Part of the family

Under communist rule, most of those Jews who had survived the holocaust to return to Poland were exp

There isn't much to choose from in the gift shop at Lodz Airport. Behind a glass screen there is a modest selection of keyrings - and money-pots fashioned into grotesque caricatures of Hasidic Jews.

Poland has always had a complex relationship with its Jewish citizens, whose liberties were safeguarded by the Statute of Kalisz in the 13th century. When written, it was probably the most politically progressive document in the world.

By the 1930s, Poland's Jewish population was around 3.3 million. The nation's Yiddish film industry was admired across Europe. Then came war, ghettoisation and the Holocaust. Under communist rule, most of those Jews who had survived to return were expelled. Today, the most generous estimates place the Jewish population at roughly 30,000.

A little over 100 miles to the south of Lodz, in Kraków, the annual Jewish Culture Festival ended on 6 July. Established 20 years ago, it draws thousands of visitors to the city's old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. This year's programme included workshops in Hebrew calligraphy and lessons in Jewish cookery.

The overwhelming majority of the festival's participants and organisers are not Jewish. Among young Poles, enthusiasm for the country's Jewish legacy has become a shorthand for intellectualism and progressive politics.

Agnieszka Niemczyk, who leads Zoom, Poland's Jewish youth organisation, thinks the reason for the burgeoning popularity of Jewish arts and language is simply their merit. "At a concert I met a young man who was with his mother," she recalls. "As the music came to an end he turned to her and said: 'How beautiful this is. I regret that I am not a Jew.'"

Despite this, tacky renderings of Hasids are not Poland's only echoes of anti-Semitism. Occasional attacks on graves and other Jewish sites are not unique to Poland. But Radio Maryja, an influential nationalist station, has regularly hosted explicitly anti-Semitic views, condemning Jews as "greedy". Paradoxically, it is the lure of cash that may persuade the station to reconsider its output. Last year it was denied a major EU grant due to its hosting of racists and Holocaust deniers.

The EU has, however, provided the nation's extremists with a new platform. The Oxford-educated MEP Maciej Giertych used Strasbourg to launch a bizarre booklet on the supposed "biological separateness" of Jews. The booklet even carried an official European Parliament logo on its cover.

But Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, is optimistic. He believes various factors are combining to eradicate anti-Semitism, and sees "a rejection of what went before - both communism and xenophobia".

The idea that Jewish life is a separate and alien aspect of Polish society harks back centuries. But for many of Poland's young people, such arguments now seem as absurd as they are distasteful. The challenge today is not just to regard Jewish life benignly, but to see it as part of their own, shared heritage. Rabbi Schudrich insists that "through education and cultural exchanges, anti-Semitism can be lessened to almost nothing".

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.