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Poland: Backsliding Furiously

Lech Walesa, a national hero 26 years ago for his role in ending Communist rule in Poland as the leader of Solidarity, has little political power in the country today, but he still has his voice. Last week he raised it, to condemn the new Polish government that emerged from last October’s election.

“This government acts against Poland, against our achievements, freedom, democracy, not to mention the fact that it makes us look ridiculous to the rest of the world,” Walesa said. “I’m ashamed to travel abroad.”

Walesa said this on privately-owned Radio Zet, because Polish public service television and radio will no longer invite him to speak on any of their channels. The new government sees him as an enemy, and it now controls public broadcasting completely: all four channels of TVP and the 200 stations of Polskie Radio.

It took them over in an operation that the European Parliament’s president, Martin Schultz, described as having the “characteristics of a coup.” First the new Law and Justice Party (PiS) government packed the constitutional tribunal that might have stopped the media takeover, swearing in five new PiS appointees in the middle of the night. And then it used its parliamentary majority to bring the public service media under party control.

The new Polish Culture Minister, Piotr Glinski, explained that it was necessary to “re-Polonise” Polish society – i.e. cleanse it of all the decadent Western European liberal notions and values that had infected it under the rule of the outgoing Civic Platform government – and that the public broadcasters would therefore be re-designated as “national cultural institutes.”

The head of PiS’s parliamentary caucus, Ryszard Terlecki, was even franker: “Over the past few weeks . . . we have had to deal with the extremely unreliable work of the public media,” he said, referring to the media coverage of popular protests against the PiS’s attack on the constitutional tribunal. “If the media criticises our changes . . . we have to stop it.”

The PiS is the creation of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his late twin brother Lech, who died in a plane crash at Smolensk in Russia in 2010. The brothers have always had a close political relationship with the Catholic Church in Poland, and the PiS largely owes its recent electoral victory to the support of Poland’s very conservative Catholic bishops.

But it wasn’t all that sweeping a victory, really. The PiS got just over half the seats in the Sejm (parliament), which technically allows it to do almost anything it wants now that the constitutional tribunal has been crippled. But it won those seats on only 37 percent of the popular vote – and now that it has begun to put its agenda into action, recent opinion polls are giving it only 24 percent support.

That doesn’t bother Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the slightest. He has the same knack as Donald Trump for saying nasty, untrue things and making them sound bold and incisive (to his target audience, at least) rather than just stupid and slimy.

For example, he recently warned Poles that Syrian refugees would bring diseases and parasites into the country. He continues to speculate publicly that the crash that killed his twin brother was a plot (presumably a Russian plot), despite the fact that two official Polish investigations have concluded that the cause of the crash was pilot error.

Even the poor, left-behind Poles who are Kaczynski’s target voters are sometimes alarmed by his anger and his extremism, so he wisely decided to let another, virtually unknown party member, Andrzej Duda, run for the presidency last year.

Duda won, so Kaczynski repeated the strategy in October, promoting another relatively obscure and unthreatening party member, Beata Szydlo, as prime minister after the PiS’s victory in the parliamentary election. But most people suspect that he will quickly tire of working from the shadows and take her place as prime minister himself.

What has brought this deeply unattractive politician to power in Poland? It’s largely the same factors that have made Donald Trump a political phenomenon in the United States: an economy that is doing quite well overall – Poland’s economy grew by a third under Civic Platform in the past six years – but that has left a large chunk of the population behind.

It’s even the same chunk of the population that backs Trump in the US: older, more religious, less well educated, living in smaller cities and rural areas. Kaczynski’s victory therefore depends on a very narrow and fragile base, and he may well become more and more radical in his struggle to hold it together.

It is therefore going to be quite exciting in Poland for a while, and probably quite embarrassing for people like Lech Walesa. But it isn’t an anti-democratic revolution with real staying power.

Poles overwhelmingly want to remain part of NATO and the European Union, if only (in some cases) because they still fear Russia so much. You cannot go far down the road Kaczynski wants to travel without coming into serious conflict with the EU’s laws protecting civil and human rights – and when Poles have to choose between the EU and Kaczynski, they will not back Kaczynski.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The new…stop it”)

Jewish Mass Emigration From Europe

“We’re not waiting around here to die,” said Johan Dumas, one of the survivors of the siege at the kosher supermarket during the “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist attack in Paris in January. He had hidden with others in a basement cold room as the Islamist gunman roamed overhead and killed four of the hostages. So, said Dumas, he was moving to Israel to be safe.

It’s not really that simple. The seventeen victims of the terrorist attacks included some French Christians, a Muslim policeman, four Jews, and probably a larger number of people who would have categorised themselves as “none of the above.” It was a Muslim employee in the supermarket who showed Dumas and other Jewish customers where to hide, and then went back upstairs to distract the gunman. And the Middle East isn’t exactly safe for Jews.

Dumas has been through a terrifying experience. He now feels like a target in France, and no amount of reassurance from the French government that it will protect its Jewish citizens will change his mind. But Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu didn’t help much either.

What Netanyahu said after the Paris attacks was this: “This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism. All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms. We will help you in your absorption here in our country, which is also your country.”

He was at it again after a Jewish volunteer guarding a synagogue in Copenhagen was one of the two fatal victims of last week’s terrorist attack in Denmark. “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews,” he said, “and this wave of terrorist attacks – including murderous anti-Semitic attacks – is expected to continue.”

“Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe.” As you might imagine, this did not go down well with European leaders who were being told that their countries were so anti-Semitic that they are no longer safe for Jews.

It is true that five of the nineteen people killed in these two terrorist attacks in Europe since the New Year were Jewish, which is highly disproportionate. But it is also true that the killers in all cases were Islamist extremists, who also exist in large numbers in and around Israel.

French President Francois Hollande said: “I will not just let what was said in Israel pass, leading people to believe that Jews no longer have a place in Europe and in France in particular.” In Denmark Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior rebuked Netanyahu, saying that “terror is not a reason to move to Israel.”

The chair of Britain’s Parliamentary committee against anti-Semitism, John Mann, attacked Netanyahu’s statement that the only place Jews could now be safe was Israel. “Mr Netanyahu made the same remarks in Paris – it’s just crude electioneering. It’s no coincidence that there’s a general election in Israel coming up….We’re not prepared to tolerate a situation in this country or in any country in Europe where any Jews feel they have to leave.”

It IS crude electioneering on Netanyahu’s part – but it is also true that even in Britain, where there have been no recent terrorist attacks, Jews are worried. Statistically, Jews are at greater risk from terrorism in Israel, but it’s much scarier being a Jewish minority in a continent where Jews were killed in death camps only 70 years ago.

Given Europe’s long and disgraceful history of antisemitism, it’s not surprising that such sentiments persist among a small minority of the population. But at least in Western Europe (which is where most European Jews live) the great majority of people regard antisemitism as shameful, and most governments give synagogues and Jewish community centres special protection.

What European Jews fear is not their neighbours in general, but radicalised young Islamists among their Muslim fellow citizens. The Muslim minorities in the larger Western European countries range between 4 and 10 percent of the population. If only one in a hundred of them is an Islamist then Jews do face a threat in those countries.

But it is a very small threat. Nine Jews have been killed by Islamist terrorists in the European Union in the past year in three separate incidents (Belgium, France and Denmark). The Jewish population of the EU is just over one million, mostly living in France, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Nine Jewish deaths by terrorism in a year in the EU is deplorable, but it hardly constitutes a good reason for encouraging mass emigration to Israel. Still, Netanyahu has an election to fight, and this sort of thing goes down well in Israel.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“It is…Israel”; and “Given…protection”)