What do the Poles think of Jews?


Mikołaj Winiewski

Mikołaj Winiewski is an assistant professor at the Center for Research on Prejudice at the Psychological Faculty of the University of Warsaw. He researches and publishes on anti-Semitic attitudes in Poland.

Dominika Bulska

Dominika Bulska works as a PhD student at the "Center for Research on Prejudice" at the Psychological Faculty of the University of Warsaw. She was awarded the "Solomon Asch Early Career Prize" in 2019. Her main research interests include prejudice research and anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism in Poland is irritating at first glance, as it appears to be "anti-Semitism without Jews". Understanding this phenomenon requires a look at the history of Polish-Jewish relations and the psychological functions that anti-Semitic attitudes fulfill.

Piotr Rybak (left), a convicted nationalist and open anti-Semite, at a right-wing extremist Polish demonstration on the 74th anniversary (2019) in memory of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp from the Nazis. (& copy picture-alliance, NurPhoto)

In February 2019, Jacek Bartzyl, historian and professor at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, published a post on Facebook. In it, he referred to the Jews as "a tribe of poisonous snakes, full of pride, venom and anger," who "hates the Poles and spits on them." [1] He was charged, but the charges were dropped in June 2019. A month later, a wall of the Jewish cemetery in Tarnów, a relatively small town with a long history of Polish-Jewish coexistence, was smeared with anti-Semitic slogans. The perpetrators wrote in red: "Jews eat children. Jadowniki [2] eats Jews." When asked by journalists, the local police admitted that this was not the first time that anti-Semitic slogans had appeared on the wall of the cemetery. [3] The graffiti have now been painted over by the residents of Tarnów, but the perpetrators could not be identified. A few months later, in November 2019, an indictment was dropped in Białystok against the former priest Jacek Miedlar, who called Jews "cancer in our society" during mass and demanded "nationalist chemotherapy". The public prosecutor's office had come to the conclusion that Miedlar's sermon was emotional and that the terms used were metaphors in the biblical sense. [4]

These anti-Semitic incidents did not happen in a vacuum. As shown by the data on hate crimes investigated each year by the Polish police, there have been at least 100 violent crimes against Jews per year in Poland over the past five years. [5] Jews were the minority second most frequently attacked. And even if the bare numbers may sound low, one has to consider that Jews only make up around 0.026 percent of the Polish population - according to census data, around 10,000 Jews live in the country. How is it possible for such a small group to be a regular victim of hate crime? Let us provide an answer to this question by looking at three important factors: the history of Polish-Jewish relations, the stereotypes and attitudes towards Jews in Poland, and the psychological functions of anti-Semitism.

The historical context

Jews have lived in Poland for almost a thousand years. Before the outbreak of World War II, Poland had one of the highest proportions of Jewish population in the world: over 3 million Jews lived in the country at that time, which was around 10 percent of the total population.

Prejudices against Jews and anti-Semitic attitudes are both a mirror of earlier Polish-Jewish relations and the result of historical-social structures. For example, the perception of the Jews as greedy but also as successful in business can partly be explained by the fact that Christians in Europe in the Middle Ages were forbidden to lend money because the church considered interest on borrowed money to be a sin. Some Jews occupied this economic niche and became moneylenders - bankers and tax collectors. The resulting financial competition contributed to the idea that Jews were only loyal to their own people. [6] In addition, laws in the Middle Ages (e.g. royal edicts [7] or local legislation) stipulated where and how many Jews were allowed to settle in a place and which professions they were allowed to exercise (mainly in trade, banking and handicrafts). In some cases, they were also in direct competition with almost all other social groups: serfs and free farmers as well as non-Jewish townspeople. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jews dominated international trade, but above all trade between villages and towns, and they were mainly tax collectors, craftsmen and tenants. [8]

Modern anti-Semitism in Poland, as in other European countries, can be traced back to cultural, social and economic changes in the middle of the 19th century. Upheavals such as the industrial revolution, gradual modernization and the development of a capital economy in combination with aspirations for emancipation and rapid urban growth had a massive impact on the social structure of Europe. With these changes, the old anti-Judaist attitudes, which were based on religious motives, also changed to modern political anti-Semitism. [9] In Poland, which at that time was divided between its three neighboring countries, the class system collapsed after serfdom was abolished. After the unsuccessful January uprising of 1863, which was mainly led by aristocratic classes and directed primarily against the division of Russia, large parts of the landed nobility were expropriated, which led to an increasing impoverishment of this class. In this situation, Jews - especially assimilated Jews - not only became competitors for positions in industry, the financial sector or the liberal professions, they were also made responsible for the upheaval and were seen as a political and economic threat. Increasingly, the notion that Jews pose a threat to the Polish nation has become a fundamental part of the programs and rhetoric of the nationalist movement. In the period between the world wars, anti-Semitic narratives in public discourse intensified. Violence against the Jewish minority increased.

