‘Everything started collapsing then’, wrote Halina Zawadzka, who survived the Shoah in Poland, about her experience of 1968 in Communist Poland when dozens of Jews committed suicide after they had found themselves publicly vilified and socially isolated, denounced as a ‘fifth column’ by Władysław Gomułka, the first secretary of the Polish United Workers Party. 8,300 members were expelled from the Communist party, nearly all Jewish. 9,000 Jews lost their jobs, some were beaten up and hundreds were thrown out of their apartments. Simon Gansinger tells the story of the left-wing anti-Zionist campaign that destroyed Poland’s Jewish community.
Travellers at Dworzec Gdański, a train station in the north of Warsaw, may notice a plaque that says: ‘Here they left behind more than they possessed.’ Put up in 1998, it commemorates the departure of thousands of Polish Jews who, 30 years earlier, were forced to leave the country for no other reason than their being Jewish. Organised by the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), the anti-Zionist campaign of 1968-1971 destroyed a Jewish community which had only just re-established itself after the Holocaust. It was a gruesome example of left-wing antisemitism inflected as ‘anti-Zionism’.
The assault on the Jews teemed with declarations against antisemitism. On countless rallies, people carried signs that read ‘Antisemitism – No! Anti-Zionism – Yes!’ Yet of the 8,300 members expelled from the Communist party, nearly all were Jewish (Blatman 2000, p. 308). Almost 9,000 Jews lost their jobs and hundreds were thrown out of their apartments (Wolak 2004, p. 73). The regime allowed Jewish citizens to leave the country under two conditions: they must revoke their citizenship; and they must declare Israel as the country of their destination. Thereby the regime legitimised the purge in the most cynical fashion: Why would these people go to Israel if they hadn’t been Zionists all along?
Many Jews seized the opportunity. Whereas in April 1967 only 29 applied for exit visas to Israel, the number rose to 168 one year later and reached 631 in October 1968 (Szaynok 2009, p. 156). Estimates for how many Jews left Poland between 1968 and 1971 vary. The most conservative holds the number to be 12,000; earlier estimates believed that more than 20,000 were forced out of the country. The correct figure might lie somewhere in the middle, about 15,000 (Eisler 2009, p. 42). Fewer than 30 per cent ended up in Israel, with the rest going to other countries, including Sweden, France and the United States.
The Zionist ‘fifth column’
After Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, the member states of the Warsaw Pact, with the exception of Romania, cut diplomatic ties with Israel. The developments in Poland, however, soon took a peculiar course. On 19 June 1967, one week after the suspension of diplomatic relations with Israel, Władysław Gomułka, the first secretary of the PZPR, made a remarkable comment on the Polish dimensions of the events in the Middle East. Some Polish Jews, he was sorry to hear, sympathised with the enemies of socialism, the ‘Israeli aggressors’, thereby forfeiting their claim to be loyal Polish citizens. These people were not just morally reprehensible; they also constituted a potential ‘fifth column’ in the country, which had to be eradicated before it could gain strength.
The significance of Gomułka’s ‘fifth column’ remark can hardly be overestimated. The term invoked a well-organised Zionist conspiracy whose centre is to be found in the Jewish community, which in 1967 counted no more than 30,000 members out of a Polish population of 32 million. When Gomułka gave his speech, he had already been exposed to the anti-Jewish fabrications of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MSW) for some months. The ministry was led by Mieczysław Moczar, whose fervently antisemitic views were no secret to his comrades. Even before June 1967, high-ranking MSW officials took a special interest in the activities of Jewish institutions in Warsaw and popularised the notion of a Zionist infiltration among party circles. Under Moczar’s lead, the MSW worked tirelessly to gather information on individual Jews and expose their alleged links to Israel – which meant, in most cases, to distort or invent these ties.
