Warsaw Diary: Democracy in the Balance

Jewish feminists rally for tolerance in a post-communist world

During an official Corpus Christi commemoration on June 22 of this year, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, at the helm of the powerful Polish Catholic Church, warned the nation about the world’s evils, especially feminists, “propagators of a new social disorder, [who seek] to kill the unborn, …promote sexual promiscuity and the elimination of marriage, humiliate women.” The Cardinal compared feminists to Nazis, allegations that carry ominous weight in Poland, where the Nazi occupation resulted in six million Polish deaths and the country’s devastation. A backlash against feminism has gained momentum here in recent months, largely because feminist ideas are circulating in the mainstream media. And yes, vigilant feminists flooded the Cardinal’s headquarters and press with protest letters and editorials.

It is perhaps an ironic sign of success that the women’s movement is under attack on the pulpit, in the press and even in parliament. Conservative politicians wield the weapon of religion to defend the nation against gender equality: “The woman plays a special role in our Catholic nation,” says one parliamentarian. “The state ought to organize social life so as to minimize the damage done to the family by the fact that women work,” says another. These messages have already been translated into policies. Women have lost many of the rights and benefits they knew under communism: abortion, full employment, educational opportunities, state-subsidized childcare, healthcare and other services.

Since the 1989 collapse of communism, the country’s road to democracy resembles a wrestling match between its traditions (Catholicism, nationalism, romanticism, family values, xenophobia), its contradictory communist legacy (authoritarianism, purges, cultural isolation), and its newly adopted democratic values (pluralism, freedom of expression, gender equality, justice). Feminists, who challenge everything from gender discriminatory policies to church-state alliances, are both the catalyst and the target of national controversies.

The good news is that no stone stays unturned under the critical eye of Poland’s second wave feminists, who have become the relentless watchdogs of Polish democracy. And for those who are Jewish, the upturned stones include Judaism in a post-Holocaust society. Jewish feminists are taking to task the fledgling Jewish establishment, highlighting sexism and protesting the mainstream culture’s anti-Semitism.

After more than 60 years of persecution, first by the Nazis and then the Communist Party, Polish Jews, estimated at 20,000, are “coming out of the Jewish closet,” an oft-heard phrase describing the phenomenal reclaiming of hidden Jewish identity. The “new Jews”—another popular phrase—have organized a visible community life, centered in Warsaw, with an Orthodox synagogue, schools, summer camps, adult education, a community center, and a crisis hotline for adults who’ve recently discovered their Jewish roots.

Vociferous female critics number only a handful, but their bold queries have already elicited strong responses in the press. They charge that an Orthodox monopoly, with substantial Western backing from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and other institutions, is creating an unwelcoming, patriarchal environment. They ask, Now that Poland is a democracy, shouldn’t the Jewish community reflect its own diversity? And how should the community contend with Poland’s prevalent anti-Semitism?

These questions may well be a litmus test of the Jewish community’s diversity. They are also testimony to how far Poland has come. Most remember too well the Communist Party’s university expulsions, employment bans and show trials, the censorship and anti-Semitic campaigns that, between 1968-70, drove thousands out of the country and reduced the Jewish population from 40,000 to 5,000. Although these feminists dare to speak, their position remains precarious in a still-hostile climate.

Facing Down Bias
Bozena Uminska, a gender studies lecturer at Warsaw University, views herself as a poet-philosopher, not a provocateur. But she provoked the nation when she published a study of anti-Semitic and misogynist language in the works of well-known Polish writers. “Anti-Semitism has always been and still is very common in Poland,” she wrote in the summer 1999 issue of the literary journal Res Publica Nowa. “It is so deeply rooted in the language, and so unchallenged, that it is dark under every street lamp. … Due to weak standards, we approach the various anti-Semitic attitudes with mercy and understanding: ‘They were young and didn’t mean what they wrote’—or—’They died young, and you don’t talk badly about the dead.'”

Uminska’s critique of several writers in that article blew the lid off what right-wing Poles consider socially acceptable literary discourse: singular, exclusionary praise for Mother Poland. The 52-year-old literary critic, witty, warm and confident, told me in an interview: “Such language, whether in literature or spoken, is so obvious, so normal, so acceptable. For example, ‘By the way, that bitch…’ or ‘ By the way, the Jews again…'”

We sat in her candle-lit kitchen for the interview following a Friday night dinner. Once before, I had visited the flat, located in the wartime Jewish ghetto, for a costume party in mock celebration of the First of May. “Dress as your favorite Bolshevik” instructed the invitation to a dozen feminists and their partners. Surrounded by homemade banners of red stars and hammers-and-sickles, we had room to move vertically only, popping up to declare manifestos and sing the Internationale amidst peals of laughter.

Among Polish feminists, someone is always hosting a soiree; everyone brings something—wine, flowers, cheesecake, berries. Feminist conversation spreads beyond private homes into classrooms, cafes, restaurants, the rare and precious hot chocolate parlor, and most dramatically, into the media and onto the streets. On International Women’s Day last year, close to 100 women sported red or purple wigs and marched through Warsaw, carrying signs that protested “Democracy without women is not democracy!,” garnering widespread media coverage.

