SAN FRANCISCO — For the past decade, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture and I myself, as Poland’s honorary consul in the Bay Area, have been involved directly in furthering the renaissance of Jewish life in Poland. The renaissance is viewed as a “miracle” in Poland and around the world.
At my foundation, we receive communications every day from all corners of the globe congratulating and thanking us for our leadership in the rebirth of Jewish life and culture in Poland.
The renaissance is not just a Jewish one; it is really Poland’s renaissance, as it shakes off centuries of foreign domination and reinvents itself as a free, prosperous and vibrant democratic nation. The transition from authoritarian rule to a true democracy that safeguards the rights of its Jewish citizens and other religious minorities has been a journey of a thousand steps over the last two decades, and we are proud of the outcome.
But like the democratic process anywhere, it does not always move in simple, straight lines. We at the Taube Foundation regard the current legal debate about ritual slaughter as a moment in that complex process of reinvention and democratic evolution.
This month’s legislative decision prohibiting ritual slaughter for large-scale commercial and export use has raised questions about Jewish and Muslim rights to maintain access to kosher meat. As the chief rabbi of Poland has assured us, and as the Polish press is reporting, the parliamentarians’ vote was not driven by anti-Semitism. The vote was made both to support animal rights and to eliminate large-scale commercial and export sales, not to infringe upon the right of Poland’s Jewish citizens to have kosher meat or of its Muslim citizens to have halal meat.
The vote was based on the conviction that the Jewish community would be able to practice shechita and acquire kosher meat as promised in a 1997 law protecting Jewish religious rights. In fact, as this is being written, a group of Jewish and Muslim leaders meeting with the government has been advised by the minister of administration, who is responsible for religious affairs, to petition the Constitutional Court for legal protection.
There is no one within the hierarchy of the Polish government leadership that is not committed to maintaining shechita. The 1997 Law on the Relationship between Poland and its Jewish Communities guarantees these rights. But now, as there are potential conflicts with the new law, they need to be sorted out by the Constitutional Court.
Some within the Jewish media or within the Jewish leadership (primarily outside of Poland) are claiming the vote represents a resurgence of anti-Semitism. This is a mischaracterization of the situation and, by injecting the anti-Semitism perspective, may be harmful to the Polish-Jewish relationship. We must remember that Poland is one of Israel’s closest allies in the European Union and that thousands of Polish youngsters travel annually to Israel, while thousands of Israeli and American Jewish youngsters visit Poland.
We at the Taube Foundation, along with our key partner, the Koret Foundation, are proud to be part of these many achievements. The capstone of our work is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (or the Museum of the Jewish People, as I like to call it), a world-class cultural institution that uses cutting-edge concepts and technology to present the epic story of Poland’s Jewish millennium. The Poles, through their Ministry of Culture and the city of Warsaw, financed the capital campaign of this $120 million miracle, and the newly opened facility has exceeded all expectations.
The museum commands a square on the heritage site of the Warsaw Ghetto, a place of special meaning to Jews around the world. There, at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the ghetto uprising earlier this year, the Taube and Koret Foundations, together with a Bay Area delegation of 50 supporters, watched as the entire hierarchy of the Polish leadership — from President Komorowski to religious leaders to the Polish Army, Navy and Air Force commanders — witnessed the ceremonial laying of wreaths at the base of the Rapoport Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes. They were honoring Polish Jewry’s past, present and future, and there was not a dry eye among the 2,000 or so people in attendance. I never thought I would live to see anything like it.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu once wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Poland already has taken many steps in its relationship with its Jewish present and future. Along the journey, it will invariably make missteps, but happily the destination remains clear and firm.
Tad Taube is chairman of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, president of the Koret Foundation and honorary consul for the Republic of Poland in the San Francisco Bay Area.