Racist Language and the Polish-Jewish Discourse
It's time to jettison racist language in Polish-Jewish discourse; we must employ language that addresses universal, human concerns.
by Danusha V. Goska
Folklore Institute, Indiana University
Writers on Polish-Jewish relations frequently rely on racism as a guiding intellectual model. The racist model is intellectually insupportable. It is an ethical failure. It is offensive. It is an embarrassment. Discussion of Polish-Jewish issues takes on some of the most vexed and vital questions humans have ever confronted. To use a medical metaphor, the patient is critical and we need the best skills and equipment available to advance out of the emergency room and into fully functioning, joyful, life.
The racist model is a relic of the intellectual Stone Age. It does not serve to heal or illuminate; rather, it exacerbates an existing crisis. It is time that we, Poles and Jews, evolve, and demand that intellectually and ethically evolved voices speak for us and about us. The voices that rely on racist formulations must be superseded by intellectually supportable and ethically responsible voices that thoroughly reject racism, and that pioneer non-racist language in Polish-Jewish relations.
Racism can be summed up as the invention of qualities meant to be diagnostic of and unique to a posited racial entity. Racists insist that there is a definable human entity called "the Poles" or "the Jews" that is scientifically distinguishable from "the non-Poles" or "the non-Jews." "The Poles," according to racists, can be distinguished by, for the anti-Polonists, their anti-Semitism, stupidity, and violence. Racists insist that the anti-Semitism expressed by Poles is different from that expressed by Americans, Germans, the Irish, etc. Pogroms in Poland are meant to have been of a more "virulent" racial character than the pogroms in places like Limerick, Crown Heights, or Buenos Aires. Philo-Polonists insist that "the Poles" are freedom loving and courageous in a diagnostically and uniquely Polish way. Similarly, racists insist that "The Jews" are either greedy or spiritual, exploitative or intelligent, in a way that humans from other groups simply aren't, have never been, and can't be.
Two recent articles are typical in their employment of the lens of racism to discuss Polish or Polish-Jewish issues: Abraham Brumberg's March 2, 2001 "Murder Most Foul" in the London Times Literary Supplement and Slawomir Majman's June 24, 2001 Warsaw Voice article, "Great, Great Indifference."
Mr. Majman's thesis, in his own words: "the Poles retain a feature that makes them dramatically different from other developed nations: a neurotic curiosity as to how the world perceives them . . . The Poles, more than any other nation, worry about the world's opinion of them and that's a fact worth remembering . . . a hang-up exists: the Poles' complex about their image."
Mr. Majman's repeated locution, "The Poles" is a shibboleth -- it's a tip-off that he is using racism as a model for understanding and describing the world. He is not talking about this human being or that human being, who happens to be Polish, who is displaying a universal human trait. He's not reporting sound sociological research that has uncovered an undeniable statistical trend -- the rise of a universally human behavior in a given population under a certain set of circumstances. He's not describing the circumstances under which any human community, of any ethnicity, would become more likely to display a given, universal, human trait -- and thereby contributing to an illumination of the human condition.
He's not using the scientific method, a method that demands that if a point is made about phenomenon A, it be defined in contrast to a control, phenomenon B. No hard scientist, for example, would dare attempt to describe the properties of any element, hydrogen, for example, without comparing hydrogen's mass, structure, etc. to other elements from the periodic table, and adducing evidence to support any such description. In the social sciences, no respectable sociologist would dare to state anything even so apparently simple and uncontroversial as "Appalachia is poor" without adducing charts on income levels in Appalachia compared to income levels in the rest of the United States.
The question has to be asked: do those who believe ridiculous racist formulations get out much? Do they ever travel to other countries, study other cultures, expose themselves to history and literature? U. C. Berkeley Professor Alan Dundes, the world's greatest living folklorist, and, as it happens, a descendant of Jews from Lodz, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's folklore. He loves to tell the following story.
An anthropologist spent his life studying an isolated tribe. In that isolated tribe, he discovered a tale about a girl who achieves great things against impossible odds. The anthropologist, his nose to the grindstone of his work on Tribe Z, and his vision thus limited, became convinced that this tale proved that the guiding cultural value, the overriding theme, the religious bedrock of the unique and diagnostic Tribe Z life and worldview was the triumph of the humble in the face of overwhelming odds. This theme was what set Tribe Z apart from Tribes A through Y.
When this anthropologist showed his work to a folklorist, the folklorist merely laughed. What was the tale in question, the tale that explained Tribe Z? A version of "Cinderella." "Cinderella," of course, is a folktale that has been told for hundreds of years in a variety of cultures in China, India, Europe, and the Americas. To insist that one version of "Cinderella" provides the insights necessary to understand Tribe Z and only Tribe Z is to make a silly, racist mistake.
The stentorian racists who have been so eager, in the ongoing controversy around Jan Tomasz Gross' book Neighbors to mount the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, the Warsaw Voice, the New Yorker, etc. to pass on their insights about essentially anti-Semitic, egotistical Polaks, are as ridiculous as the anthropologist and his limited insights about Tribe Z. The responsible analyst's job is not to discover which ethnicities are essentially hateful, egotistical, or "neurotic," but rather to discover which circumstances engender which human behaviors.