Uminska also became a media sensation when, in her article, she compared anti-Semitism with sexism. “There are similarities, but in very different ways,” she told me. “Jews are dangerous. Women are insignificant. The problem is that in intellectual circles in Poland today, you should not be openly anti-Semitic, but you can be openly misogynist.”

Uminska zoomed her lens in on the early 20th-century writer Stefan Jeromski, a member of the Polish literary canon. In his acclaimed novel The Calm Before Spring, the hero encounters both the Warsaw Jewish ghetto and a peasant village on the country’s southern border. Uminska argued that the hero displayed a cold cynicism toward the Jews he observed. She quotes him describing the ghetto: “There was an abundance of paupers in rags, who utilized the mobility indigenous to the Jewish race for cheating each other and fighting over food rations…The entire crowd gave the impression of a council of the condemned possessed by the devil.”

Uminska concluded that to the hero, “the impoverished Jews alone were responsible for their misery.” In sharp contrast, she wrote, the hero gushed for the poverty-stricken peasants, who were innocent, dignified victims.

With a mischievous glint in her eyes, Uminska told me: “I made an intellectually responsible examination, sprinkled with a few clearly marked provocations.” She wrote: “Jeromski was never a right-wing nationalist. We do not consider him an anti-Semite either. Is it because the bottom line of what we label anti-Semitism is symbolized by the gas chamber and Xyklon B? Would Jeromski throw Xyklon B into the gas chamber?

“But before the gas is thrown, a long process takes place during which the numerous possibilities for throwing are created: worldview, morality, mentality, politics, and technical developments.” To Uminska, the novelist helped clear the ground for the Nazi-erected gas chambers in Poland.

Turning from anti-Semitic language, Uminska sharpened her knives for a feminist reproach: “In the case of women, we can observe a similar phenomenon, but the standards are even lower. If a Jew is threatening although somewhat attractive, a woman is simply inferior [and] her inferiority must be constantly confirmed. The way to reach this goal is to humiliate the ‘enemy’ or make fun of her.”

She tuned her ears to sexist language in the writings of Kryzstof Metrak, a celebrated film and literary critic of the ’70s-’80s, quoting one of his exemplary “by the way” remarks: “If you start talking with a woman about art, it is not possible to switch to the ass.” Uminska explained; “If you talk with a woman about art, you treat her as a human being. If you treat her as a human being, you cannot treat her at the same time as a woman, meaning ‘ass.’ What you need for sex is the awareness of female inferiority…. Otherwise, the masculine world would experience unusual disturbances.”

An unapologetic display of intellectual autonomy such as Uminska’s essay would have been unthinkable during Poland’s communist era. Both the journal and the writer would have been locked up in prison, because, first, anti-Semitism did not exist—after all, there were no Jews, only atheists—and second, women had already been liberated. The “Jewish Question” and the “Woman Question” were thus both considered resolved.

In 1999, Uminska did not have to fear the government’s retribution. Instead, she confronted a brutal media backlash from anti-intellectual right wingers, who hurled a litany of allegations: Informer! Communist! Collaborator! Traitor! Purveyor of ‘political correctness’!

“Uminska’s text is similar to the informer’s report—relating to her [communist] superiors anything that seems even remotely suspicious,” charged Agata Bielik-Robson in the December issue of Res Publica Nowa, which published the original article. “Her mind is going mad, lacks logic.”

Bielik-Robson’s allegations were taken up in two popular dailies, the centrist Rzczepospolita and the rightwing Zycie, where Polish emigre Agnieszka Kolakowska, writing from Paris, and others accused Uminska of spewing out that Western poison, “political correctness—a disease that attacks the brain and causes lack of common sense, the ability to think rationally, and saddest of all, sense of humor. In Bozena Uminska, it shows in the form of feminism,” wrote Kolakowska, the daughter of Poland’s revered philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski. “If political correctness spreads in Poland…communism will be back.”

Uminska’s critics demanded the abolishment of Warsaw University’s Gender Studies Department, where Uminska was accused of infecting the minds of innocent students. “Ideological indoctrination is being cultivated under the rubric of academia,” warned Kolakowska. “There is no other word, this is treason.”

The conflict, though it subsided, gravely disturbed many liberal intellectuals: Right-wingers were suddenly aiming political fire at the universities and the still-fledgling gender studies programs. They were exploiting the dread of communism and Western imperialism to undermine democracy. Feminism was an easy target, a new idea that could be framed as communist or Western, dangerously “unPolish” and not to be trusted.

Challenging Orthodoxy
A very different kind of public debate—also led by feminists, also concerned with pluralism—erupted around the same time. In this instance, feminists challenged the Jewish establishment in the mainstream press. Szoszana Ronen is an Israeli emigre who has taught philosophy at Warsaw University for nearly ten years. I first met her at Uminska’s First of May party. Last September, just before Rosh Hashanah, she took on Poland’s Jewish Orthodoxy in a leading national daily, Gazeta Wyborcza: “I am surprised that Jews in Poland have chosen Orthodox Judaism….Orthodox Judaism’s the worst choice of all, because it is intolerant of Reform Jews and discriminates against women.”

