5 February 2004, Volume 6, Number 3
The Impact Of The Polish Anti-Semitic Press From The Turn Of The 20th Century On Contemporary Internet Discussion
By Agnieszka Friedrich
One of the most prominent figures on the list of leading anti-Semitic figures in Poland at the turn of the 20th century that includes Teodor Jeske-Choinski and Jan Ludwik Poplawski is pundit Jan Jelenski. As a founder and long-time publisher of Poland's main anti-Semitic paper at the time, his clear-cut, strident opinions made him the most typical -- and perhaps most important -- representative of the ideological anti-Semitism of that period. Jelenski's earliest ideas and views were typical of the liberally oriented trend in Polish literature known as "Positivism" (in Polish: Pozytywizm). A good example of that outlook is his work "O skierowaniu Zydow do pracy w rolnictwie" ("On Putting Jews To Work In Farming"), in which he seriously debates the possibility of getting part of the Jewish community out of its small businesses and transferring those people to work in farming, which might -- Jelenski concluded -- help overcome their poverty. This rational tone soon gave way to a far more aggressive one, however, that would gradually become outright anti-Semitic. Jelenski's earlier concerns focused on economic issues, but his approach later evolved into full-fledged anti-Semitism, which came to be expressed in his own publication, called "Rola" ("The Plow"), first issued in 1883.
This weekly magazine was arguably the most important mouthpiece of anti-Semitism in Poland of the time. Not only was "Rola" the first attempt in the Polish press to justify and disseminate anti-Semitism, but it also became the main driving force and an opinion-maker for both contemporary and future anti-Semitic groups. Thus the opinions, views, stereotypes, and anti-Semitic phobias found in "Rola" are still relevant when one examines contemporary Polish anti-Semitism. It is my intention in this paper to do so by focusing, in the second part of this article, on discussions on Internet chat groups. Before doing that, let me specify that I will not be employing sociological instruments (for such an approach see Krzeminski, 2003). Being by profession a literary historian rather than a sociologist, I will instead examine the idiom employed in these chats to express anti-Semitic emotion and prejudice.
'Rola' And Its Historical Role
Alina Cala -- a researcher who studies the assimilation of Jews in what is historically dubbed the "Polish Kingdom" (that part of dismembered Poland with limited autonomy under tsarist Russia, Prussia, and Austria) -- concludes that Jelenski's "Rola" was suspected of being secretly backed by the Russian authorities, adding that the suspicion was well-grounded (Cala, 1989, pp. 283, 285). The alleged Russian support and the aggressive manner in which "Rola" expressed its anti-Semitism triggered severe conflicts between the publication and the rest of the Polish press, both conservative and progressive (for "Rola's" position in this conflict, see the memorial book "Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. 7). The most important difference between "Rola" and other Polish publications was its strong opposition to the assimilation of Jews, which went against the main currents of the Polish press in that period (Cala, 1989, p. 283). Teodor Jeske-Choinski, one of the leading journalists at "Rola," went so far as to write: "We find the so-called civilized Jew, who does not believe in anything but gold and sexual pleasures, to be repulsive. We prefer the uneducated orthodox Jew to a civilized mediocrity, because the former believes in something, he is somebody, whereas the latter is completely unreliable. He would cheat and sell you off for a nickel ("ola," No. 19/1883).
Such affirmations were quite typical of "Rola," as well as being in line with the most common anti-Semitic cliches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let us therefore turn our attention to the kind of arguments and anti-Semitic stereotypes encountered in Jan Jelenski's journal (more on "Rola" in "Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, and Cala 1989, especially pp. 293-295). While there might have been some slight changes in Jelenski's opinions, and his colleagues at the periodical apparently underwent some mellowing in their anti-Semitic stance, one can still speak of a number of leitmotifs that run through all of their anti-Semitic writings (Morais 1976, as quoted by: Cala 1989, p. 289).
