KRAKOW, Poland — A well-known priest's anti-Semitic remarks — and the refusal of President Lech Walesa to condemn them — have triggered a controversy in Poland and around the world.
Jewish leaders in Poland expressed deep concern that the affair might set a precedent for the acceptance of open anti-Semitism in mainstream political discourse prior to Poland's presidential elections this fall.
"Nothing good has been said by the president, which is perhaps the worst part of the affair," said Stanislaw Krajewski, Polish consultant for the American Jewish Committee. "This means to me that the president is ready to fight for the votes of anti-Semites in the presidential elections." Krajewski is also the Jewish co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews.
In a June 11 service attended by Walesa, the Rev. Henryk Jankowski, Walesa's close friend and longtime political ally, accused Jews of "satanic greed" and actions that caused historical "tragedies," including both World War II and the rise of communism.
"Poles, bestir yourselves," Jankowski said. "We can no longer tolerate being governed by people who have not declared whether they come from Moscow or Israel."
In a statement to the Polish Press Agency on June 14, Jankowski denied that he was an anti-Semite but reiterated his views.
"The Star of David symbolizes not only the state of Israel but also the Jewish nation," he said. "Like all other people, the Jews happen to do unbecoming things in public life just as they happen to do very noble things indeed. I am talking about banking and finance circles. Their actions have led to many a human tragedy.
"Also note the political and public activities in all areas of life," he said. "All those elements, that satanic greed — we can say this with no doubt — were the cause of communism and of World War II."
At a news conference Sunday, Walesa refused to repudiate the priest's remarks, adding that Jankowski was a good friend of his and was not an anti-Semite.
During an interview on Polish radio later in the day, Walesa said, "I am a friend of Father [Jankowski], a friend of many years. I want to say that [he] really is not an anti-Semite. And because I know this, I do not speak up. But I fear that some want to create anti-Semitism in Poland, and this is why I do not like this."
The priest's remarks, coupled with Walesa's ambivalent reaction, raised concern and outrage among Jews and drew protest from other quarters.
Konstanty Gebert, a noted Jewish journalist, wrote in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on Tuesday that Walesa "has given his official blessing to anti-Semitism and has attempted to gag its critics through blackmail."
Some church officials voiced disapproval of Jankowski's statements, but as of Monday night, the Polish Episcopate Conference had not spoken out.
The incident has also provoked a storm of international criticism.
Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, addressed a formal letter of protest to Walesa and to Jozef Glemp, the primate of Poland and Archbishop of Warsaw.
"This type of sermon, and the ambiguous attitude of certain members of the Polish episcopate, as well as of political figures, tarnish the image of Poland and undermine the dialogue between Jews and Poland," Cwajgenbaum wrote.
In Israel, Knesset speaker Shevach Weiss telephoned Walesa this week to ask him to clarify what happened.
In an excerpt of the telephone conversation, which was broadcast in Polish on Israel Radio, Walesa said that as long as he is president, there will be no anti-Semitism in Poland: "The Jews have already paid a dear enough price for it to happen again."
Weiss said he believed the Polish leader was sincere. "I got the sense that he is sorry for these developments," Weiss told Israel Radio.
American Jewish groups blasted both Jankowski and Walesa.
"The recent disgraceful and outrageous anti-Jewish sermon of Father Henryk Jankowski in Poland represents the dark, ugly side of a murderous pathology that has persisted for centuries," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious director for the American Jewish Committee.
The Anti-Defamation League, in a letter to Walesa, wrote, "Unfortunately, your silence in the past week regarding Father Jankowski's statements has given his racist words greater legitimacy."