late 19th century had been almost entirely established and owned by Jews. Pointedly, Marcus (p. 94) recognizes its slight benefits for Poland right up to WWI. Jewish entrepreneurship tended to stay within extended families (pp. 92-93), thus reinforcing its self-perpetuating, Pole-disenfranchising, monopolistic character. Early industrialization tended to be very exploitive of working people, so there were minimal "trickle down" benefits for individual Poles.


The sugar industry had been almost entirely Jewish until 1914 (p. 87). Jews, who constituted only 10% of Poland's population, accounted for 70% of licenses (p. 327) to perform business in industry and commerce (early 1920's, central Poland). Jews controlled about 40% of industry and commerce (p. 327) in the Polish urban economy (1926-1934). In 1935, most of Warsaw's 48 banks were Jewish (p. 109). Just before the outbreak of WWII (1938-1939), 55% of the Poland's chemical industry was Jewish-owned (p. 115), as were 70% of the textile and food industries (p. 113, 116). The garment and shoe industries remained entirely Jewish. In Polish universities (1929), Jews constituted 42% of its graduates (p. 67).


We frequently hear that Poland's Jews were "desperately poor." This is a half-truth. In addition, poor relative to whom? Although there was wide disparity between rich and poor Jews, the overall Jewish per capita income was more than 40% greater than that of Poles (1929; p. 41).


One can comprehend how Poles came to think that "Jews are the real rulers of Poland" and that "Jews are getting rich on the backs of Poles". Moreover, the bulk of preWWI manufactured products went to Russia (p. 13, 100) and other foreign rulers, contributing to the impression of a Jewish-foreign bond acting against Polish interests. The rather tepid Jewish support for Polish independence in 1918, a fact not mentioned by Markus, further reinforced this notion. However, Polish anti-Semitism was more words than substance, as it NEVER developed to the point of seriously challenging the Jews' dominant status. (For example, most Polish consumers disregarded calls to boycott Jewish traders; p. 245).


The Jews have a long history of commercial activity, and undoubtedly the entrepreneurial spirit had developed much earlier and more strongly among Jews than Poles. However, Marcus' portrayal of Jewish economic dominance as the default outcome of Polish ineptitude ("a static, feudal society disinterested in modernization", p. 95, 97) overlooks essential facts. The most active members of Polish society, those most capable of rivaling the pioneering Jewish entrepreneurs, had been killed, imprisoned, and exiled in the wake of the failed insurrections of 1830 and 1863 against Russian rule. (In fact, exiled Poles played a significant role in the early industrialization of parts of Siberia, the New World, etc.) Marcus' quotations of Poles hostile to progress ignore the fact that such attitudes were also common in societies that no one would consider stagnant. For instance, Victorian England, the very leader of the Industrial Revolution, had its own "nostalgic medievalism" as well as the Luddite and similar movements. The dislike of railroads by Polish farmers paralleled that of cowboys and ranchers in the American West.

Marcus states that Polish aristocrats despised economic activity, but often became very successful businessmen after emigration (p. 6). Polish petty traders, "disdainful of trade", actually increased in numbers in the 1930's at a rate greater than the disappearance of Jewish ones (pp. 62-63). Clearly, the mythical "Polish distaste for commerce" had largely been a displaced hostility actually directed at the overwhelming preoccupation of Poland's economical niche by Jews.


Unlike the US, Poland never claimed to be a pluralistic society, and the needs of the majority took precedence over that of minorities in the event of conflicting interests. Having just recovered their independence after 123 years, the Poles were especially sensitive to such conflicts. The positions of Dmowski and the Endeks, professedly upholding Polish interests rather than resisting minorities' rights per se, must be understood in this light.

In the US, affirmative action is framed in terms of the expansion of opportunities for nonwhites rather than racist discrimination against whites. In Poland, affirmative action (using modern parlance) was likewise framed in terms of the expansion of opportunities for Poles in Jewish-dominated institutions rather than anti-Semitic discrimination against Jews. Interestingly, some influential Jews (Grunbaum, Jabotinsky; p. 230) accepted this nuance. Poland's affirmative action took several forms, including taxation, hiring of Polish government workers, and the much-maligned numerus clausus at universities. Significantly, in the 1920's, there were no pogroms (p. 355), and there was no political pressure for Jews to emigrate (p. 391). All this changed in the 1930's, in the wake of the Great Depression. It is patently incorrect to speak of economic growth equalizing opportunities for Poles, as the Jews, owing to their previously acquired advantages, got the lion's share of further economic growth. Furthermore, after the Great Depression, the "economic pie" actually shrunk, reversing earlier economic growth.


Marcus finds fault in both sides: "The Poles refused to accept the Jews, but the Jews did not want to be fully accepted (p. 327)" He criticizes Jewish leaders for deepening Polish-Jewish conflicts (p. 302), and for not forging a closer relationship with the philosemitic Pilsudski regime (p. 327). He faults American Jews for not even minimally supporting Polish Jews, notably in regards to significant emigration to Palestine. The "fantastic" Beck-Jabotinsky plan, for this reason, had no change of even a minimal degree if success (pp. 398-401).
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