The time of the National Socialist occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1945 naturally had a direct impact on Polish-Jewish relations. The Holocaust, organized and carried out by Nazi Germany, took place largely in Poland.
Access to the Łódź ghetto in 1941. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)
Jews who were able to flee and had to hide were dependent on the help of their Polish neighbors - under the influence of massive anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda and laws that led to severe punishments for any form of help for Jews. Nevertheless, there are many examples of heroic efforts by sections of the Polish population who were involved in saving their Jewish neighbors. At the same time, there were people who did not help or could not help, who remained indifferent, and those who participated in the persecution. This ranged from denunciations for one's own material advantage to organized pogroms and mass crimes (for example in Radziłów and Jedwabne [10]). In the post-war period, anti-Semitism was occasionally used as a political instrument in Poland, which as a socialist state was dependent on the Soviet Union. For example, after the Six Day War in 1967, a campaign directed against Israel was started.
Student protests in Warsaw on March 8, 1968 (& copy picture-alliance, PAP)
In March 1968 student protests, which according to official propaganda had been initiated by Jews, developed into an anti-Semitic campaign. One of the consequences was the massive dismissal of people of Jewish descent who were also forced to emigrate to Western European countries, Israel or the USA with no prospect of return. A total of up to 15,000 Poles of Jewish descent are said to have been expatriated or forced to leave the country. After the peaceful transition in 1989, many anti-Semitic theories and stereotypes were reused as political instruments, especially in the elections in the early 1990s. Recently heated debates have flared up and anti-Semitic rhetoric has flared up again. It is about the past and the role of the Poles during the German occupation, their participation in the persecution of the Jews and a "competition of suffering" during the Holocaust. This was particularly evident in 2001 when Jan Tomasz Gross ‘Buch neighbours appeared. The book describes a pogrom - a mass murder of the Jewish residents of the small town of Jedwabne, which their Polish neighbors carried out against them in 1941. The allegation that Poles killed Jews during World War II was viewed not just as an attack on positive self-image, but as part of an international conspiracy aimed at blaming Poland for the Holocaust in order to extort compensation and the To discredit the heroism of the Poles during the occupation. [11]

The Jewish presence in Poland - whether in direct form before World War II or in symbolic form afterwards - has always been important. Coexistence over centuries, interrupted by World War II, is key to understanding today's stereotypes and attitudes.

Stereotypes about Jews in Poland

Social stereotypes are simplified perceptions and knowledge of a group that often come from cultural products (books, films and so on) or from oral traditions (rumors, rituals). A well-known model for understanding group stereotypes was developed by Susan Fiske and her colleagues. [12] According to the Stereotype Content Model (SCM), one can determine the content of stereotypes based on two main criteria - warmth and competence. These two criteria are derived from two structural variables - group status and competition. Outgroups are rated as more competent if they are perceived as powerful and given a higher reputation. They are considered warm and friendly if there is no competition between them and their ingroup (in the case of Poland, the Poles). Certain perceptions associated with social groups can be assigned to the four possible combinations of warmth (a lot as opposed to little) and competence (high as opposed to low). This typology can be applied to various emotions and discriminatory behaviors. [13]

Groups that are considered incompetent and cold - whose stereotypes are completely negative - arouse contempt, which could lead to the desire to ignore and treat members with disdain. Groups that are perceived as warm and competent - that is, with consistently positive stereotypes - arouse admiration, which can lead to the desire to work with the members of this group. A paternalistic stereotype is ascribed to groups that are seen as warm but incompetent. They arouse pity, which can make them want to help. Finally, groups that are considered cold and competent are associated with an envious stereotype. They can cause envy and a desire to compete with members of this group. As studies show, Jews in Poland have an envious stereotype - they are perceived as cold and competent. [14] Recently published studies show that the image of Jews in Poland is primarily associated with the characteristics of greed / avarice, religiosity, trading, ingenuity, cunning and business-minded. [15] Interestingly, this picture is different depending on the region. In the regions where Jews previously owned factories, they are described as significantly more greedy and more closely associated with money.