Also thanks to the opposition of politburo members against Moczar’s machinations, Gomułka’s imaginary Zionist enemy within Poland did not attract much attention in the broader public. With the exception of the military, where the majority of Jewish officers were dismissed as Zionists and revisionists, the anti-Zionist campaign did not gain traction until March 1968, when the full-blown assault on the fifth column shook the country.
Antisemitism against protesting students
It is tempting to look at history as an orderly chain of events. But those entangled in this chain lack the comfort of hindsight. The order of things is lost on them, and so is the irony that posterity likes to attribute to history when it has collapsed into utter irrationality.
On 30 January 1968, 300 students protested the ban of the allegedly anti-Russian play Dziady by the Romantic author Adam Mickiewicz, not suspecting – how could they? – that their courageous acts would usher in the anti-Zionist frenzy of March 1968. Needless to say, the student protests that preceded the purge of Zionists from the country had as little relation to the Middle East as had the anti-Zionist who, some weeks later, called on ‘Zionists [to go] to Siam!’ (‘Syjoniści do Syjamu!’). (This demand was emblazoned on a banner at a rally. The writer, apparently, thought Zionists came from Siam because of the phonetic proximity of the two terms in Polish.) The history of antisemitism lacks order as much as the antisemites lack understanding. Until immediately before the campaign, the public was captivated by the academic protests and perfectly unperturbed by Zionism. The sudden appearance of the Zionist spectre in the chronology of student unrests reminds us not only of the deceitful continuity of historic events but also of the violent rupture of thinking, which is so typical of antisemitism.
As a punishment for their involvement in the Dziady protests, two students, Henryk Szlajfer and Adam Michnik, who happened to be Jewish, were expelled from the University of Warsaw. On 8 March, a Friday, their colleagues responded with a large demonstration at the university, which was brutally dissolved by security forces. The demand for freedom of speech and civil rights, however, was soon heard at campuses all over the country, and before the weekend was over, tens of thousands of students and sympathisers rallied for this cause.
The regime got nervous. The protests had grown too large in too little time to be quietly suppressed. If the voice of the workers entered into the chorus of calls for free speech and free education, the student unrests could quickly evolve into a fully-fledged rebellion. In the MSW headquarters, everything was prepared to defang the movement in its early stage. Moczar’s men, utilising their recently acquired knowledge, compiled lists of the alleged leading instigators, most of them Jewish. After Gomułka and other high-ranking party members had approved the document, it was handed to the press with the intention to neutralise the protests by kindling a campaign against alien provocateurs. The working masses, the reasoning seemed to be, would hardly join ranks with a Jewish elite.
‘Complete removal of Zionist elements’
The publication of the list alone would have sufficed to brand the official propaganda against the student unrests as an antisemitic stunt. And while the official party organs were content with calling out Jewish sounding names, it took the newspaper of the Catholic splinter group PAX, Słowo Powszechne, to give the conspiracy, which had seduced the Polish youth, its proper name. The article ‘To the students of the University of Warsaw’, published on 11 March, made the link to Gomułka’s infamous Zionist fifth column. The author unveiled the Zionist plot ‘to undermine the authority of the political leadership of People’s Poland’. Fortunately, the readers were assured, ‘antisemitic sentiments are alien to [the Polish youth]’. And so, they certainly would not take it the wrong way when they are informed that the main organisers of the demonstration at the University of Warsaw were natural-born Zionists who ‘held meetings at the “Babel” club at the Social and Cultural Association of Jews’.