According to "Rola," the Jews were an alien element as well as an enemy in the eyes the Polish society in which they lived. The ungratefulness of the Jews, who had been allowed to settle in medieval Poland at a time when they were being oppressed elsewhere in Europe, was for "Rola" the equivalent of a group biting the hand that feeds it. A typical excerpt from the paper runs: "We take pride in the fact that in the past when the troubled Jews were exterminated like worms in the Central and Western Europe, those refugees were welcome in Poland with Samaritan pity" ( as quoted in "Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. 12). A sense of alienation from and hostility toward Polish society were among the most common charges leveled against Jews (see "Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. 13). Apart from the general accusations of hostility, there emerged more specific -- yet not quite new -- charges. Jelenski, for example, makes use in his writings of traditional religious anti-Judaism, calling Jews "God killers" and reminding his readers of a purportedly insurmountable hostility between Judaism and Christianity. Another religious argument often encountered in the anti-Semitic literature of the 19th century focuses on the alleged depravity of the original Moses-era tenets of Judaism by the later teachings of the Talmud, which is called by Jelenski "the filthiest code" -- in fact, nothing but a set of instructions designed to get rich at the expense of the Gentile. According to Jelenski, the essence of the Talmud's approach to life is to be found in the "horrible idea" that only a Jew is worthy of being treated as a neighbor. This contrasts with the idea of Christian love for one's neighbor, even though, according to Jelenski, Christian love should never be understood as an "infantile passivity" toward -- or abandonment of -- the struggle against the "enemies of Christ."
Religiously inspired anti-Judaism, however, was not the only ideological element propagated by "Rola." The economic perspective also played an important role in that anti-Semitic propaganda. Jelenski was at first closely associated with the liberal stream of the so-called Warsaw positivists, but those postures were eventually replaced by an obsessive fear of the alleged economic dangers threatening Poland and posed by Jews (the positivists, such as Boleslaw Prus, were also persuaded of the existence of that threat but expressed their belief in a hostility-free terminology). An important role in Jelenski's economic anti-Semitism was granted to the land-ownership issue. Jelenski believed that Polish national identity could be safeguarded only by ensuring that land did not fall into foreign hands. It is worth mentioning that at the beginning of Jelenski's career, the foreign danger was not perceived as stemming from Jews alone. Thus, in the first issue of "Rola," the reader was being warned of a Jewish, as well as a German, threat ("Rola," No. 1, 1883). Years later, Jelenski was still thinking in similar terms, as the very title of his tract ("Zydi, Niemcy i My," or "Jews, Germans and Ourselves") was indicating (see Friedrich 2003). Nevertheless, Jelenski's attention would subsequently concentrate primarily on Jews (see Cala 1989, p. 286). One way or the other, the Jewish-German combination is quite meaningful, as it places Jelenski's anti-Semitic views in a broader nationalist perspective.
Yet one should not conclude from this that Jelenski's anti-Semitism is nothing but a reflection of his general nationalism, one in which "the Jew" is part and parcel of negative stereotypes used to perceive all non-Poles (Krzeminski, 2003, p. 80). Jelenski's attitude toward Jews goes beyond mere "in-group," "out-group" nationalist perceptions. It clearly has racist features as well. Those are plainly reflected in his treatment of Jewish assimilation into Polish culture. As mentioned above, Jelenski is a staunch opponent of that path. In his eyes, traditional Jews (whom he dubs the "uneducated Jewish mass") are a "horrible, dirty locust, eating away our [Polish] well-being" ("Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. 15). But assimilated Jews were charged with even graver crimes, amounting to nothing less than the moral and spiritual destruction of Poles and Polishness. Jelenski strongly believed in the existence of innate and insurmountable features of "the Jewish soul," regardless of whether a particular Jew was religious or not. He would consequently note: "Obviously, [non-religious Jews]...are free thinkers, or to make matters worse, cynical materialists; but the very essence of Judaism, their religious instruction, the culture with which they are atavistically imbued, are still the basic elements of their whole spiritual makeup" ("Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, pp. 14-15). It goes without saying that Jewish culture in general is perceived in negative terms. "We know that at some point of time in history, in some countries, Jewish culture has had a negative influence on society" ("Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. 8). Inborn Jewish alienation from the rest of society, according to Jelenski, in turn breeds ill will toward Jews. As a Roman-Catholic, Jelenski writes that "One should not hate our Jewish neighbors or persecute them" ("Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. 10); but he notes with some satisfaction that "in private conversations this widely felt repulsion [toward Jews] instinctively takes over" ("Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. 7). This brings to mind the words of Polish writer Aleksander Wat: "Polish anti-Semitism, which is less wild and bloodless, has horrible traces of debasement and repulsion" (Wat, 1991, p. 201).