Anti-Semitic attitudes

Even if Jews in Poland are generally regarded as competent and cold, the anti-Semitism behind it is a much more complex phenomenon. The multidimensional character of anti-Semitic attitudes can be traced back to the historical context on the one hand; on the other hand, on the functions that they fulfill for anti-Semitic people, with a view to their perception of society as a whole and the perception of the function of individuals for society. [16] [17] Research on Polish anti-Semitism distinguishes between three types of anti-Semitic attitudes:
  1. traditional anti-Semitism,
  2. belief in a Jewish conspiracy and
  3. secondary anti-Semitism. [18]
  1. Traditional anti-Semitism is based on historical anti-Judaist motifs from early Christianity based on religious assumptions. The mainstream of traditional anti-Semitism is therefore a religious antipathy, which is expressed in the accusation that the Jews were murderers of God because of the murder of Jesus. Anthropological studies also show that anti-Judaism goes hand in hand with superstitious ideas and practices, [19] for example the belief in ritual murders. Individuals with this attitude often believe that Jews used to use the blood of Christians for ritual purposes and that today's Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. Social science studies based on representative surveys show that traditional anti-Semitism is more likely to be found among older people with less education and among residents of villages and small towns. [20]

  2. Belief in a Jewish conspiracy is a modern, non-religious way of expressing anti-Jewish prejudices. Based on a racial rather than a religious definition, it assumes that Jews as a group compete with a particular nation for influence and resources. This assumption is linked to the idea that Jews massively interfere in the politics and society of a country or the whole world and thus try to take power. [21] A comprehensive consideration of the conspiracy stereotypes comes from Mirosław Kofta and Grzegorz Sędek. [22] According to them, someone who believes in a Jewish conspiracy takes Jews as a homogeneous group - as a unit - that operates in secret and very organized to pursue its goals.

  3. Secondary anti-Semitism could best be described as a "politically correct" form of anti-Semitism. It was the first to be described by German anti-Semitism researchers who examined expressions of anti-Semitism in Germany after the Holocaust that were strongly influenced by social norms. [23] [24] Secondary anti-Semitism is characterized by the tendency to deny one's own anti-Jewish attitudes, but at the same time to rationalize one's own negative opinions towards Jews by saying, for example, that the Jews are to blame for their own fate. People who hold this position mostly deny the historical significance of the Holocaust [25] and want to let the past rest on them. They believe in the so-called "Holocaust industry", that is, they think Jews are instrumentalizing the Holocaust in order to obtain compensation and ultimately to gain advantages over other groups.
The differentiation between these three attitudes is important not only because of their qualitative differences, but also because of the different behaviors associated with them. The most up-to-date data on the prevalence of the respective anti-Semitic attitudes come from a study carried out by the Center for Prejudice Research at the University of Warsaw in 1019 representatively selected Poles in 2017. In a personal survey, the attitudes of the participants towards different social groups and topics were determined. Several questions were asked about attitudes towards Jews. Two questions related to traditional anti-Semitism: the first was about the guilt of today's Jews for the death of Jesus Christ, the second about the idea that Jews had previously abducted children for ritual purposes. On the basis of statements such as "Jews often act in secret, behind the scenes", the belief in a Jewish conspiracy was determined. This subgroup consisted of six statements and the maximum that could be achieved was 30. Statements such as "Jews are of the opinion that Poles are anti-Semites" were used as a measure of secondary anti-Semitism. Four statements were found in this subgroup, with a maximum value of 20 being achieved. Participants were asked to rate their answers on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 "I totally disagree", 5 "I totally agree"). Figures 1, 2 and 3 show the percentage distribution of the answers to the questions on each scale.

