Transforming Enemies into Allies

by Lane Arye, Ph.D.
Gazeta Wyborcza. April 28, 1998. Warsaw, Poland.

The painful relationship between Poles and Jews, Jews and Poles, cycles around accusations, hurt feelings, prejudice and hatred. I am a Jewish American who lives in Poland. Some may call me naive, but I believe in the Polish people. I trust that you want, as I do, to stop the hostilities that separate us. I know that not everyone wants this. The extremists will never listen. But if you and I can reach an understanding and become friends, then we can turn the tide of public opinion against extremism. If we all react when something hurtful is said or done, then they will know that they cannot say or do such things freely. They will realize that they are alone, and they may even start to question the hate that until now goes unquestioned. This can only happen if we become allies instead of enemies.

I teach conflict resolution around the world. I have helped to facilitate conflicts between blacks and whites in America, between homosexuals and religious fundamentalists who want to outlaw homosexuality in America, between upper caste Hindus and “untouchables” in India, between Jews and Germans in Western Europe, and between Muslims, Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia. I believe that some of the ideas which have been valuable in my work can also help us with the conflict that separates us.

As you may know, the rabbi in the Jewish community was not only the spiritual leader and teacher, but also functioned as a judge, the person who resolved conflicts. Once a rabbi was asked to settle a dispute between two parties. He listened carefully to the first person, and said, “You re right.” Then he listened to the second person and said, “You are also right.” Someone who witnessed all of this complained to the rabbi. “First you said that one was right. Then you said the other was right. What kind of judgment is that?” The rabbi replied, “You are right as well!” Besides being a funny story, this illustrates one of the central aspects of Jewish tradition. Differences of opinion have always been tolerated and even encouraged. In the Talmud, for instance, contradicting opinions of the most eminent scholars appear side by side. Please understand that what I write here is my personal opinion. It is possible that some of my friends or family may disagree with me. And that is right as well.

That story also can help to resolve one of the thorniest problems that lies between us. We are constantly competing about which of our peoples suffers more. The normal way of thinking is that one must be the victim and the other the perpetrator. Therefore, each side says, “I am right and you are not.” The wise rabbi (or priest) would say “You are right. And you are also right.” Both sides suffer. Maybe a more useful way of saying it is that in some situations, one side suffers, and in other situations the other side suffers. We need to listen to the pain on both sides. With this in mind, I will first talk about my personal experience of anti-Semitism in Poland. Then I will address some of the areas which I know are hurtful to Poles. I hope to cast a new light on these old issues and hopefully take a step towards relationship and even friendship.

My grandmother and great grandmother came from Lomza. They left Poland before the First World War and eventually went to America. My grandfather came from a shtetl near Lwow. My parents and I were born and raised in New York. For three years I have been living in Warsaw. I moved here partially because much of my family came from Poland. I love it here. Many of the people I have met are warm and passionate, with big hearts. I had heard stories about the “old country,” passed down through the generations. Many of those stories focused on pogroms and anti-Semitism. I refused to believe that things had been only bad in the old days. So I decided to go to my ancestral home and discover my roots, to find the beauty that I had missed in the stories. My recent trip to Lomza was very touching, but also sad and disturbing.

First I went to the plaque which commemorates the ghetto. There were two women there. One of them said that she remembered when the Jews had been forced into the ghetto during the war. She had been just five years old. As she told the stories, her eyes filled with tears. She said that her mother once asked a Jewish man why the Jews do not fight. He said that they were discussing in the community whether they should resist. This woman was so touched that this man, who had almost nothing himself, had given her half of his egg. She said that another time, a Jew was beaten by a soldier outside her house and her mother,  although she wanted to stop it, was afraid. So she stayed in her house and prayed. The woman had to stop speaking a few times so she would not cry. She said that her heart hurt. I told her that her pain opened my heart. She hugged me and would not let me go. I felt so touched, so blessed by this encounter.

Looking up, I saw graffiti on a nearby building: “Jude Raus!” I showed this to her and said it was sad that such feelings are still present. She agreed, again nearly crying. But her friend, who had been silent until now, said something that I have often heard in Warsaw when I point out anti-Semitic graffiti: “That is just a sporadic event. It is just some kids. It is not like that here. It is just because the plaque is there.” This typical response upset me, but I did not say anything out of respect for the first woman’s feelings. The first woman then told me to write an article.