Emblematic of anti-Semitic attitudes worldwide, "Rola" also transformed itself into a voice of those believing in an international Jewish conspiracy. In one of the more notorious cases, the alleged "Jewish conspiracy" was made responsible in 1885 for the killing of a Catholic priest from Konska-Wola who was trying to combat drunkenness in the country ("Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. 111). As in many other Eastern European countries, the allegation that Jews were guilty of driving the peasantry to alcoholism as village innkeepers became a recurrent accusation employed by anti-Semites in Poland. This Semitic-financial plot also found its way into the newspapers when Jelenski sued Kazimierz Korwin-Piotrowski, the editor in chief of "Ziarno" ("The Seed") in 1891. Korwin-Piotrowski had published an article on Jan Jelenski and his "Rola" under the title "The Anti-Semite." The libel trial created quite a public scandal, as Jelenski used the occasion to accuse Korwin-Piotrowski of links to Leopold Julian Kronenberg, a rich Polish banker of Jewish origins ("Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. 118). It appears that any rebuttals or engagement in polemics with "Rola" in the press were perceived in terms of conspiracy and covert Jewish machinations.
Yet another closely related leitmotif is that of Jewish involvement in left-wing conspiracies. In the wake of the 1905 revolution in Russia, "Rola" was alleging that one always found Jewish involvement behind the revolutionary fever and revolutionary activities ("Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, pp. 161-162). According to Jelenski's associates: "Nothing was more fearful for Janek Mrowka ["Ant," which was Jelenski's nickname as publisher] during this revolutionary turmoil than the hitting of the soul of Polish people by those lousy revolutionaries who destroy our Catholic and national altars. In order to stand against these people, he [Jelenski] writes a so-called people's brochure full of warnings against the Jewish socialist poison" ("Cwiercwiecze walki," 1910, p. XXVIII).
These anti-Semitic allegations were packaged in any and all possible combinations according to the requirements of the issue that was up for debate (Cala, 1989, p. 294). The impression created for the reader, however, was that of an all-powerful, omnipresent, and manifold Jewish oppression. The journalists of "Rola" perceived themselves as the sole possessors of genuine truth, surrounded in their struggle against a devilish strategy by supporters or lackeys of Jewish interests.
Contemporary Echoes On Internet Chat Groups
Many of the strategies employed at that time to fight Jelenski's ideological opponents in general, and his Jewish opponents in particular, are nowadays echoed on Internet discussion groups (all citations are from http://www.gazeta.pl/forum, the Internet edition of "Gazeta Wyborcza"). In what follows, it is not my intention to engage in polemics with the participants in these discussions; rather, I intend to focus on the aspect of continuity between the arguments employed by Jelenski and his supporters at the turn of the century and their recurrence in these chat groups.
The first striking aspect of this continuity is the general hostility displayed by participants toward Jews and what they supposedly stand for. For example, a certain "Rudolf" stated on 19 August 2001: "I am a pure Aryan, a Slav of Western origin with German ancestors, to be more precise. And I want to say that I dislike Jews and other Asian people. And I believe the Holocaust was a good thing. After all, European history as a whole is little else than an uninterrupted struggle against the onrushing tide of Arabic, Jewish, Turkish, Mongolian people." Its racist connotations aside, "Rudolf's" opinion is a display of a deeply rooted idea of an unceasing hostility between two radically opposed cultures: "European" and "Asian." The writer is clearly oblivious to the historical fact that while one might indeed talk of a clash between "Europe" and Arabs, Turks, or Mongols in their attempts to invade the continent, there has never been an armed European-Jewish conflict. What is more, one cannot overlook the fact that Jews have contributed much to a European sense of identity. But since "Rudolf" is seemingly oblivious to the difference, one can suspect that he truly believes in the idea of "the hidden enemy" -- the Jew -- whom he perceives as being all the more dangerous, since he operates from within Europe to harm Europe.
The idea of a "Jewish conspiracy" that threatens Europe's integrity and is aimed at annihilating nationhood in order to institute "Jewish power" is closely related to the above. Jews, according to this perception, must be isolated from the rest of Polish society, which in turn must be on guard against their devious designs. Chatter "Jazek" says on 8 August 2003 to his Internet interlocutors concerning anti-Nazi underground fighter and the former director of Radio Free Europe's Polish Service, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski: "That Jewish bastard, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski is all for the European Union, just like every other Jew, half-Jew, or quarter-Jew. They don't identify themselves with Polishness.... they are atheists who want to hold a so-called European citizenship. Precisely the same kind of opinion is shared by Jewish people from Russia, Hungary, Germany, [and from] all over the world, because according to the Talmud and the Torah, a Jew can be a patriot only in Israel. Jews have always wanted Poland to be nonexistent. Last century, the Jews wanted instead of Poland to have something like Israel, which they intended to call Judeopolonia."
