Politics

Why did a far-right MP take a fire extinguisher to a Jewish menorah just as Poland’s new government was being voted into power?

Why did a far-right MP take a fire extinguisher to a Jewish menorah just as Poland's new government was being voted into power?

In an attack caught on video, a member of the Polish parliament (Sejm) used a fire extinguisher to put out the Hanukkah candles on a menorah positioned in a public area of the building, filling the room with mist and covering bystanders with foam. Grzegorz Braun, an MP for the far-right alliance Konfederacja, then stated that “those who take part in acts of Satanic worship should be ashamed”. He was subsequently excluded from the sitting of parliament. Konfederacja condemned his actions on X (formerly Twitter).

Konfederacja was established in 2018 as an alliance of five far-right Polish parties, including Braun’s Konfederacja Korony Polskiej (Confederation of the Polish Crown). The alliance won 7.2% of the vote in this year’s election.

Braun himself has been an MP since 2019, and has been outspoken with his antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-EU views and conspiracy theories. He infamously refers to “the war which the Jews have waged against the Polish nation”, for example.

This isn’t his first publicity stunt. In June 2023, he interrupted a lecture on “Poland’s problems with the history of the Holocaust” by shouting “enough” and forcibly taking the microphone away from the speaker.

Braun’s latest actions may have been a response to the results of the latest Polish election, which saw Donald Tusk’s centrist Civic Coalition (KO) receiving enough votes to form a coalition government with the Left and the centre-right Third Way. Braun’s antisemitic act came just as parliament was preparing for a vote of confidence in the new government. The vote went ahead and the motion passed, despite the disruption.

Contextualising antisemitism in Poland

The sight of Braun brandishing the fire extinguisher may have been depressing, but perhaps not surprising, to many Polish people. There is comparatively less stigma around overt antisemitism in Poland than in some other European nations.

It is true that countries such as France and Germany have also struggled with the phenomenon of historical competitive victimhood, feeling that the suffering of their non-Jewish populations during the second world war has been overlooked due to a focus on the Holocaust – but Poland is a particularly prevalent example of the problem.

Non-Jewish Poles suffered a huge amount under the Soviet and Nazi occupations. The Soviet Union did not recognise the Polish state and the Nazis considered all Poles to be subhuman. It is estimated that between 1.8 and 1.9 million non-Jewish Poles died under the Nazis.

Accepting Jewish victimhood (90% of Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust) and considering the possible complicity of non-Jewish Poles in the occupation is often felt to take focus away from the latter’s experience. Some consider that events such as the Katyn massacre of 1940 are overlooked and the hardship of non-Jewish Polish forced labourers forgotten.

In a recent poll by the Anti-Defamation League, 57% of respondents in Poland said that Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust, and scholars have demonstrated that feelings of victimisation correlate with antisemitic beliefs in Poland. This is compounded by the legacy of the communist regime in Poland as part of the Soviet Bloc. During that period, Jewish suffering in the Holocaust was generalised as part of the wider victimhood from fascism, rather than marked as something specific to the Jewish community.

The effects of this are still felt. As recently as 2018, the Law and Justice party (PiS), in government at the time, passed a law making it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in the Nazi Holocaust. This was subsequently changed to make it a civil, rather than a criminal, offence.

Catholicism has also played a role in Polish antisemitism since before the Holocaust. This is now visible through religious media outlets such as Radio Maryja, which broadcasts antisemitic conspiracy theories, such as alleged Jewish infiltration in liberal politics, and fears of Jews reclaiming property stolen during the Holocaust. The latter is a particularly contentious issue in Poland, as it is the only EU country not to have passed any legislation to restore stolen property to the descendants of their Jewish owners.

Braun’s reference to “acts of Satanic worship” is also telling. It implies a belief in the blood libel claim – the idea that forms a key part of historical anti-Jewish hatred and alleges that Jews use Christian blood in their acts of worship.

Throughout its administration, PiS sought to present itself as the defender of Christian values. And, while not as overtly antisemitic as Konfederacja, PiS has arguably normalised antisemitism while in power due to its exclusionary narratives. The party has drawn on its Christian image to argue that it is defending Poland against Muslims, to ostracise members of the LGBTQ+ community and to target women’s rights activists protesting against abortion restrictions. The notion that the Polish in-group is comprised of traditional Catholics and no one else is detrimental to Poland’s Jews.

The far right in western Europe

While antisemitism is far from unique to Poland, the far-right parties that have seen electoral success in western Europe are more implicit in their expressions of antisemitism. Parties like Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) have learned the gains to be made by refuting accusations of prejudice towards Jews. Braun’s Konfederacja is perhaps ideologically more akin to extreme parties such as Die Heimat (formerly the NPD) in Germany – which are electorally irrelevant now.

Electorally successful parties, such as the AfD, Rassemblement National in France, or the Freedom Party of Austria, are known for engaging in Holocaust relativism and occasionally using antisemitic code words, such as “globalists”. But as these parties have also constructed an image for themselves as pro-Jewish, predominantly through the narrative of wanting to “protect” Jews from Muslim antisemitism, it would be unlikely for these parties to engage in a stunt such as Braun’s, publicly attacking Jews for being Jews.

It is at least comforting that Braun’s stunt received such a backlash and that his alliance remains on the fringes of Polish politics. Meanwhile, Tusk’s new premiership hopefully heralds a time of greater inclusion in Polish society.

Claire Burchett receives funding from the London Arts & Humanities Doctoral Training Partnership.