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“On the hierarchy of Jewish values, life is at the top”

A conversation with Jonathan Ornstein, Director of the Jewish Community Centre in Kraków, Poland. Interviewer: Katie Toth

October 18, 2023 - Jonathan Ornstein Katie Toth - Interviews

Vigil at the market square in Kraków. Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Community Centre in Kraków.

October 7th 2023 was a day of violence that evoked the pogroms and genocide of Europe’s darkest history. Images of challah left uneaten on the table, and a child’s bed covered in blood. Jews left dead at a bus stop, killed in their beds and abducted from a sun-drenched rave in an act of terror by Hamas – which killed more than 1,300 people and took at least 199 hostages.

In the days since, retaliatory Israeli airstrikes have levelled entire neighbourhoods in the 2.3 million Gaza Strip and killed more than 3,000 according to the local health ministry. On October 9th, Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant said the country was putting Gaza and its population of 2.3 million under “complete siege,” including “no electricity, no food, no gas.” The UN has said civilians have nowhere to go as the humanitarian crisis reaches a “dangerous new low.”

360,000 Israeli Defense Force (IDF) reservists have been called up and military experts say a bloody ground invasion into the strip appears imminent. Over 2,000 kilometres away, Kraków’s Jewish Community Centre (JCC) has been hustling to make itself a safe point for Israelis in Poland suddenly watching their country return to war. Volunteers at the centre offered to help people with logistics as they figured out how to get medications or navigate returning home amid suspended flights. Israeli kids were welcomed alongside Polish ones at the centre’s preschool so that their parents had time to think.

“It’s our goal to do all we can to support Israel and the Israelis around the world and especially, particularly, the ones that are here in Kraków,” said JCC executive director Jonathan Ornstein. “It’s beyond an Israeli question. It’s a question of our security for our community that we’re dealing with here as well.” Since October 7th, France has reported dozens of antisemitic attacks. Here in Krakow, the centre has increased security; guards watch the street and perform bag-checks outside the building.

Amid anger for the dead and fear for the hostages, more than 100 members of Krakow’s Jewish community and its supporters came together in the city’s main square, to sing and grieve. The day after the vigil, New Eastern Europe spoke with Ornstein about how his community is responding.

Jonathan Ornstein (pictured on the left) at a vigil in Kraków for the victims of the terror attack in southern Israel. Photo: Courtesy of JCC Kraków

KATIE TOTH: I was at the vigil last night. I was wondering if you could tell me about what that was like from your perspective.

JONATHAN ORNSTEIN: I was proud that we were able to do something like that. I’m an Israeli citizen. I served in the Israeli army. It is difficult to see things like this, I think, for anyone. I have a lot of friends in Israel, family in Israel, and you feel powerless when these things are happening and you’re away from Israel, although I haven’t lived there in a long time.

So it felt good to be able to do something and to stand in the centre of Kraków and to sing the Israeli anthem and to sing songs in Hebrew and have Jews and non-Jews together. It meant a lot. It did make me think about history. We’re not in a vacuum here in Kraków, obviously, as the Jewish community next to Auschwitz. And thinking about how easily, how quick we are to condemn the Nazis, whose goal was to kill Jews, and talk about “Amon Göth used to be so terrible and shot children,” and yet how the world equivocates when a group named Hamas wants to kill Jews and uses methods that the Nazis used.

I was moved yesterday to be standing with a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor who remembers what it’s like to be marked for death because he was Jewish. And as a teenager just — was lucky, and managed to survive five different concentration camps. It makes me very sad that somebody who 80 years ago, saw Jews being killed for being Jews, still lives in a world where Jews are killed for being Jews. And the world does not stand up united against it. That is a difficult thing for me and for many other Jews to process.

Foreign Policy published an article suggesting that basically over the past several years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to engage with the Palestinian Authority, for example, and effectively strengthened Hamas with his policies. Do you have any anger for the Israeli government for how things have gotten to this point?

I have a lot of frustration with the Israeli government for what just happened. There’s a lot of money and time and effort and expertise that’s been expended to protect citizens of Israel. And that failed and we’ll have to understand how that happened and fix the situation. And there’ll be a time to think about those things and understand how the military, the security apparatus, intelligence apparatus, the government, that this happened on their watch. 

But right now I’m mostly thinking about the hostages, getting them back safely and how to ensure a situation that won’t allow this to happen again. I think that when you had ISIS and the Islamic State, there wasn’t a question of, “Oh, let’s go and negotiate with them”. There was a question of something to be eradicated. And I think that what we now understand clearly is that Hamas is an organisation whose goal is destroying Israel. It has always been their goal, but maybe we need to take it a little more seriously. We need to get rid of them before there can be any peace with anybody. A state is a failed state if it can’t defend its citizens and Israel needs to make sure that what just happened will never happen again.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell has said that Israel absolutely has the right to defend itself, but that the response needs to fall within international law. What do you think when you hear that?