One should note that "Jazek" adopts the position of racial determinism. For him, even half-Jewishness or one-quarter-Jewishness is enough to ensure that Jewish traits will never disappear by assimilation into the body of the Polish nation; they will always prevail. And his employment of the description "bastard Jew Jan Nowak-Jezioranski" suggests that the perception of the Jew as an alien, or as a national enemy, vindicates Jean Paul Sartre's definition of "the Jew" as one considered to be Jewish by one's environment -- i.e., a Jew is not necessarily one who considers himself or herself to be Jewish, but one who is perceived as such by the society in which they live. The usage of "Jewish bastard" as an offensive description is in fact quite frequently encountered in the examined Internet chats. This kind of verbal aggression goes even beyond the idiomatic references to Jews used by "Rola" in its day. Perhaps this is made possible by the singularity of chat groups as Internet communication, where one can express whatever crosses one's mind without identifying oneself. One can throw insults in the face of opponents and vilify them -- for example, by writing: "It smells mangy and garlicy here" -- in other words, "You seem to be Jewish." I have encountered several such reactions. These are extreme examples of rejection and disapproval.
These inimical perceptions must obviously be traced back to a culture in which religious issues were, for Jelenski's contemporaries, quite important. While contemporary anti-Semitism rooted in religion has lost much of its impact, it has not vanished entirely. The "deicide" charge -- that is to say, blaming Jews for the crucifixion of Christ -- can still be encountered on Internet chat groups. The Talmud, which has been transformed by anti-Semites into mythological "proof" of Jewish deviousness enjoying large-scale popularity, plays an important role in chats. Attributed connotations that one would search in vain for within the text itself, the Talmud is perceived as a sort of handbook teaching Jews how to ruin Gentiles through ruses and cheating. This is what we read: "The Talmud is in good part composed of the dunghill on which Jewish consciousness is forged, displaying its attitude toward other nations." Another participant produces quasi-quotations from the Talmud, and posts them under the title "The Talmud -- the dark side of the moon?"
These pseudo-citations also clearly reveal anxiety: the fear that Jews, always and by definition engaged in sneaky acts, are themselves to blame for breeding mistrust among Gentiles, who know they are the target of all kinds of mean tricks. One cannot but recall Jelenski's and "Rola's" general warning, according to which the Talmud allegedly teaches that only a Jew is worthy of being treated as a neighbor. The alleged deceitfulness of Jews finds its illustration in some "chats" around the most notorious recent political scandal, known as "Rywingate."
A well-known Polish film producer, Lew Rywin, is suspected of having solicited a bribe from the publisher of "Gazeta Wyborcza," and Editor in Chief Adam Michnik subsequently publicized the purported attempt. It should be stressed that Michnik is one of the few people in Poland who never hid the fact that he is of Jewish origin -- indeed, one of the Internet chatters wrote: "I know only one public personality who openly admits his roots as a Pole-Jew.... It is Adam Michnik" ("nutka," 12 May 2003). Rather than applauding Michnik's revelation, another "chatter" had the following to say about it: "The way Michnik and [Michnik's close associate Wanda] Rapaczynska acted was mean. They got Rywin involved in a sneaky Jewish way and later they blackmailed him" ("miroj," 22 February 2003). Although the vast majority of people trust Michnik, the reactions of "miroj" and others like him confirms that present-day anti-Semites still analyze current political developments from an initial premise that puts Jewish deceitfulness at its center. The same conviction of generalized sneaky Jewish deceitfulness is illustrated by the title page of one Internet discussion site: "The Jew: liar, slanderer, conspirator, murderer").
The above-mentioned opinions of course constitute just a small portion of the anti-Semitic statements found among Internet chat groups. Discussions about Jews are extensive. Some discussions result in heated polemics among several participants, each seeking to prove his or her point, while others simply contain abuse and vilification that make no sense at all. One must keep in mind that, often enough, a few overzealous participants can dominate a discussion that lasts hundreds of pages. As I have noted above, my angle of analysis is not empirical but "impressionistic" and has concentrated on the idiomatic aspects. Yet I am fully aware that only a sociological analysis such as that produced by Krzeminski (2003) is capable of rendering insights that an analysis focusing on the quality of language as a medium of expressing anti-Semitic emotions might well miss.
