Anti-Semitic language as a model for the linguistic view of LGBTQ + people in today’s Poland
In this text, Natalia Judzińska describes how the exclusionary language towards LGBTQI people in the Polish public discourse rests on a strong anti-Semitic basis.
Natalia Judzińska is a humanist, feminist, queer activist, member of the 8 March Agreement, which for the past 21 years has arranged “Manifa”, a series of feminist demonstrations on 8 March in Warsaw. Judzińska is a doctoral student at the Institute of Slavic Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences, where she is currently writing her thesis on “ghetto benches” at Polish universities during the interwar period (1918–1939).
Owing to its rich anti-Semitic tradition, the Polish language has at its disposal an unbelievable number of abusive words, stereotypes, invectives, similes and conspiracy theories. It therefore comes as no surprise that Polish has such an extensive vocabulary of contemptuous words and phrases for LGBTQ+ people.
In her book Do Europy - tak, ale razem z naszymi umarłymi (“To Europe : Yes, but Together with our Dead”) the recently deceased historian of ideas Maria Janion reconstructs and analyses the representation of the Jew in the nationalistic reactionary press between the two world wars. The constructed stereotypes, which she calls “phantoms”, paint an imaginary picture of a cross between a monster and an insect, something (not someone) evil and menacing that threatens Polishness in all its symbolic distinctiveness.
Janion also writes that “the linguistic image of the Jew created by the right was pejorative in its own unique way – the Jew was neither ‘worse’ or ‘amusing’, but dangerous and aggressive”. Consequently, the Jew aroused not only contempt but also fear.
According to anthropologist Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, the climate of anti-Semitic hatred in the interbellum (1918–1939) was such that “a pogrom was always considered an option” – an option that would also be taken up from time to time by the Polish majority. Despite the Holocaust, which is to say the ethnic cleansing that during modern times plagued six million European citizens, neither conceptions of the Jew nor the exclusionary language has died out. The latter is alive and well and the phantoms occasionally raise their ugly heads. In contemporary Poland, the Jew still appears as a component of expressions such as “the Jewish lobby” or as the root of neologisms like zażydzone(roughly “Jewified”). The word “Jew” itself is used as an insult.
Our intention here is not to ascertain how this myth arose, but if we regard homophobia as a constant and integrated part of the majority society’s cultural pattern, in the same way as anti-Semitism, we note that the exclusionary language used against LGBTQ+ people rests on a strongly anti-Semitic foundation. In the public discourse in Poland, the language used against LGBTQ+ people bears a bewildering similarity to anti-Semitic language – it employs similar devices, invokes similar constructions and introduces almost identical practices and threatened escalations. The linguistic image of LGBTQ+ people is based, to paraphrase the title of a chapter in Janion’s Do Europy, very much on stereotypes that we recognize from the anti-Jewish phantoms that characterize Polish culture. Exactly the same methods that are used today against LGBTQ+ people were used against the Jews before the Holocaust and subsequently against the survivors. In the eyes of the right, non-heterosexuals are a homogenous “mass” that is “controlled and financed from the outside”.
They can also be – and here Christian terminology is deployed – a “pestilence” whose primary objective is the “annihilation of Polishness” through the desecration of its fundamental symbols, such as the cross or the family.
The answer to the “gay plague” or “rainbow pestilence” is, say the “defenders of Polishness” – for now as a policy statement – geographical separation (“LGBT-free zones”), social isolation (proposals on a ban on demonstrations or on LGBT people holding public office), increased public violence occasioned by homophobic prejudice and ultimately extermination, something of which we are made aware by the words “Gas the gays” – one of the most widespread pogrom slogans used against LGBTQ+ people in Poland. This last is the unmitigated synthesis of homophobia and anti-Semitism’s “final solution”.
Sickness and plague
When the famed traveller, racist and homophobe Wojciech Cejrowski was signing his book during the “Good Taste Festival” in Poznań in 2009, activists from the Campaign Against Homophoba approached him for a dedication. Cejrowski didn’t just content himself with refusing to sign the book, but also spurned the gift of a Teletubby mascot on the grounds that it could be “infected with HIV”.
No mention is made in the public conversation any longer of HIV as a “punishment” for “homosexuality”; other more inventive slanders are used instead. Eleven years have passed since 2019 and thanks to NGOs and various informal groups active in the field of equality and antidiscrimination, considerable progress has undeniably been made. This said, LGBTQ+ people still have to endure frequent abusive taunts in Poland of the “Go and get medical help” kind.
Reprogramming therapy, appeals for sexual abstention, and different kinds of exorcism are just some of the many methods that the Polish majority culture recommend for LGBTQ+ people (more often than not by their nearest and dearest, i.e. “the Polish family”).
