On a quiet Thursday evening recently, Café Foksal in central Warsaw suddenly filled up with about 50 people wearing kippahs.
The event was unusual for a city with very few observant Jews and an insignificant number of Israeli tourists. What made it exceptional is that almost none of the kippah wearers were Jewish.
It was the latest twist in a media storm that has brewed around Café Foksal since a bartender was accused of anti-Semitic behavior toward two patrons, who were ejected allegedly for discussing Israel.
The New Year’s Day incident, which surfaced originally in an unsigned post on the Gburrek blog, was amplified in the mainstream media and on social networks. Amid counter-allegations that the complainants provoked the bartender with anti-Christian rhetoric, the affair highlighted the polarization between liberals and conservatives that is dividing Polish society. It was also the latest public rejection by a critical mass of people of any form of hate speech, anti-Semitic or otherwise.
Led by Ryszard Schnepf, a former ambassador of Poland to the United States, the kippah wearers — journalists, activists and others — went to Café Foksal aiming to defuse the tensions stoked by the media’s publication of the allegations, which the bartender claims are false.
Before the delegation arrived, hundreds of people joined a Facebook group calling for a boycott of the cafe over the unverified — and hotly disputed — charges of anti-Semitism.
Hundreds more joined a rival Facebook group vowing support for Café Foksal, whose management has categorically denied the anti-Semitism accusations. They claimed the patrons were tossed out for engaging in anti-Christian hate speech about the Virgin Mary while under the influence of alcohol.
The media, including the prestigious Gazeta Wyborcza daily, were sucked into the ensuing debate. That’s what prompted Schnepf to organize the kippah-wearing expedition in a bid to show that Jews were welcome at Café Foksal and that anti-Semitism is not tolerated in Polish society.
“It was friendly and fun,” Schnepf wrote on Facebook. “That’s how you do it, for tolerance and friendship.”
Café Foksal’s management also expressed its satisfaction with the event, sharing a picture of it on Facebook.
“A very nice evening in the company of dozens of terrific men and woman wearing kippahs,” Café Foksal wrote on its page. “Thanks for a nice initiative against those who would divide us.”
It was a positive spin amid the bad publicity that followed the Jan. 3 publication of the unsigned blog post offering an account of what transpired two days earlier at the 24-year-old pub.
The unnamed writer, who said he was 32 and never involved in a brawl prior to the incident, wrote that he and a friend were asked by the bartender not to speak about Jews after the bartender overheard the two discussing Israel.
“The bartender turned out to be an anti-Semite,” the blogger wrote in Polish.
After the pair refused to leave the bar, security threw them out, and police arrived a half-half later, taking no action, the blogger added. The post did not say whether the blogger or the friend was Jewish.
But the bartender and management told the media that the two patrons reacted rowdily after she asked them not to use hate speech against Catholics.
Jonny Daniels, founder of the From the Depths group, which works on Holocaust commemoration and Polish-Jewish relations, told JTA he interviewed the bartender, and she told him that the two were using profanities against the Virgin Mary. After she asked them to refrain, they pelted her with small objects, including peanuts, the bartender said.
“I wasn’t there so I don’t know what happened, but this doesn’t seem to me like a straightforward case of an anti-Semitic incident,” Daniels said.
Anti-Semitic incidents are relatively rare in Poland, which is home to some 20,000 Jews, according to Michael Schudrich, the country’s chief rabbi. But such incidents receive massive attention in a country where anti-Semitism is a sensitive issue.
Approximately 90 percent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, with the vast majority killed by Nazi Germans. Thousands of courageous Poles, including Schnepf’s mother, saved Jews, but a small minority of Poles joined the killing, massacring several thousand Polish Jews at the least.
Last week, Adam Abramowicz, a lawmaker for the ruling Law and Justice party, who is not Jewish, reportedly said he wrote to Warsaw’s chief of police demanding the release of the report on the Café Foksal incident.
If the accusations the blogger made against the bartender are correct, then the employee, and perhaps the establishment, should be legally accountable for discrimination, Abramowicz said he wrote in the letter. But if accusations are false, then the accusers are answerable for defamation and making a false deposition, he added.
Until then, “What really went on there remains unclear,” Daniels said. “But what is clear is that when it comes to anti-Semitism, Polish society is anything but indifferent.”