When in doubt, create an enemy

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WARSAW – When in doubt, invent an enemy.

This was the strategy that the Communists who took control of Poland after WWII used to stay in power when they took the Jews as scapegoats to prevent the Poles from rebelling against their rule. And the conservative Law and Justice Party, which has ruled Poland since 2015, operates the same playbook, experts said.

Led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Law and Justice – also known by its Polish acronym, PiS – has found new enemies to stoke its conservative base while pushing Poland to the right and undermining democratic institutions and the judiciary in a country that was once a beacon of freedom in Eastern Europe, experts said.

Gays, migrants, feminists – all have found themselves demonized by this Polish government, according to Sebastian Rejak of the American Jewish Committee and other analysts tracking down the government.

“Discrimination can start with Jews, but it never ends with Jews,” he said. “If others are targeted, so will the Jews sooner or later. We are therefore standing up to defend the other minorities.

He said that Law and Justice is not cut from the same anti-Semitic fabric as the Communist Party that purged Jews from Poland in 1968, but that it enjoys the support of parts of Polish society in which prejudices against Jews persist.

In recent times, desperate Muslim migrants trapped on Poland’s border with Belarus have become political pawns in a power play of law and justice as she tries to consolidate her support. Hundreds of migrants are hiding in border forests and facing freezing conditions. Several are said to have died.

Poland and the Baltic States, as well as the European Commission, argue that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko created the crisis as revenge for critics of his authoritarian regime by allowing migrants hoping to reach Western Europe to pass through Belarus, then to cross its border to neighboring states of the EU. .

A refugee reads a Koran as he sits with other detainees by Polish border guards and Belarusian forces in Usnarz Gorny, Poland.NurPhoto via Getty Images file

But critics say Law and Justice has also used the crisis to show its conservative Roman Catholic base that it is a “bulwark of Christianity” defending the country against Muslims.

In an apparent attempt to spark anti-immigrant sentiment, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski last month posted a photo of a man mating with a cow he said came from a cell phone confiscated from a migrant who had tried to enter Poland.

TVP, the state-funded television channel that critics say works as a propaganda vehicle for the ruling party, quickly trumpeted his statement with the headline: “He raped a cow and wanted to enter Poland?” Details on migrants at the border.

This attempt to smear the migrants imploded when the photo turned out not to be a migrant and was traced to a bestiality porn movie widely available on the web – and which involved a horse and not a cow, numerous news outlets have reported.

But Kaminski’s decision succeeded in horrifying enough a large section of Polish society to attract a rare rebuke from the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which largely kept pace with the ruling party.

“The situation of immigrants is not new,” said Sarian Jarosz of Amnesty International, which monitors the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the border. “In 2015, there was also a crisis in Europe. But then the migrants were far away, not at our border.”

“Even then, the PiS government was building an ‘enemy’ who is on the outside and wants to reach and hurt us,” he added.

Mariusz Kaminski.Adam Guz File / Gallo Images / Getty Images

In fact, the problem of Syrians fleeing the devastating civil war in that country and flocking to Europe in 2015 helped propel Law and Justice to power – Kaczynski had vowed to defend the border against Muslim migrants he called bearers of “All kinds of parasites and protozoa”. and which would impose Sharia, or Islamic law, and use Catholic churches as “toilets”.

“What they want is power, and fear is a great motivator,” said Alexander Storozynski, a Polish-American activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author.

“If you have an enemy, you are more willing to fight. They make people fear ‘the other’. and they use the same tactics as the Communists, ”said Storozynski, who has met with Kaczynski and other senior law and justice officials over the years.

The Other and the Enemy

Who is “the other”?

“Anyone who is not a traditional Polish Catholic,” Storozynski said.

NBC News has contacted the Polish government spokesperson for comment. But there was no response.

There are also signs that the government’s attempts to demonize migrants are backfiring. Polling company Gallup, which maintains a Migrant Acceptance Index, reported a sharp increase in public acceptance of besieged migrants, most of whom are from the Middle East, last month.

In addition, many ordinary Poles have challenged their own government to help and support migrants.

Kamil Syller, a Polish lawyer who lives near the border, urges people who wish to help display green lights so migrants know it is safe to approach their homes for food and accommodation.

“We, the people of the border region, who see the human drama and suffering, do not have to calculate,” he told the country’s main newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. “We have to stay human.”

To rally its deeply religious voter base, Law and Justice also demonized women protesting against abortion restrictions and portrayed the LGBTQ community as the spread of an alien “ideology” and promoted the so-called ” LGBT-free areas ”.

To counter criticism of the European Union that it is undermining the Polish judiciary and press freedom, the ruling party has exploited the deep vein of Polish patriotism and paranoia by accusing the EU of trampling on independence from the country.

“The PiS government is not only looking for enemies on the outside, but for years it has been constantly building internal enemies: women, gays and lesbians, and during a pandemic even doctors and paramedics,” said Jarosz said.

Polish gay activist Bartosz Staszewski said Kaczynski and his party used tactics even Communists dared not use.

“A hate campaign against the LGBT community in Poland has been going on since 2019,” he said. “This is unprecedented. It has never happened before, we weren’t even criticized as openly under the Communists as we are now.”

Unlike the United States and other countries, homosexuality has never been illegal in Poland and recent polls show growing support for same-sex marriage. But that did not stop Kaczynski and his allies from using the TVP channel to falsely “equate LGBT circles with pedophiles”.

“I have the impression that now a new enemy has been found, it is the refugees who seek asylum in our country,” Staszewski said. “Poland treats them worse than animals, which means they die in the forest from hypothermia and starvation.”

According to him, the government has so far succeeded in staying in power by tapping into the deep resentments of the Poles who were left behind when the country’s new capitalist economy took off, or who felt dislocated by the Poles. Rapid societal changes that followed Poland shook its Soviet chains and joined the European Union.

Meanwhile, anti-Semitism persists in Poland despite the fact that most of the country’s more than 3 million Jews were wiped out by the German occupiers during the Holocaust. In 1968, the Communists exploited this hatred and used it to expel 13,000 Jews from Poland and subsequently continued to persecute the few who remained.

Since Poland’s exit from the Soviet bloc in 1989, there has been a revival of the Jewish community, and Rejak said the current Polish government “is investing heavily in projects aimed at restoring Jewish cultural sites.” But he rarely repudiates the fanatic voices of the far right.

“This silence of policymakers when it comes to demonizing Jews by the radical right can result from fear,” he said. “The fear that if government officials condemned anti-Semitism, some voters might ask the difficult question, ‘Why are you defending the Jews? “”

Ewa Galica reported from Warsaw; Corky Siemaszko from New York


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