The prohibition against not just marriage but also cohabitation between Jewish Germans and non-Jewish Germans in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the forced castration of “mixed race individuals” to curb the “contamination” of German blood with Jewish, are just a few of the countless sources of inspiration available to the modern-day far-right, which holds that LGBTQ+ people could be just like the “healthy” majority if only they could desist in their “sick perversions”.
All this, despite having recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the removal of homosexuality from the WHO’s list of diseases.
New spiked barrels
During the most recent presidential campaign, it was not enough for the incumbent president Andrzej Duda to dehumanise LGBTQ+ people by claiming that “they are not people, only an ideology”; he also took a step further by suggesting that “the Polish constitution should expressly contain a clause excluding people living in same-sex relationships from adopting”, which he justified in terms of the child’s best interests. The child, regarded here as something sacred and an extension of the “Polish family”, apparently requires special care to be protected from a fabricated threat. It should be mentioned that such adoptions were already forbidden by Polish law.
Bogus concern for the interests of the child, or more specifically of eight-year-old Henryk Błaszczyk in the summer of 1946 Kielce, was the direct cause of the bloodiest pogrom in Poland after the Second World War.
All it took was for the boy, who had run away from home, to lie that he had been kidnapped by Jews for the undying myth that Jews kidnap babies to drain their blood, an indispensible ingredient of matza (unleavened bread), to be evoked. The most alarming aspect of this story is that Henryk Błaszczyk, just a short while before the physical abuse of Kielce’s Jews kicked off, had admitted that he had made up the story of his kidnapping. But this did not stop the mob, which went on to kill almost 40 Jews, including a pregnant woman and a newborn baby. Such situations clearly illustrate that concern for the best interests of the child is merely an excuse to justify violence against an invented threat.
Vans called homofobusy (homophobe busses) drive around Warsaw and Poznań, serving up, alongside the writing on their sides, messages shouted through megaphones. They reproduce, perpetuate and ultimately consolidate the equating of LBGT+ people with paedophiles and sexual education with the sexualisation of children.
This comparison is starting to resemble the legendary “spiked barrel” that was meant to be used to “drain the blood of Christian children for use in matza”. Despite repeated denials of its existence and reassurances that no blood is needed in the baking of matza, the mediaeval, anti-Semitic urban legend was oftentimes the spark that ignited pogroms in Poland in the 1900s – after the Holocaust.
On 6 May 2019, six police officers knocked at the door of the social activist Elżbieta Podleśna with a warrant to search her premises and confiscate her computers and external hard drives. Podleśna had been accused of offending religious sentiments and desecrating religious symbols by graphically altering the haloes surrounding the heads of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus from gold to rainbow colours. Podleśna was also accused of having flyposted the images around Płock church, whose Christmas decorations – the so-called “Holy Grave” – intimated that LGBTQ+ people had Jesus’ blood on their hands. The incident resonated so loudly through the media that the country’s most prominent individuals felt obliged to voice their own, naturally negative, opinion. After Podleśna’s appeal, the court decided that her arrest had been “unwarranted but legal”.
The arrest of Margot, activist associated with the group “Cut the crap”, and the request for her two-month pre-trial custody, also turned out to be “unwarranted but legal”. Margot, who had to spend three weeks in remand, was also accused of offending religious sentiments and of causing damage to property (one of the vans). Since her arrest, the prosecution has refused to give a legal explanation as to why it was necessary to place the activist in custody. On a comparison of crimes committed recently, we find that Grzegorz S. from Bartoszyce was detained for two months for having brandished his knife and threatened to kill his wife and daughter while in a drunken state, as was a 29-year-old from Szczecin, who brutally assaulted a foreigner on the street, stolen his phone and emptied his wallet. Two months is exactly what Margot received for having hung a rainbow flag on a Jesus statue outside one of Warsaw’s churches and for having stopped a van bearing a homophobic slogan, which she considered her civic duty.
The day after Margot had hung rainbow flags on statues, the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki lit a candle at a statue of Jesus and called Cut the Crap’s action “barbaric”. The Prime Minister has not only failed to condemn homophobia, he has also helped to introduce homophobia into the public conversation. The imagined desecration of religious symbols supposedly committed by a minority group is a familiar trope from the past. Back then, it took the form of accusations of desecration of the host, the roots of which go back to the myth of the alleged ritual murder, and of offending religious sentiments, when it was claimed that Jews had behaved inappropriately during a procession on the feast of Corpus Christi by hanging out their laundry to dry and other such “blasphemies”.
The new righteous and conditional support
In Ganz Andere? Jew Meaning Witch and Witch Meaning Jew … Joanna Tokarska-Bakir writes:
“…it is impossible to deceive language. It is a collective subject that is hard to oversee. If the changes of consciousness are superficial and based on pious hopes, the language will quickly betray the speaker”.