From there I went to one of the two Jewish cemeteries in town. It was small, with just a few gravestones. It was on a hill at the edge of town, overlooking the river and rolling hills of farmland. I had never heard that it was beautiful here. I fell in love with the countryside, thought how lucky my ancestors had been to live in such a gorgeous setting. Then I saw that many of the gravestones were painted with swastikas and skinhead graffiti. My good mood took a turn for the worse.

I was really looking forward to seeing the second, larger cemetery. I had heard that the Israeli president had visited his family’s graves there in 1993 amidst great media fanfare, that it had been cleaned up for the occasion and was beautiful. I was shocked to find it in ruins. Bushes had grown so high that it was impossible to see that it was a cemetery. The huge majority of gravestones and monuments had been knocked over and broken. The few stones which were still standing were marred by swastikas, skinhead signs and slogans like “Zydzi won z Polski” (Jews get out of Poland) and “Zydzi do Gazu” (Jews to the gas). I felt so hurt and angry. I had wanted to feel the energy of the place, to commune with and honor the spirits of my ancestors. But all I could see were signs of neglect, hatred and destruction.

I was sad and furious that vandals had stolen my past, had made it impossible for me to contact the spirit of my family that was surely buried there. Then I realized something that made me cry. Perhaps this was an experience of my ancestors. Perhaps what I was feeling and seeing was similar to what they had gone through. Perhaps the hatred and destruction evident here was just a taste of the pogroms that they had lived through or died in. These were certainly the stories that had been passed down to me through the generations. But I had been unwilling to listen. I could not believe that it had really been true, that this had been the defining experience of their lives in Poland. I had wanted to take pictures to show my parents how beautiful the old country is. I wanted to take away some of their bad feelings about how terrible it was and is in Poland, not reinforce those feelings. Now, staring at the toppled gravestones which no one had righted, the broken stones which no one had mended, the swastikas which no one had washed off, the overgrowth which no one had cut, I thought that maybe my parents were right. This was and is a terrible thought. I do not want to believe it still.

I am certain of the response of many Poles because I have heard them many times. They, like the second woman in Lomza, will say, “That is just an aberration.  That is just a few people. They are just kids.” They will continue: “Poland is no worse than Germany or France. Not all Poles are like that. That is only because the cemetery is there.” I have a few responses of my own: Certainly not all Poles are like that. And I love my many wonderful friends here. It is true that only a few people do such things; but the majority does nothing against it. Perhaps teenagers paint graffiti, but they learn their hatred of Jews at home. Certainly anti-Semitism exists in other places besides Poland. But when Jewish cemeteries are vandalized in Germany or France, their newspapers report it and you hear about it all over the world. Then people rise up in disgust and defiance to clean what has been spoiled. Here, the newspapers and TV had all reported on the lovely cemetery when the Israeli president was there and everything  had been cleaned for public viewing. But where were those same reporters weeks or months later when the vandals were doing their hateful work? Where was the public reaction or the teams of people to clean the stones like they do in Germany or France? And why should the fact that there is a cemetery, or a plaque commemorating the ghetto, be a reason for people to do these things? When I hear this particular  comment (and I have heard it also in response to anti-Semitic graffiti in what was the Warsaw ghetto), it sounds to me like the person is saying that it is normal or understandable for the graffiti to be there. It is not normal or understandable. That is a holy place, a place where we should remember the horror that occurred and resolve to make sure it does not happen again. Later that day in Lomza I saw graffiti that is familiar: a Jewish star hanging from the gallows. This was far from the ghetto or the cemetery. Was that “normal”, too? Or was it yet another aberration? Who has not seen the graffiti which equates Jews with everything that is hated – from sports teams to political parties? Why is this blatant anti-Semitism not washed off the Polish streets by a tide of public outrage?

One answer to this last question could be that Poles are inherently anti-Semitic. I refuse to believe this. A more helpful answer may be that Poles are unconscious of their privilege in this situation.

