How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

May 4, 2006

Lech Walesa in San Diego

Filed under: Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 18:00

I wrote this following the Polish leader’s appearance on the SDSU campus last Friday. My thanks to Don Harrison for his kindly and helpful editing:

When Lech Walesa, the upstart Polish labor union leader who became Poland’s first democratically elected president, spoke at San Diego State University recently, I welcomed the opportunity to see and hear him firsthand. This was a man, after all, who had a significant part to play in the collapse of Communism, the tearing down of the Iron Curtain, and eventually the end of the Soviet Union.

Little did I know that I would find out exactly how much of a part he played – 30% is his own estimation (he gives 50% of the credit to Pope John Paul II, a Pole himself; the remaining 20%, although Walesa didn’t explicitly state this, must go to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev). The rest of Walesa’s April 28 lecture, delivered in Polish through an interpreter, maintained this charming, if somewhat simplistic, view of the world.

His thumbnail sketch of the complex sociopolitical forces at work at the time of his historic elevation from lowly (and then unemployed) shipyard electrical worker to international human rights icon completely ignored the role of then-President Ronald Reagan, except that Walesa referred to the USSR using Reagan’s “Evil Empire” moniker. Similarly, Walesa’s ideas about a global parliament and security force to take the place of the ailing, some would say impotent, United Nations, are also unsophisticated.

On the plus side, Walesa is funny (his humor was deftly transmitted by his interpreter, Magdalana Iwinska, timing and all to the 1,700 students and faculty members who filled Montezuma Hall), and it’s easy to see how his charisma helped him become the revolutionary he ended up being.

Unfortunately, his ideas about ameliorating the world’s ills in the age of globalization are at best naïve, and at worst dangerous. His underlying concept of a global parliamentary body has potential, but his suggestions for how such a body would handle disputes and conflicts leaves something to be desired.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner recommended that such a body primarily deal with three issues affecting the global community: 1) border conflicts; 2) anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination leading to violence; 3) terrorism.

It was a little deflating to hear his solution to these pressing problems: give the offending party 48 hours to comply with the global parliament’s warm and fuzzy demands, or… well, Walesa didn’t talk about potential consequences, either, leaving his audience to come up with appropriate reprisals. After repeating several times that we live in a new era (of information, globalization, etc.), he failed to provide any practical guidance about conflict resolution to the 21st century generation.

His comparison of the world’s most intractable conflicts to a cockfight that could be solved by “plucking the feathers” from the birds (read: cutting off military and economic aid to the warring parties) would be laughable if the bloodshed in the Middle East, Sudan, and other regions wasn’t so incalculable. It’s hard to take seriously a man who posits that factions that won’t disarm according to the global parliament’s conditions “should move to the North Pole.”

Walesa’s review of Eastern European history and Poland’s central place in it was painfully incomplete to Jewish listeners. The Poles certainly have suffered at the hands of the Germans and Russians (and then Soviets), and they certainly are a proud and opinionated people upon whom the yoke of Communism weighed particularly heavily.

But Walesa utterly bypassed his own people’s contributions to the history of discrimination, especially anti-Semitism, and ethnic cleansing, beginning long before World War II. This wasn’t intended to be a mea culpa lecture, to be sure, but it’s difficult to take anything a man of Walesa’s stature says at face value when he so brazenly whitewashes such a significant part of his own nation’s history.


When I asked for family feedback before publishing, my dad’s response was: “…he is obviously one of those many people in history who led a revolution but were unfit to govern (Washington was an execption). And it’s OK. his place in history is already reserved. ” Now I didn’t live under Walesa in the new Poland (and neither did my dad) so I can’t speak to his ability to govern there, but he’s certainly not 21st century leader material.

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