The public gladly took the hint. From now on, the media abounded with condemnations, denunciations and exposures of Zionist traitors. Within the next ten days, 250 articles were published, a good portion of which endorsed the anti-Zionist conspiracy theory. But the campaign was not restricted to hateful columns in magazines or outraged talking heads on television. In more than 100,000 public meetings in factories, in party offices, even in sports clubs all over Poland, anti-Zionist resolutions were passed. One representative resolution from the beginning of April reads: ‘[we demand] a complete removal of Zionist elements and other enemies of our socialist reality from the political, state administrative, educational, and cultural apparatus and also from social organizations. […] Those who in their nihilism and cosmopolitanism poison the spirit and heart of the youth should lose their influence on it.’ While the Jewish community was spared a nation-wide pogrom, physical violence accompanied the aggressive rhetoric. Jewish Journalists were beaten up, Jewish co-workers bullied, and Jewish students subjected to particularly harsh treatment at the hands of Moczar’s militia. In this atmosphere, which, according to historian Dariusz Stola, amounted to a ‘symbolic pogrom’, dozens committed suicide after they had found themselves publicly vilified and socially isolated.
Gomułka: ‘Zionists will leave’
While the campaign certainly could not have been initiated without the knowledge and consent of Władysław Gomułka, the first secretary did not comment on its anti-Zionist spin for an oddly long time. More than one week after the publication of the incendiary article in Słowo Powszechne, on 19 March, he finally set out his views about the role of Zionism in the current events before a large assembly of party activists. The main culprits of the student unrests, he said, were revisionary and reactionary elements, some of which, Gomułka intimated, were Jewish. The Jewish population of Poland, he went on, could be divided into three groups: Polish, cosmopolitan and Zionist. While the first and largest group proudly serves its fatherland and the second could at least be tolerated, the third group, ‘Polish citizens who are emotionally and in their thoughts connected to the State of Israel’, will leave the country. By making this division, Gomułka played down the importance of a Zionist conspiracy while at the same time acknowledging its existence. A significant portion of the audience expressed their discontent with the first secretary’s perceived leniency and demanded that he give names. Gomułka’s futile attempts to calm the crowd and the open display of defiance attested to the rapid dynamic of the antisemitic witch-hunt, which had ceased to be a contained campaign controlled by the party.
Over the next few weeks, while Poland was gripped by the anti-Zionist fever, the Jewish community could not do more than hold its breath and wait for the frenzy to ebb away. In June 1968, the Central Committee decided to discontinue the campaign. At the Fifth Party Congress in November, Zionism was no longer on the agenda. When asked by a comrade whether the protests in March were linked to a Zionist conspiracy, the Attorney General replied: ‘No, we have no proof whatsoever for this supposition.’
For the victims of the campaign, the supposition impacted brutally on their lives. In Łódź, where the antisemitic campaign raged without restraint, the city’s newspapers dismissed Jewish journalists, the administration of the local eye clinic demanded baptism certificates from the physicians, and the local PZPR propaganda bureau published educational material that approvingly quoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. After less than two months, the Jewish population of Łódź, once a thriving centre of Jewish culture and business, was driven out of the city.
Anti-Zionism is an inflection of antisemitism?
The plausibility of a Zionist conspiracy was hardly self-evident in 1968 in Poland. The absurdity of this idea was captured in a comment by a local farmer in Włoszczowa who said: ‘Up to now, we’ve heard that the peasants and workers ruled Poland, while in reality the Jews do.’ One could easily sympathise with the farmer of Włoszczowa: one bizarre idea had been superseded by another. Most of the writers who have studied the campaign have argued that its anti-Zionism was simply antisemitism in disguise. This ‘identity thesis’, as I would like to call it, holds that anti-Zionism is a surface phenomenon that can be reduced to classical antisemitism. The meaning of anti-Zionism, then, consists in its being a direct translation of antisemitism into a socially permissible code. ‘Zionists’ means ‘Jews’; like a euphemism refers to the tabooed term: you say the first, but you actually mean the latter.
There is a lot to say in favour of the identity thesis. Apart from the fact that the campaign chiefly targeted Jews (and people who were believed to be Jewish), many of the classical elements of antisemitism also characterise the events of March 1968. The conspiracy theories, the paranoia, anti-intellectualism, anti-cosmopolitanism, all of which featured in the campaign, had been part and parcel of the ideological repertoire of Jew-hatred since the 19th century.