Mr. Majman is simply wrong. "The Poles" do not have a complex. Many Poles could not care less about Poland's image. Many persons who are neither Polish nor Jewish are extremely sensitive about how their ethnicity is portrayed. There are ample examples for anyone who has eyes to see the world through other lenses than the lens of racism. One example: On Memorial Day, 2001, Disney studios released "Pearl Harbor," about the December 7, 1941 Japanese bombing raid on the U.S. navy. The two countries were not at war at the time of the raid. American President Franklin Roosevelt memorably condemned the Japanese attack as "a date which will live in infamy."
In the 30 day period coinciding with the movie's release, National Public Radio has devoted at least five news stories to the following questions: "Will Japanese viewers be offended by the portrayal of Japanese soldiers in this movie?" "Were the producers and script writers careful enough to make clear that the Pearl Harbor attack is not proof that all Japanese people are sneaky, violent and hostile to America?" "Will persons of Asian descent in the United States be subject to violent attack after the movie is released?" "Will Americans be reminded that Japanese-Americans suffered in internment camps during World War Two?" "Will Americans be reminded that many Asian-Americans are patriotic and loyal citizens?" "Will Japanese people in Japan be offended by the movie? Will the movie use terms like 'dirty Jap' when it is released in Japan, or will that term be excised?" Etc.
Any number of similar examples of members of ethnic groups expressing sensitivity over their depiction in powerful media could be adduced. Scholars are not above self-censorship in such matters. Christy Turner has been ostracized by some of his fellow scholars after he, Turner, produced research that uncovered a vicious cannibal cult among the ancient Anasazi Indian tribe. Turner told a reporter that, as the reporter paraphrased him, "a climate of political correctness won't allow Native Americans to be associated with violence." "Steven A. LeBlanc, a research associate at UCLA's Institute of Archeology, said: 'I was just at an archeological conference. There were tenured professors there who said they were not going to read Christy's book . . .'" 
Jews as well as Poles have recently expressed sensitivity over how archeology has impacted beloved mythology. In April, 2001, six Jewish leaders placed an ad condemning Rabbi David Wolpe for announcing in a sermon that, according to archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein, the events described in the Biblical book of Exodus, including the Jewish enslavement in Egypt, forty years in the desert, and the conquest of Canaan, never happened. "How tragic is this misbegotten attempt to rob people of their historical and religious heritage," stated the ad. 
Others formulated the Exodus issue differently, insisting that even if proven false, the myth had its value; for example, it had inspired the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements. Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades put it this way: "What are the Egypts I need to free myself from? How does the story inspire me in some way to work for the freedom of all?"  Rabbi Carr shows great insight here. People are sensitive about their visions, about their mythology. And for good reason. "Where there is no vision, the people perish," the Bible tells us. 
This kind of sensitivity to and respect for the importance of uplifting and inspiring mythology has not been shown to Poles in recent media coverage. In his Times Literary Supplement essay on Neighbors, Abraham Brumberg sneered at what he described as a typically Polish self-delusion through mythology that, he argued, prevents "the Poles" -- a locution he uses several times, throughout his essay -- from seeing the horrible truth about their essential, racial guilt. The mythology that blinds "the Poles," according to Brumberg, was a mythology of "traditional Polish tolerance" and "your and our freedom." Brumberg puts quotes around these phrases, thus communicating that he does not believe that there has ever been Polish tolerance or that anyone was ever inspired by the phrase "for your freedom and ours." Brumberg does not put quotes around phrases like this: "the Poles' need to accept collective responsibility for their countrymen's crimes against Jews." Brumberg thus shows that he does believe in an essential Polish nature, a nature not of uplifting ideals, but of collective Polish guilt.
Abraham Brumberg is wrong. Whether proven to be based in fact or not, the book of Exodus has inspired men and women to do great things. No matter what the ultimate truth of Neighbors turns out to be, Polish mythology, no less than the truly great myths of any people, has inspired very real human beings like Jan Karski and Irena Sendler to do great things.
There is no uniform population called "The Poles" who are sensitive about their image in a way that other equally uniform populations are not. It is, rather, a universal human trait to be concerned about image. There are sound reasons for this concern. Image can translate into access to resources or denial of access, employment or impoverishment, community or isolation, indeed, even life or death.
Examples are readily apparent to any cultured person. The Jewish communist, the arrogant Tutsi, the sexually debased female, are just a few of the images that have been used to facilitate mass murder, rape, and other atrocities. Many reading this document, from college students filling out scholarship applications that demand that the student identify himself as a member of a more or less worthy group, to Jews who survived under Nazism or Poles who survived Stalin, will remember when his or her perceived image allowed access to resources or even to life itself. Rejection of racism allows us such intellectual insight and human compassion. It is only when those of us invested in discussion of Polish-Jewish matters jettison the ridiculous, archaic, and poisonous language of racism that we can apply the insights a universalist, humanist discourse affords.
1. Cart, Julie. "A Theory of Anasazi Savagery; Anthropologist Says Cannibalism is behind Ancient Southwest Culture's Demise" Los Angeles Times, p.1
2. Radler, Malissa. "Conservative vs Orthodox: Did Exodus happen?" The Jerusalem Post April 29, 2001.
3. Watanabe, Teresa. "Doubting the Story of Exodus; Many Scholars Have Quietly Concluded that the Epic of Moses Never Happened, and Even Jewish Circles are Raising Questions, Other Think it Combines Myth, Cultural Memories, and Kernels of Truth." Los Angeles Times April 13, 2001
4. Proverbs, ch 29, v. 18