Catholic Poles fight Catholic Poles fight to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself

Twenty years after its founding, Poland’s Never Again organization welcomed dozens of guests last week to a major conference in Warsaw, underscoring its commitment to the fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred. Rather than Jews and other minorities, Never Again activists are primarily Polish Catholics — members of the majority deeply devoted to protecting vulnerable members of their society.

“Our goal is to promote multicultural understanding and to contribute to the development of a democratic civil society in Poland and the region,” said Rafal Pankowski, a Never Again leader and the conference’s chief organizer. “We are particularly concerned with the education of young Poles about racial and ethnic prejudices, emphasizing Jewish-Polish history and making the fight against anti-Semitism a key component in our activities.”

Hosted at the Polish Academy of Sciences in collaboration with Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, the conference drew top officials from both countries, including Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav-Ner, and Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Beata Stelmach. Douglas Davidson, the US special envoy for Holocaust issues, also attended.

Former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski, originally slated to be the main speaker, withdrew at the last minute, but sent a letter describing himself as “very pleased that Warsaw has become a center of thought on how to increase tolerance on our continent, with particular attention focused on anti-Semitism.” (Currently the co-chair of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, Kwasnieski was busy attending an event recalling war crimes in the Balkans in the 1990s.)

Titled “Probing the Limits of Tolerance,” the Warsaw gathering served as just the latest in a series of prominent initiatives organized by Never Again, widely considered Poland’s leading anti-racism group. Founded in 1992, the organization has grown from an informal activist network to a government-recognized institution, with major activities including the publication of a quarterly magazine that documents and analyzes hate crimes and racist groups. In addition to holding conferences on anti-Semitism, the group monitors and reports anti-Semitic and racist graffiti, coordinating with volunteers and Polish journalists to publicize hate crimes.

As part of its work, Never Again also looks for attention-getting ways to confront anti-Semitism, both via new technology and by thinking creatively about how to publicize its cause. Over the summer, when Poland co-hosted the Euro 2012 soccer championships, the group joined forces with UEFA, the sport’s European governing body, to spearhead the tournament’s edition of Kick It Out, an anti-racism campaign. (At last week’s Warsaw conference, Stelmach, the deputy foreign minister, described soccer stadiums as one of three key sources of modern Polish anti-Semitism, along with segments of the Catholic Church and the media.)

While Never Again’s partners have included organizations as large as the EU and UN, it also acts alone, Pankowski said.

“We ourselves launched a program called Delete Racism, aimed at fighting online expressions of anti-Semitism,” he said.

While the group acknowledges that significant work yet remains, it and other conference participants hailed the steps Poland has taken to curb anti-Semitism and protect the country’s minorities. In her address, Stelmach called attention to Poland for All, a program launching this month in more than 50 cities across the country. As part of the campaign, artists painted over anti-Semitic and other racist graffiti, an effort that will be followed up with tolerance rallies led by priests.

Maciej Kozlowski, a former Polish ambassador to Israel who now oversees Jewish affairs in the Foreign Ministry, noted that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism can occasionally blur together, but said his country can differentiate between them.

“Poland is Israel’s strongest ally in Europe,” Kozlowski said. “We must distinguish between criticism of Israeli politics and anti-Semitism. In the end, Israel knows that Poland stands beside her and supports her against all threats.”