Still, I believe there is more to it. When antisemitism appears as anti-Zionism, it is not merely replicated in a different language. Rather, it undergoes a profound transformation. The displacement of ‘Jews’ through ‘Zionists’ modifies the ideological structure of antisemitism. The object that is hated – that is, in Poland 1968, the Zionist – resonates with the ‘obscure impulse’, the unconscious motive that drives the antisemite. Instead of being a codified version, the anti-Zionism of March 1968 was an inflection of antisemitism.
I borrow the term ‘inflection’ from linguistics. It refers to the fact that, in many languages, we have to change the structure of words in order to convey a certain meaning in accordance with the grammatical context. By inflecting the verb ‘to be’, for example, we get the word-forms ‘is’ or ‘was’, and we use one or the other depending on whether we talk about the present or the past.
Antisemitism can also be inflected. Its grammatical context, however, is society itself. In the example I mentioned, the word (or, to be more precise, the lexeme) ‘to be’ looks nothing like the inflected forms it corresponds to. It is, as it were, obscure, like the impulse of the antisemites, which, in the words of Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, gives rise to a ‘system of delusions’. The forms these delusions take are irrational but not haphazard. The specific ideological expression of antisemitism at any one time is governed by its historical circumstances.
But what was the context that made the anti-Zionist inflection more adequate, more potent, more cohesive than its uninflected base-form? The public disapproval of old forms of antisemitism certainly played a part. But that was not all. The campaign of 1968 exemplified the ideological innovation that anti-Zionism brought to antisemitism: the apprehension of the political conspiracy. When the crackdown on students turned anti-Zionist, it became an eminently political witch-hunt. The role of the political is key to understanding the relation of anti-Zionism to traditional antisemitism. The old anti-Judaic and antisemitic images, such as the identification of the Jews with the murderers of Christ or the identification of the Jews with capital, had limited applicability under the social conditions of People’s Poland, where the salience of the political was apparent to everyone. Instead, another aspect of antisemitism rose to prominence: the identification of Jews with the abstract state apparatus.
The address of the political conspiracy
The political conspiracy has always been a quintessential element of modern antisemitism, just as the Jewish dominance of the economy is antisemitic stock-in-trade. Both in the economic as well as in the political sphere, the idea of a Jewish conspiracy stems from the obsessive desire to concretise social relations. The concretisation of the abstract – an attribute horrendously accurate to describe modern society – is not a purely theoretical enterprise: the antisemite relates to the world through his delusional representation of it. The historian and political theorist Moishe Postone writes that in National Socialism the Jews became the ‘personifications of the intangible’. The campaign in Poland illustrates that the anti-Zionist image of Israel facilitates this process of obsessive concretisation in the political sphere. The political conspiracy is made tangible in Zionism. And consequently, the political conspiracy can be attacked in Israel’s alleged lackeys, the ‘Zionists’.
Spring 1968 offers us ample material to support this thesis. An article in the Army daily Żołnierz Wolności informed its readers about ‘Israel’s fantastic network throughout the world’ that is the ‘source of the might of the espionage services directed from Tel Aviv’. Edward Gierek, who followed Gomułka’s as first secretary in 1970, pointed to the crooked political ambitions of the Zionists before an audience of 100,000 in Katowice: ‘This is done in the interests of old political speculators who act without any scruples.’ Gierek then delivered a sequence of well-known Jewish names, ‘these Zambrowskis, Staszewskis, Słonimskis’, all in the plural to erase any doubt that they are not individual human beings but representatives of a clandestine organisation. ‘Zionism’ is to uncanny political power what ‘the Rothschilds’ are to the global Jewish cartel: the proper name for a paranoid idea.
