Reports of an antisemitic incident in the Polish parliament on December 12 marred news of Poland’s new government led by Donald Tusk being sworn in the next day. In the incident, a far-right member of parliament, Grzegorz Braun, used a fire extinguisher to put out a menorah set up in honor of Hanukkah. 

He later raved about “an uncivilized, tribal Talmudic cult.” The incident was widely reported by international media. 

Braun was later punished with suspension by the speaker of the parliament. He was not, however, removed from his position by his party, Confederation. 

The national prosecutor of Poland, Dariusz Barski, said he would apply for a waiver of immunity from parliament for Braun, allowing for a full investigation and prosecution of the politician. If convicted, Braun could lose his seat. 

Openly antisemitic views and behaviors among elected politicians in Poland are not unheard of. In the 1990 presidential elections, Lech Wałęsa claimed that his opponent, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was Jewish in an attempt to harm Mazowiecki. 

A Law and Justice member of Parliament, Jan Mosiński, has a long history of antisemitic (as well as anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ) tweets. A former Law and Justice senator, Waldemar Bonkowski, was removed from the party in 2019 for also publishing a series of antisemitic tweets. 

In 2017, former prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki honored the Świętokrzyskie Brigades, an extremist Polish military formation that targeted Polish Jews during the Second World War. The list goes on. 

Some prominent Catholic clergymen have also spread antisemitism in post-communist Poland. The infamous chaplain of the Solidarity movement, prelate Henryk Jankowski, once said in a sermon: “The Jewish minority must not be tolerated in the Polish government, because the [Polish] nation is afraid of that.” Radio Maryja, a conservative Catholic radio station, has hosted prominent Polish Holocaust deniers and denouncers of the “Jewish lobby.”

Braun’s incident has inspired copycats. Two days after the incident in the Parliament, five masked males in Wrocław, a large city in south-west Poland, vandalized another menorah. 

The perpetrators were all sixteen years old or younger. The prosecutor’s office is investigating the incident as a possible “insult to an object of religious worship and religious feelings.” 

Poignantly, in the last eight years, Poland’s religious blasphemy laws, cited here, have often been used to harass artists and LGBTQ+ activists who juxtaposed Catholic symbols with rainbow flags. 

There is, however, more than meets the eye in the recent incident in the Parliament. It is an example of casual operationalization of antisemitism, used to discredit the new government made up of former opposition parties who collectively won the election on October 15. The process of their accession to power was delayed by President Andrzej Duda until December 11, hence the almost two months between the elections and swearing-in. 

Even though the antisemitic act was committed by a member of Confederation, a right-wing party that had lost the election and is now an opposition party, it played into the hand of Law and Justice, the former ruling party that was defeated in the October election. Its members rejoiced at the chaos Braun’s actions caused during the inaugural session that included questions to the new prime minister, Donald Tusk.

As they blamed the new speaker of the Parliament, Szymon Hołownia, for the disorder, they undoubtedly counted on embarrassing Poland’s new government in Poland and internationally. 

“We have such a mess in the Parliament today,” said the former minister of education in the Law and Justice government, Przemyslaw Czarnek. “During Elzbieta Witek’s [the former speaker of parliament from Law and Justice] tenure, such things didn’t happen.” 

Both acts of vandalism involving the menorah from last week are a reminder that although populist parties were defeated in the October elections, the problem of antisemitism in Polish politics continues. However, rather than worry about the public relations catastrophe, Polish politicians representing all factions should reflect on why Braun’s abhorrent behavior has been tolerated for so long. 

For example, as a member of parliament, Braun did not face any consequences earlier this year after he attacked Jan Grabowski during a public lecture. Grabowski is a Holocaust historian who questioned the self-serving narrative of Poles as exclusive protectors of Jews during the Second World War. 

Also, earlier this year, Braun destroyed a Christmas tree decorated with Ukrainian and European Union flags in the District Court in Krakow. Police and security officers who were present during both incidents did not react. 

Words of apology and condemnation are insufficient to solve the problem of Grzegorz Braun and his like-minded peers in Confederation and beyond. Recognition of the issue of antisemitism as systemic, integration of diversity and inclusion education in schools, thorough investigations of hate crimes and appropriate convictions are required. 

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