In my experience working with long term, intractable and painful conflicts, contact and understanding becomes possible when each side has the chance to really express its own pain, while the other side gives the time and attention that is needed to really listen. Rather than denying the accusations that are bound to arise, it is much more helpful to admit the parts of the accusations that are true. This simple step can be surprisingly relieving. But it rarely happens. If a black man says that a white man is a racist, the normal reaction of the white is to say, “This is not true. I like blacks and some of my best friends are black.” And the white man really believes it. Rather than making the black man feel better, this denial usually causes rage, more accusations and an escalation of the conflict. The black man knows about racism. He experiences it every day. He can smell it a mile away, while the white man is not so acutely aware of something that does not affect him in such painful ways.

This is due to privilege. Privilege is something that all of us have, to some degree, in different areas of our lives. As a man, I have the privilege to walk down the street at night without worrying about being raped. When I am walking at night, I normally do not think about how unsafe a woman would feel if she were in that situation, and therefore how privileged I am as a man in that setting. But a woman walking down the street at night is probably very aware that she is a woman and does not share the same privilege of feeling safe in that situation. When I walk up steps into a building, I normally do not notice the lack of a ramp. Someone in a wheelchair, though, would definitely notice. It is my privilege to be able to walk up those stairs, and my privilege to not have to think about whether there is a ramp or not. People with privilege are almost always unconscious of that privilege, while people without privilege are often painfully conscious of that lack. This is the basic mechanism of privilege. Unfortunately, unconscious privilege exacerbates many conflicts. The privileged ones have no idea why the others are complaining so much. But this attitude inflames the side with less privilege.

We realize that we may have privilege in one situation, and lack it in another. A black man in America has privileges as a man, but less privileges than if he were white. He may suffer discrimination in America, but his American passport allows him to go places without a visa, while people from other countries may have to wait in line outside his embassy for the chance to even apply for a visa. The point is that in one situation, we may have privileges, while in another situation we do not.

Like the white man in the example above, many Poles would say that they are not anti-Semitic. And this might be true in some cases. But Jews may be sensitive to manifestations of prejudice that  Poles might not be aware of or affected by. On the other hand, Poles may resent being labeled once again as anti-Semitic when, in their hearts, they do not feel bad. They may feel the victim of prejudice of a different kind. Two things can help us in this painful situation. One is to try, when possible, to admit whatever is true about the thing we are accused of. This does not mean admitting everything out of guilt or a feeling that we are forced. But really looking into ourselves and honestly asking whether there is something true in what the other side is saying. The other helpful point is to remember that Poles and Jews, like most people, are very aware of the areas where they lack privilege but may be unaware of the areas where they benefit from their privileges. Any discussion between us must take this into account if we are to get off the wheel of symmetrical accusations.

When I point out anti-Semitic graffiti, many of my Polish friends say that they had not noticed it. It is their privilege not to see this. It is a privilege to live in a country where almost everyone shares the same skin color, religion, language and national identity. You are possibly not aware of how it feels to be a minority in Poland. What a privilege! One of the biggest privileges is the privilege to not have to suffer about a certain issue, to not have to think about it all the time. When I walk by a star hanging from a scaffold, I feel personally hurt and personally threatened. That is me hanging from that scaffold. It is your privilege to not have to feel this every time you walk the streets of Warsaw.

I could, and sometimes do, get angry about this privilege of yours. But this does not help much. It just alienates  the people who could be my allies. It would be better for me to remember that you are simply unconscious of your privilege, and therefore you are usually unconscious of my suffering. Instead of getting angry, I am now saying, this hurts. Please be aware of my pain and your privilege of not having to feel it. I long for you to be my ally. I long for you to see the things that hurt me, to feel hurt by them too, even if it does not directly affect you. An ally would see the anti-Semitism all around and look for it inside, instead of denying it or blaming it on a fringe of society or saying that another country is also bad. That is asking a lot. But I am willing to give as well.

In order to start on that long road toward being your ally, I would like to talk about the some of the many areas where I have privilege and where I have been unaware of your suffering. In doing so, I will address some of the accusations I have heard. I will admit the parts of the accusations which, after long searching, I feel are valid. I will also, when necessary, point out when those accusations are based on prejudice. This kind of differentiated response is necessary. You need to be heard and validated in the areas where you have been hurt. And we can, at the same time, stop hurtful projections before they are repeated yet again. I am certain that I will not be able to mention all of the areas of my prejudice or your pain. I am, like everyone, largely unconscious of my privilege and its effect on you. But this is a necessary beginning.