One of the most prominent slogans during the campaign was the fight against ‘international Zionism’. This oxymoron expresses the ideological function of the Zionist conspiracy in its most condensed form. The antisemite imagines the Jewish conspiracy as unbound and pervasive, that is, as ‘international’. But he also seeks to identify, grasp and annihilate it. In the distorted representation of Zionism, he gives the conspiracy an address and a name, thereby melding together two contradictory elements of antisemitism, the ubiquity of the hated object and the desire for concretisation.
The concretisation of the economic sphere is not at odds with the concretisation of political power. Antisemitism embraces the Rothschilds and the ‘Zambrowskis, Staszewskis, Słonimskis’ alike. The reckless profiteer of traditional antisemitism and Gierek’s ‘political speculators’ are two forms, two inflections of the same antisemitic obsession to make the world accord with one’s delusions. The article in Żołnierz Wolności is a case in point. Its author closes his tirade against the Zionist traitors with the synthesis of old and new antisemitism: ‘Their aim was to serve foreign interests, to serve imperialism and anti-Polish and anti-socialist subversion. Their homeland is the American dollar regardless of whether they receive it from Tel Aviv, Bonn or Washington.’ For the antisemites, the Jews have always had control over economic power, and they have hated and envied them for this hallucinatory alliance with money. In anti-Zionism, then, the antisemitic hatred of Jews has consolidated itself within the political realm.
In Poland, the purge of the Zionists from the military, the party, the administration and public institutions was the purge of the Jews from the political sphere. This is the meaning of ‘Zionism’ in anti-Zionism: the Jew as a political being, as a citoyen. Since the antisemitic campaign of 1968 located its objects within the political sphere, it was, almost necessarily, bound to appear as anti-Zionist antisemitism.
On 15 March, an article in the party paper Trybuna Ludu revealed how international Zionism maintains its paradoxical character: ‘[The Zionist leaders] oblige the rest of the Jewish community, scattered all over the world – instigating among it feelings of nationalism and religious fanaticism – to lend an all-round support to Israel. […] The assistance for which the Zionist leaders call is therefore an assistance for Israeli expansionism, behind which stand the forces of imperialism, particularly West German and American imperialism.’ Throughout the campaign, the connection of Zionism to West Germany and the US was a popular theme, although the pamphleteers could not quite agree on who secretly manipulated whom. The fusion of the economic conspiracy and the political conspiracy can be seen in an article in Głos Pracy from 18 March: ‘[Zionism] hobnobbed with French and British capital and even was born under the influence of that capital. Recently … [with] American and West German imperialism.’
Beyond Poland 1968
The hateful vigour of the antisemites often correlates to the cohesion of their delusion. Antisemites want their objects to be easily identifiable and ready at hand. The Zionist bogey that was conjured up in March 1968 served this purpose. In the Zionist fifth column, the delusion of Jewish world dominance manifested itself in the political sphere. The Polish case helps us understand the ideological function of anti-Zionism within antisemitism: anti-Zionism localises a hitherto politically indeterminate conspiracy. And the grim fate of the 15,000 Polish Jews who were forced into emigration poignantly reminds us that the target of anti-Zionist antisemitism is not just the Jewish state but the people for whose protection it was founded.
Blatman, Daniel, ‘Polish Jewry, the Six Day War, and the Crisis of 1968’, in The Six-Day War and world Jewry, ed. Eli Lederhendler (Bethesda, MD: Univ. Press of Maryland, 2000), pp. 291–310.
Eisler Jerzy, Jews, Antisemitism, Emigration, in 1968: Forty Years After. (Polin Vol. 21), ed. Leszek W. Głuchowski & Antony Polonsky (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2009), pp. 37–61.
Szaynok, Bożena, ‘“Israel” in the Events of March 1968’, in 1968: Forty Years After. (Polin Vol. 21), ed. Leszek W. Głuchowski & Antony Polonsky (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2009), pp. 150–158.
Wolak, Arthur J, Forced Out: The Fate of Polish Jewry in Communist Poland (Tucson, AZ: Fenestra Books, 2004).