Former chairperson of Radio Nowy Świat, Piotr Jedliński, reacted to being rebuked for having referred to the arrested activist Margo as a “he”, arguing that it was an attack on his freedom: “Why do they want to impose their worldview on me and make me refer to someone I perceive as a man by using the female pronoun? What is happening is a massive attack that I refuse to capitulate to. What you’re doing has nothing to do with freedom”. Philosophy professor and renowned publicist Jan Hartman come to Jedliński’s defence, raising the question of the boundaries of “political correctness” in the centre-liberal magazine Polityka, one of the country’s most influential publications. Here, both Hartman and Jedliński perform a kind of magic trick, generally known by the name “turning black into white”. After having opened their statement by denouncing state violence against LGBTQ+ people, they closed by claiming that they are also speaker-subjects and the real victims of their statements and that their fate should be regretted. Hartman calls the criticism of his own criticism “heterophobia”.
In his column in the online edition of Polish “Newsweek”, editor-in-chief Tomasz Lis maintains that:
“…naturally there is no symmetry between the violation of human rights or the hounding of homosexual circles and an unfortunate happening that will certainly not benefit the despised groups but at most exacerbate their situation. What we do have, however, is a symmetry of disrespect towards the other side.”
In criticising the draping of the flag over the statue of Jesus, Lis is giving voice to the opinion that this can only make things worse for LBGT+ people. On the basis of his position of privilege he also exposes a symmetry of disrespect. It is thus an interesting situation from the perspective that the editor denounces the state persecution on the one hand, while on the other damning the strategy of the outcast group by assuming the role of arbiter or, at most, a passive observer of the events.
So is it legitimate to write that today’s situation is like that of the 1930s and that the persecution of LGBTQ+ people reproduces anti-Semitic practices? Yes, I believe it is. When I follow the media, political and public discourse I can find not only many parallels but also analogies, which is not to say that “we’re living in the 1930s” or that “homophobia is the new anti-Semitism”. The similarity, however, between linguistic practices is troubling. The failure to come to terms with Polish anti-Semitism has resulted in an extremely simple diversion of the entire pre-packaged and suppressed arsenal of phantoms against another undesirable group. Today, we LGBTQ+ people are that group.
Thanks to Sylwia Chutnik, Natalia Sarata and Natalia Aleksiun for their close reading, opinions and comments.
The Black Madonna icon in the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa, which is considered to be miraculous. This, of course, is a reproduction.
Spiked barrel – according to urban legend, the Jews would throw Christian children into a barrel full of spikes and then roll around to drain the victim of blood to be used in the making of matza.
Ghetto bench – an area in the lecture halls of Warsaw University reserved for Jewish students to ensure segregation from the other students.
 Maria Janion (1926–2020), historian of ideas, literary theoretician, specialist in Polish and European Romanticism. Her works focus on deconstructing the Polish national myth of Poland as “the saviour all nations”.
 Maria Janion, Do Europy - tak, ale razem z naszymi umarłymi (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Sic!, 2000), 161
 LGBT-free zones in Poland are a juridically implemented policy statement at a country and metropolitan level. You can see a map of these zones here: https://atlasnienawisci.pl/, and read more about the idea behind them in https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/world/europe/LGBT-free-poland-EU-fun…
 For more details about the incident, see Cejrowski till KPH: ”od pedziów nie biorę” (I don’t take things from queers), https://queer.pl/news/191131/cejrowski-do-kph-od-pedziow-nie-biore
On 17 May 1990 the WHO voted homosexuality off its International Statistical Classification of Diseases. The International Day against Homophobia (IDAHO) was inaugurated on 17 May 2004, to which transphobia and bifobia were added in 2009 and 2015 respectively. There have since been two acronyms/initialisms in use (IDAHOTB and IDAHOBIT).
From his presidential campaign speech in Szczawno-Zdrój, 3 July 2020.
 Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Ganz Andere? Żyd jako czarownica i czarownica jako Żyd w polskich i obcych źródłach etnograficznych, czyli jak czytać protokoły przesłuchań [Warszawa] Inny, inna, inne. O inności w kulturze, (Ganz Andere? Jew Meaning Witch, Witch Meaning Jew in Polish and Foreign Ethnographic Sources. How to Read Court Proceedings [Warszawa] The Other: About Otherness in Culture), ed. M. Janion, C. Snochowska-Gonzalez & K. Szczuka, Warszawa: Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, 2004.
 Jan Hartman, Transpoprawność w radiu (trans-correctness on radio), “Polityka”, 34.2020, 2020.08.18.
 Tomasz Lis, Pogarda, siostra pogardy (Contempt, the sister of contempt), https://www.newsweek.pl/opinie/tomasz-lis-pogarda-siostra-pogardy-felie… [21.08.2020]