First of all, there is historical pain. I know that Poles have suffered incredibly throughout history as a result of poverty, war and occupation by foreign powers. I know that there are many bad feelings because of the special place Jews had in building the economy and middle class in Poland, when the majority of Poles were treated as slaves by the gentry. (This does not mean that all Jews are or were rich. My grandfather came from an extremely poor family in an extremely poor shtetl. But some Polish Jews were better off economically than most Poles.) There might also be bad feelings because Jews were sometimes better educated than Poles. This may have given us more advantages and opportunities. (This does not prove that Jews are smart or that Poles are not. It was merely the result of our different cultures and traditions.) I know  that Poles are angry that some Jews became influential communists. (This does not mean that all Jews were communists any more than all Jews were capitalists. Many Jews were persecuted by the communists. But others did help the Soviets during and after the war.) It is possible that some of my relatives had more economic opportunities, than yours. We need to talk about this, talk about the historical reasons for this as well as the pain and resentment it caused and continues to cause. I know that communism was responsible for much suffering and repression, and am genuinely sorry that some Jews contributed to this injustice. It is terrifying to admit these things because I am afraid it could lead to more Jew bashing. But I do not want to be limited by fear. We need to move on to an honest dialogue.

Instead of competing about who is more oppressed, I dream that our suffering can bring us together. When you remember your pain, perhaps it can help you to also feel mine. Anti-Semitism kills. Not just during the holocaust. There have been hundreds of years of murder, from before the Spanish Inquisition to the pogroms that rocked the whole of Europe, pogroms which continued (like in Kielce) even after the horror of the Second World War. These murders, trials, rapes, burnings and lootings were not the result of wars for power and occupation. They were and are the result of a kind of racism that sees Jews as inferior, as devils, as the killers of Christ, as killers of Christian babies, as rich and greedy misers who control the world in international conspiracies. It is a kind of racism that makes it holy and heroic to kill Jews. I am often afraid to say I am Jewish. I am sure you can imagine how this feels. When I feel my pain, it reminds me how you must feel.

There are also present-day issues. When I talk to Poles about anti-Semitism, they often see me not only as a Jew but as a Westerner. This is important because it shifts the weight of privilege. As an American, I enjoy many privileges. I did not grow up under communism. I could read what I wanted and the shops in my town were always fully stocked. I spoke out against the government when I disagreed with it without fear of losing my job, my freedom or my life. I never experienced foreign occupation of my country. I can come to your country as an honored guest, but you must wait in line to be interviewed for the right to visit mine. There are countless privileges to being an American. If I forget about these things when talking to you about anti-Semitism, you may wonder why this lucky American is complaining.

Americans and other Westerners have marched into Poland like a new occupying power. Of course, we are mostly welcomed. But I have talked to enough people here to know that there are also justified resentments. We act, without realizing it, like we know best and as though we know how you should change and why and when. America is a superpower and its people unconsciously act like the saviors of the world. Some of us may even see Poland as needing our help in order to rise up to our level (of democracy, of economic development, of social development, etc.). I am ashamed to admit these regrettable things that I sometimes find inside of me. Unfortunately, when we talk to you about anti-Semitism, we likely bring these attitudes with us and talk down to you. This is very complicated, because we feel like the victims. But at the same time that we are (justifiably) talking about our victimization, we may also be unconsciously arrogant, domineering and patronizing. Until we wake up to this, there will be little hope for real communication.

Unfortunately, in the United States, prejudice against Poland and Poles does exist, not only in the Jewish community. I never thought twice as a child about the hurtfulness of the Polish jokes that I heard. These days, whenever I hear such jokes in America, I feel hurt and disgusted. So I explain the truth about Poland and Poles, and I explain why such jokes are hurtful rather than funny. Unfortunately, no one gave such explanations when I was a child.

If someone says that all Poles are anti-Semitic, this is also prejudice. I have often battled my parents about this. They (as well as some of my friends) were horrified to hear that I would move to Poland. They thought it was suicide for a Jew to live in a country of anti-Semites. I was upset about their prejudice, but my protests hit the brick wall of family stories about the old country. Recently though, my mother was telling me things she had learned from her father about Polish treatment of the Jews in his shtetl. She stopped herself in mid-sentence and said, “But this is the same as anti-Semitism. It is not fair for me to paint them all with the same brush. Some were terrible. But that does not mean all Poles are terrible.” Such a moment of awareness was very touching for me. It is difficult, though, for her to erase those bad feelings about Poles. It is what she learned as a child, and came from the very real oppression suffered by her father in Poland.

