S.F. meeting with Walesa frustrates Jewish leaders

Disappointed that Polish President Lech Walesa again refused to condemn a priest for making anti-Semitic remarks, Jewish officials said Monday they plan to keep a closer eye on Poland's attitudes toward Jews.

Leaders from the American Jewish Committee and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council met privately with Walesa for 40 minutes on Monday afternoon in San Francisco. Walesa, who is also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was visiting the city for the 50th anniversary celebration of the United Nations.

Jewish officials hoped Walesa would finally take an extra step and condemn the priest for remarks made nearly three weeks ago in Poland. Though Walesa on Monday called the incident "shameful" and "nightmarish," Jewish leaders said the president still didn't go far enough to allay their fears about an upswing of open anti-Semitism in Poland.

"The meeting was inconclusive. We do not feel satisfied," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJCommittee's director for European affairs.

The Polish president has been criticized for not specifically blasting the Rev. Henryk Jankowski for comments made during a June 11 Mass in Gdansk.

Jankowski, a close friend and political ally of Walesa, stood at the pulpit and linked the Star of David with "the swastika as well as the hammer and sickle." He added: "We can no longer tolerate being governed by people who have not declared whether they come from Moscow or Israel."

The priest later denied he was an anti-Semite, but at the same time accused Jews of "satanic greed" that led to communism and World War II.

Walesa, who attended the Mass, waited until intense pressure from Israeli, American and Polish Jews forced him to respond to the incident on June 20 — nine days after the sermon. He then condemned anti-Semitism, but only in general terms.

Many Jews were unhappy with Walesa's reaction and wondered whether it signaled the potential of Jewish background becoming an issue among presidential candidates this fall, as it did five years ago.

Blatant anti-Semitism in Poland strongly arouses Jewish apprehension. More than 3 million Jews lived in Poland before the Holocaust. Today, the Jewish population there is estimated at 10,000 to 15,000. Despite these low numbers, an AJCommittee survey released in January showed signs of lingering anti-Semitism. For example, 30 percent of Polish respondents did not want Jewish neighbors.

Before meeting with Jewish leaders at the Veterans War Memorial Building, Walesa also met privately with President Clinton for about 40 minutes.

Clinton stressed the need for democratic leaders to fight anti-Semitism, an administration official told Reuters news service. Walesa reportedly responded that he had no tolerance for anti-Semitism.

Last week, AJCommittee officials decided to take advantage of Walesa's trip to the United States to try and press him to respond more forcefully to the priest. AJCommittee officials sought a meeting with the Polish leader, and the Polish ambassador to the United States finally squeezed in the eight Jewish officials between Walesa's meeting with Clinton and his return flight to Poland Monday afternoon.

Walesa was not available after the meeting to comment, and Poland's U.S. ambassador who was also visiting San Francisco did not return several calls.

In addition to Baker, AJCommittee officials at the meeting included national executive director David Harris, regional executive director Ernest Weiner, S.F. Bay Area chapter president Richard Jaeger and national executive committee member Richard Sideman of San Francisco. Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based JCRC, also was on hand.

"Frankly, we had hoped for more to come out of the meeting," Harris said. "From our point of view, there was a hope we could help President Walesa understand why we were hurt by the whole episode and disappointed in his handling of it."

Nonetheless, Harris said, some good came out of the session. Walesa promised the Jewish entourage he will "be available" to deal with future anti-Semitism, Baker said. Walesa also acknowledged that he may have handled the situation the "wrong way."

But Baker called Walesa's condemnation of anti-Semitism "somewhat disembodied" and added that Walesa still didn't adequately explain why he didn't confront the priest's remarks immediately.

Walesa told the Jewish officials that he wasn't paying attention to the "long, boring sermon" and that some of the priest's remarks were made to reporters after the sermon. Walesa also told them that he shouldn't be expected to react to every anti-Semitic statement made in Poland and that a personal statement was unnecessary because Polish Catholic bishops had already condemned it.

"He gave half a dozen explanations that were contradictory," said Baker, who was once an assistant rabbi at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Though Monday's meeting ended without resolution, AJCommittee officials will meet soon with the Polish ambassador to explore ways to improve relations between Poles and Jews and to avoid anti-Semitism within the Polish presidential campaign.

Baker added that some good still might come from the publicity that swamped Walesa after this recent incident.

"I don't want to rule out that he didn't learn from this."