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What Living in Poland Taught Me about Anti-Semitism and Zionism

What Living in Poland Taught Me about Anti-Semitism and Zionism

The author standing in front of a synagogue in Poland

As a Reform Jew growing up in suburban New York, anti-Semitism seemed as removed from my own experience as Sunday school stories of Jonah and the Whale.

No matter the lessons of “Never Again,” no matter the concentration camp films, no matter Elie Wiesel and the mandatory Holocaust education in my public school, my own experience was one of complete acceptance in American society. When these efforts would end in a pitch for my contemporary support of Israel, I couldn’t make the connection: Why do these past events, so long ago, require my action today?

Even worse, as I learned about and questioned the occupation, the answer I heard most recalled foremost the destruction of the Jews during the Holocaust, seemingly salving our contemporary dilemma with past injustices perpetrated against us. I was taught that each human is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and yet no connection was made to our ancestors’ suffering and that of innocent Palestinians today.

The protective shell of New York’s Jewish community was broken when I moved this past year to Poland, as a Fulbright Research Fellow.

While I went there knowing the political situation was deteriorating, I couldn’t have expected Jews – estimated at fewer than 10,000 in a population of 40 million – to be at the center of public debate and dispute. A walk down the street would feature, at best, newspapers and magazines with anti-Semitic imagery or conspiracies, and, at worst, graffiti of the growing white nationalist movements or the phrase Zyd Okupant Kłamie, "Jewish Invaders Lie."

In January, when the ruling Law and Justice party introduced legislation policing speech about the Holocaust and pogroms, I knew I had to leave. I felt silenced and isolated, unable to connect with my fellow American Fulbright peers who were not Jewish and for whom this did not evoke communal nightmares.

In the moment, walking past those newsstands and painted graffiti, the films from Hebrew school reappeared. We may not be at a moment of genocide in the Central and Eastern European states, but an underlying, pernicious anti-Semitism is flourishing. One only need to look to neighboring Ukraine, where the reconsidering of Nazi collaborators as heroic is a daily threat to the Jewish population, to see the need to combat anti-Semitism in this part of the world.

I was able to leave. America, the country that homed my sheltered childhood, took me back.

I was also able to leave to Israel, where I felt the soothing sense of security and belonging upon landing at Ben Gurion on the Warsaw-Tel Aviv route.

Living in Poland showed me the need for a home for every human, and the particular need for a Jewish home for our people. It hit me: Those Holocaust films weren’t so long ago, and the threat of anti-Semitism, even if I don’t experience it daily, is ever present.

I now aspire to a Zionism that holds both the unending need for a Jewish homeland and the humanistic Jewish need for a better world, for a home for every person. That means fighting unjust immigration policy in America, the deportation of asylum seekers in Israel, and for the establishment of a Palestinian state. That means teaching “Never Again” for all people, not just Ashkenazi Jews and not just those in the tribe. That means fighting anti-Semitism, particularly against our more traditional and orthodox fellow Jews. I know our Reform community is uniquely situated to help, and as a young Jew I need our community to continue to lead and do more.

The stories of biblical times and the generation of my grandparents hold warnings and inspirations for today. Let us commit as Reform Jews to heed their warnings and strive for their inspirations, to engender our great goal, the world as it should be.

Sam Rubin is the presidential executive fellow at the Union for Reform Judaism. Prior to this role, Sam lived in Warsaw, Poland, as a Fulbright Research Fellow, where he studied Polish-Jewish relations and contributed to The Forward.

Sam Rubin
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Published: 6/11/2018

Categories: Jewish Life, Jewish Life Around the World
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