I think that if you are hiding amongst the civilian population, that’s a violation of international law. And the only way to deal with that is to go after the terrorists wherever they might be. And I don’t want one more innocent Gazan to be killed than need be, but my primary concern right now is to get those hostages out and to have Israel be safe.

I just think it’s very difficult. And unfortunately, there’ll be a lot of collateral damage that I wish weren’t the case.

Some people are describing this as the death knell for the two-state solution. Do you have thoughts on that?

I do not think necessarily that it is. I think that it’s in everybody’s interest in that part of the world for there to be peace, a lasting peace and a secure situation. But if I’m a decision-maker in Israel today and I see what is coming out of Gaza, I’m not in any hurry to give up security control. Jews understand history. We understand our own history and we have undergone unprecedented genocide within living memory. And sometimes what it comes down to, unfortunately, is protecting ourselves and avoiding that genocide, and world opinion can go f*ck itself.

I understand that in addition to working in the IDF, you also worked on a kibbutz, or close-knit farming community. (More than 120 people of the Be’eri Kibbutz were murdered, including children, and while the death toll at Kfar Aza Kibbutz has not been shared, Israeli soldiers told the press there were at least 100 casualties.) I know that a few of the people who have been taken hostage were on a kibbutz as well, and I was wondering if that evokes any particular memories for you.

A kibbutz is different than just a town or a village. It is, in some ways, an extended family. And it’s particularly painful when people that you have that intimate relationship with are slaughtered. But a kibbutz is also nurturing, and … you feel the support and the warmth from others when tragedy happens, although we’re talking about things that are an unprecedented scale. I lived on a kibbutz and a couple of times that a soldier, someone from the kibbutz was killed and it was tragic and the whole kibbutz came together. But I cannot imagine going through what these other kibbutzim are going through now, having so many people slaughtered and still having people held hostage. I think probably what affects me even more than a kibbutz is that I became a father recently. I have a small daughter and seeing children being kidnapped is something incomprehensible to me. I don’t know how much more depraved you can get than that.

But the Jewish people are strong and 80 years after the Holocaust the Jewish population in Europe is growing. Jews are at the forefront of many fields around the world, and I would say the primary reason are our values. Our JCC here for the last almost two years has dedicated itself to helping Ukrainian refugees, 99 per cent of whom are not Jewish, and we’ve helped over 250,000 refugees because it’s the right thing to do. And I think that’s what being Jewish means.

Unfortunately, part of being Jewish also means to some degree being treated differently, historically. If we were having this interview a few hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have asked, Oh, but why are Jews in Germany and in Italy living in ghettos? Why, why is that? It’s just the way that it is. And I think that the way the world treats Israel is the way the world historically has treated Jews. You have different levels of it in different places, but you have more or less accepted antisemitism for the last 2,000 years in the world. There’s been very few places that the Jews have been completely treated normally. So the idea that a country regains a nation, regains its sovereignty after 2,000 years of being treated differently — the idea that that nation is going to be treated normally by people that treated its citizens or its predecessors differently for 2,000 years with animosity for long periods of time — is a little naive.

Historically Kraków has been seen by a lot of Jews as a site of Jewish death. Often Jewish groups come here as proof of why Israel is so important. And in the past you’ve really pushed back on this and you’ve said that Kraków is very much a site of Jewish life. Does the series of attacks like this change that for you?

No. Israel is the Jewish homeland. But I don’t think every Jew needs to live in Israel. But I do think that the only thing safeguarding Jews overall in the world is the state of Israel. Every inch of it might not always be safe at every moment. But we all understand that had there been a state of Israel 80 years ago, then that number of Jews, the six million murdered in the Holocaust, would have been a far smaller number. And I still believe that’s the case. You are right, I have always made the case that we do not need to show how terrible things were in Kraków to understand the necessity of Israel, but that is part of the narrative. It’s not that we don’t want people to visit Auschwitz. We just [also] want them to learn about life before Auschwitz … and the life after Auschwitz. Just see the entirety of the picture, and that there’s a lot of good. The Jewish people, above everything else, is a people of life. An observant Jew is not allowed to get in a car on the Sabbath and go to a lecture about history or to go to a commemoration. But he is commanded to get in that car to save someone’s life. On the hierarchy of Jewish values, life is at the top. One of the reasons that our Kraków community is important in the world is because this life, reborn after such tragedy, reminds us of the fact that life is the highest value in Judaism. I think that’s clear, and I think that’s also what Israel is about.

Jonathan Ornstein is the chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Centre of Kraków. The organization is devoted to rebuilding Jewish life in the city and has become one of Poland’s most visible signs of Jewish revival.

Katie Toth is a senior reporting fellow with New Eastern Europe and an Erasmus Mundus scholar with the Vaclav Havel Joint Master Programme in European Politics and Society.

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