How absurd to embrace Orthodoxy, Ronen exclaimed. In Poland, most Jews have hidden, suspected or stolen identities that don’t meet Orthodox standards for “Jewishness”; and almost every Jew, quarter, half or whole, lacks the knowledge to recreate Judaic traditions. Ronen warned: Orthodox Judaism will never embrace you.

The professor issued a call-to-arms: “I want to suggest something to Polish Jews, although I know they won’t accept it: secular Jewishness.” Why get “hooked on yarmulkes and beards”? Choose Judaism’s universal values instead, she encouraged her readers.

Konstantin Gebert, an Orthodox Jew and then editor-in-chief of Midrasz (Tikkun’s Polish cousin), published a fierce rebuttal in the same newspaper, displaying some of the same xenophobia of right-wing Poles. “Ronen’s statements [are] understandable only in the context of the long lasting conflicts and hatred between liberal and Orthodox Jews in Israel. Ronen is…starting her war here.” Gebert, whose courageous commitment to rebuilding Polish Jewish life almost cost him his freedom under communism, underscored: “Only religious identity has its future among Polish Jews… .Who gave her the right to write about Polish Jews?”

Ronen and Gebert had aired their views not in the marginal Jewish press but rather in the Polish equivalent of The New York Times. In a third editorial, Kazimiera Szczuka, another gender studies lecturer at Warsaw University, reflected on the visibility of this tussle: “The debate…in Gazeta Wyboreza is a big gain for our new democracy. It’s not the Jews’ internal problem only; it matters for the whole society, its roots and horizons. The occurrence of the open discussion…shows that a lot has already changed.”

Szczuka, a Polish-born Jew with an honored family Holocaust history, defended the Israeli “outsider” and locked horns with Gebert, Polish Jew to Polish Jew. “Jewish heritage is much more than religion,” she wrote. “This is evident in the contributions of secular Jews to Polish culture and throughout the world….Polish ‘new Jews’ are emulating our ‘new democrats’ by institutionalizing patriarchy and subordinating women.”

Few people wished to be excluded from the fiery tête-a-tête. In late October, weeks after Simchat Torah celebrations, the Warsaw Jewish community center called a meeting to debate the issues. Ronen, Gebert and Szczuka were the featured panelists, and they packed the auditorium beyond standing-room capacity. Their presentations were quickly overrun by a boisterous speak-out, unseen since the prewar years. Young and old clamored to put in their two cents and tell their personal stories.

The sheer reality of passionate Jewish convictions was exhilarating to hear, Szczuka told me. Some participants attributed Orthodox Judaism’s popularity to the support it receives from the Lauder Foundation. Other accused the Orthodox of excluding them, and several protested that the synagogue’s structure humiliates women. Handfuls of senior citizens, atheists since communist times, “applauded Ronen’s arguments and Szczuka’s feminist manifesto,” reported Gebert’s magazine, Midrasz, in a begrudgingly journalistic tone. The magazine concluded “the turnout and liveliness proved it was necessary.” Polish Jewry, silent no more.

A Small Start 
When the High Holiday season rolled around this year, news spread quickly via the Internet: Post-communist Poland’s first Reform services were being planned by a new congregation, Beit Warszawa. In quickfire response, spokespersons for Warsaw’s Orthodox establishment voiced its displeasure, while many Jews were delighted at the alternative.

An American woman rabbi was flown in to lead the services in Warsaw’s touristy Old Town. Rabbi Cindy Culpepper endeavored to guide and uplift non-English/non-Hebrew speaking Jewish doubters and hopefuls, using a prayer book written in English and Hebrew only. She welcomed her congregants by waving her hand in an overly eager hello, and then timidly explained the meaning of the Jewish new year. She was too pedagogic and self-conscious; she needed music, not logic. Through Polish eyes, she appeared insecure—in other words, she behaved like an American.

Fifty people attended the service. Only nine returned the next morning. At best, it was a noble first attempt and a sobering learning experience. It will probably take generations to seed diverse religious practices; it will also take support from the West. The disenfranchised do not know where to begin to explore spiritual and cultural expressions that might hold meaning for them.

During the Rosh Hashanah service, I felt the chasm that separates me from my Polish friends. I can read Hebrew, pray, find sustenance. My friends don’t, never have, how can they? I sensed their spiritual yearning, which they seem to quietly doubt may ever be fulfilled. They are well-educated and too wise to give themselves over to anything that doesn’t demand their intelligence, emotions and full attention. One idea crystallized over dinner: we will prepare a freedom seder for the coming Pesach. Next year in Warsaw.

Shana Penn, an Open Society Institute Fellow and visiting scholar at Mills College Women’s Leadership institute, is writing a book on women, revolution and democracy in Poland.