One of my friends here tells me that it is taking him years of work to get rid of the prejudices he learned about Jews. Although his bias about Jews (based on anti-Semitic books) is categorically different from my mother’s bias against Poles (based on her own family’s personal pain) the project of cutting through prejudice, no matter what its causes or justifications, is a difficult task. These are life-long projects. Sadly, there are still people on both sides who continue to see the other as being only evil or dangerous.

One painful thorn in the side of the Polish people is the March of Life. This is a biannual event in which thousands of Jewish teenagers from Israel and the Diaspora come to Poland only to tour the death camps before flying on to Israel, without having any contact with the rest of Poland or Polish people. Until this year they even had no contact with the Polish Jewish community. (Many other groups of Jewish teenagers visit Poland each year and have more varied experiences and more contact with Poles. Tourism from Israel is a major industry in Poland, and the March of Life is just one part of it. But it is a particularly conspicuous and hurtful example.) These teenagers are told before they arrive that they will be hated by the Poles, that they will not be safe in Poland and that they should not leave their hotel rooms. I see this as a self fulfilling prophecy. I do not deny that certain Poles would hate these teenagers anyway, or even that certain situations might be dangerous for them. But arriving with such preconceptions and keeping themselves cut off from the population only provokes and aggravates Polish hostility. But it gets worse. They are told that they will have mixed feelings about the Poles they see, ranging  from “hate for their participation in the atrocities” to “pity for their miserable life.” This kind of manipulation of young emotions, telling them what they will feel before they feel it, is inexcusable and shameful. It implants hatred, fear and condescension into a new generation. Of course it is important that these teens see the camps, that they see and remember what happened in the holocaust. But having this as the only focus of their trip and forbidding contact with Poles reinforces stereotypes of Poland as anti-Semitic and guarantees that these young people associate Poland only with death and destruction. It ignores the over eight hundred year history of the Jewish people in a land where Jewish culture flourished. It ignores the fact that Poland accepted Jews and gave them certain rights when other countries were throwing out, persecuting or killing Jews. Certainly there is and was anti-Semitism in Poland. But Poland is also a beautiful and varied land with a rich history and culture and many wonderful people. Focusing on the horrors of the holocaust is necessary, given the amount of pain we still carry and the necessity of preventing a repetition of such a catastrophe. But only focusing on this hurts us all. It keeps us divided. We need to make a step toward reconciliation, not foster more hate.

I recently met a group of teenagers from Poland, Germany and Israel. They had toured Poland altogether, along with their teachers. They had been in Germany as well and were going to Israel next. Yes, they went to the death camps, but also to Warsaw, Krakow and Kazimierz Dolny. And they had contact with each other. They shared music and jokes and life. Their teachers facilitated discussions about the past, about the present, about stereotypes and feelings. I saw this group partying together in a jazz club in Warsaw at the end of their trip. They told me the experience was deep and ecstatic. They had really met one another and learned from one another. This type of experience can benefit everyone. It does not reinforce the stereotypes, but breaks them down. These kids, and their teachers, were inspiring.

Let’s bridge the gap between us. Let’s talk honestly about our privileges and listen to each other’s pains. Let’s try to be allies for each other. Allies stop someone from telling a hurtful joke and explain why it is hurtful. Allies talk to family members who repeat hurtful stereotypes and explain why those stereotypes are untrue. Allies speak the truth even if it goes against the grain of their own society, family, dinner party or political party. If allies see someone being hurt, or a situation that would be hurtful to someone else, they feel hurt themselves. Allies do not deny accusations, but rather search their deepest selves for the millimeter of truth in these accusations. Allies also tell honestly when these accusations are themselves products of prejudice and, in this way, they help each other to grow and develop and become better allies. Allies do the right thing because they feel it is right, not out of fear or shame. I would like to be an ally for Poles. I am looking to you to be my ally as well. Let’s share our stories and troubles and joys. It is a long road ahead. Let’s walk it together.