Distribution of answers to questions about traditional anti-Semitism ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
The prevalence of traditional anti-Jewish attitudes in Poland is relatively low - around 24 percent of the respondents agreed (at least to a certain extent) with one or the other statement in this area. Belief in a Jewish world conspiracy and secondary anti-Semitism are more widespread than traditional anti-Semitism in Poland. In the case of secondary anti-Semitism, the proportion of people who agreed with the corresponding statements is between 37 and 56 percent, depending on the question, while the figures for believing in a Jewish conspiracy range between 43 and 53.5 percent. This means that over half of Poles hold at least some degree of attitudes toward secondary anti-Semitism and believe in a Jewish conspiracy.

It is noticeable that the spread of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and secondary anti-Semitism has been relatively stable in Poland over the past decade. A comparison of nationwide data collected in 2009, 2013 [26] and 2017 shows that agreement with statements about belief in a Jewish conspiracy and secondary anti-Semitism has not changed significantly over the years. Interestingly, however, there has been a steady rise in traditional anti-Semitism. The reason for this is not yet known. At the same time, this phenomenon is very disturbing because traditional anti-Semitism is most strongly associated with a reduced acceptance of Jews in society and an increased acceptance of anti-Jewish violence. [27]
Distribution of answers to questions about secondary anti-Semitism ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
Distribution of answers to questions about Jewish conspiracies ( Graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /

Psychological functions of anti-Semitism

Given that the Jewish percentage of the population is very small, the explanation for why these attitudes are so widespread, in our opinion, lies in their psychological function. The main function of conspiracy theories was described by the French social psychologist Serge Moscovici, who analyzed violence against minorities in revolutionary situations in Russia, the United States, and India. He came to the conclusion that conspiracy theories are based on a scheme in which the blame is blamed on an internal enemy and thus one obtains a simple explanation for a cognitively problematic, insecure or complex situation and social conflict. [28] Current surveys have shown that a state of uncertainty increases the need for simplistic explanations. And in experimentally induced situations of uncertainty it has been shown that belief in malicious conspiracy theories even increases. The complexity and uncertainty of the world lead people to look for simple and conclusive explanations. Polish research on this subject has shown that people with an increased need to overcome states of cognitive dissonance are more prone to conspiracy theories, such as a refugee crisis or a plane crash. [29]

The second important component of anti-Semitic attitudes in Poland is secondary anti-Semitism, i.e. the belief that Jews are responsible for the anti-Semitism directed against them and that they are now exploiting the guilt feelings of other nations. [30] Secondary anti-Semites refuse to discuss the Holocaust and see it as a closed episode in history that is not worth further discussion. Such views have been thoroughly investigated by psychologists and sociologists in Germany. [31] According to them, secondary anti-Semitism serves the need to ward off memories of the Holocaust, combined with the wish to avoid the victims of the time. [32] Because the encounter with a suffering victim brings members of the group responsible for the victimization into a situation of distress. In addition, national identities are often based on the ingroup's role as victim, which is perceived as being unique. [33] But if you look at your own nation as a victim of historical atrocities, you fail to realize that other nations were also victims, and more importantly, it prevents recognition of the atrocities committed by the ingroup.

With these explanatory patterns in mind, one can say with regard to Poland that these narratives are rooted in the dramatic Polish history (the partitions of Poland, the Second World War and the period of communism) and are of great importance for the formation of Polish identity. Turning a blind eye to the crimes of the ingroup by blaming the victims can be seen in current public debates about the crimes committed by Poles against Jews in the Kielce pogroms [34], the events in Jedwabne or the aforementioned also in the reactions to a book by Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, published in 2018, which describes the fate of Jews in rural Poland during the Holocaust. [35]


Anti-Semitism has had a major impact on Poles' attitudes towards Jews since the end of the 19th century. It also had an impact on the political climate in Poland between the two world wars, and anti-Semitic attitudes had a considerable influence on public discourse. At the end of the Second World War, the proportion of the Jewish population had shrunk to a minimum. Therefore, the spread of anti-Semitic attitudes in today's society cannot be explained by a political, ethnic or economic conflict. The extent of the anti-Semitic sentiments remains puzzling and irritating, because it appears to be "anti-Semitism without Jews". From the specialist literature and our own data, the most important explanation for this phenomenon is the psychological function of stereotypes. For part of Polish society, anti-Semitic attitudes serve on the one hand as an explanation for problems and complex situations and on the other hand as a mechanism to protect the nation's "good name".