Questions And Conclusions
There is a clear analogy between ideological anti-Semitism at the turn of the 20th century and contemporary anti-Semitism. That analogy applies to both opinions and the way they are expressed. Obviously, this raises the continuity question. Does the analogy stem from the legacy of anti-Semitic journalism of the last century ("Rola"), or is it "merely" the outcome of some sort of instinctive anti-Semitic thinking? It would be interesting to follow the fate of Jelenski's and his anti-Semitic counterparts' opinions in the future. In the interwar period, there was obviously a continuation of this attitude. After World War II, the ban imposed on many publications, as well as censorship, made it impossible to express overt anti-Semitic postures -- except, of course when the regime itself displayed them, as happened in 1967-68. But once the communist regime began losing control of society, such opinions were publicly ventured once more. The so-called alternative niche, with all its positive anticommunist aspects, had its dark sides as well. For example, there were numerous reprints of classic anti-Semitic literature, which became even more widely available after the fall of communism in Poland in 1989. Young people thus had quick access to the anti-Semitic literature penned by Jelenski or Jeske-Choinski.
It should be mentioned, however, that it is difficult to establish the age of Internet chat-group participants. I am inclined to believe that they are young people. Without reliable sociological research, it is also difficult to know how this literature reached its audience. The fact that participants do not refer to the particular names of 19th-century publicists does not necessarily mean they are unfamiliar with their opinions; they might have had second-hand access to them. One should not forget that the family is an important socializing medium in forging anti-Semitic attitudes. Be that as it may, it seems to me that one would be justified in pointing to a sort of intellectual frailty of anti-Semitism. We deal with the same set of opinions, although Poland has gone through major changes over the last century. There is perhaps one new element -- blaming Israel for the suffering of Palestinians -- but the essence of the rhetoric is basically the same.
Internet anti-Semites rarely even touch the issue of the Holocaust. Sometimes -- quite rarely -- one might encounter an attempt to use the Shoah as an argument against the Jews themselves. For example: "You cannot kill them all, so for the Jew it is all business. The fewer Jews around, the richer they become. After the war you could not find a single poor Jew" ("sokol," 3 August 2003). Nevertheless, unlike their 19th- and 20th-century predecessors, who overtly displayed their anti-Judaism, contemporary anti-Semites reject even the notion of anti-Semitism, which in their eyes is just another Jewish fabrication: "At times, the Jews have to face the result of their deeds. But their bosses cleverly put blame on the whole world (hence the intellectual concept of "anti-Semitism")" ("Ogorek," 3 August 2003). In general, however, anti-Semitic contributors to Internet chat groups claim they have nothing against Jews as such -- they merely disapprove of Jewish behavior. For example: "Telling [me] I am anti-Jewish is nothing but submission to Jewish demagogy.... I have nothing against the Jewish or the Israeli people. Yet I am totally against those compatriots who, having adopted the Jewish belief, rituals and legends, have been exploiting this country for thousands years, and are the meanest enemies of Poland and of Polishness" ("A.D," 3 August 2003). One might recall a famous remark by 20th-century Polish emigrant writer Konstanty A. Jelenski -- a totally different person from the "hero" of this tract -- who wrote: "The Poles were not against Jews because 'they were Jews,' but because the Jews were dirty, mean, liars, they have side curls, they speak Yiddish, they do not want to assimilate, but also because they assimilate, they stop speaking Yiddish, they look elegant, they want to be Poles; because they are not cultivated, and because they are too cultivated. Because they are prejudiced, superstitious and foolish but also because they are smart, avant-garde-like and high-fliers... [and] because they have crucified Jesus and they spend hours studying the Talmud, and because they despise their own religion and are atheists. Because they are skinny, often sick, laughingstocks. Because they are bankers and capitalists or communists -- not because they are Jewish" (Jelenski, 1982, p. 327).
This quotation has also appeared in Internet, and it is worth noting that it is not unique. Many voices are raised against anti-Semitism in Internet Polish discussions. The point of discussion, after all, is not merely to seek a reconfirmation of one's opinion but also to engage in polemics with those who hold differing views. However, the issue of fighting anti-Semitism is an entirely different topic. This is why I have not quoted "anti-anti-Semitic" opinions, and have instead focused only on the vitality of some anti-Semitic arguments in the long journey from the turn of the 20th century to the current period.
Agnieszka Friedrich is a lecturer in the Department of Polish Psychology at the University of Gdansk, Poland.
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