Father Charles Coughlin may have been the father of radio demagoguery in the US, cozying up to Hitler in the ‘30’s, and arguing along with Charles Lindbergh for American isolationism. Almost thirty years after his death, he has returned, this time as Polish priest Tadeusz Rydzyk
In his heyday, more than 40 million radio listeners a week heard Coughlin inveigh against the source of America’s woes in the ‘30’s: atheists, communists, capitalists – and most importantly the Jews who were behind all of them. Jews were behind the Bolshevik Revolution, but also running the capitalist banks, and the ones who orchestrated the Great Depression. He championed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and copied sections of Goebbels in one of his speeches.
Father Tadeusz Rydzyk has preached antisemitism and a nationalist-clerical politics for fifteen years over his Radio Maryja. He has become a potent force in Polish politics. Until a few days ago, his support was a key component in the coalition run by the twin brothers Kaczynski who serve as Poland’s President and Prime Minister. Rydzyk’s recent tirade against Jews (and against the President’s wife, whom he called a witch) has distanced him from the country’s rulers.
“You know what this is about, Poland giving [the Jews] $65 billion. They will come to you and say, ‘Give me your coat. Take off your trousers. Give me your shoes.'” This speech was his reaction to a plan to offer compensation to Jews and others who lost property to the former communist regime’s confiscations.
The timing could not have been worse. Yesterday, Lech Kaczynski dismissed his deputy foreign minister because of the latter’s involvement in a corruption scandal. But Andrzej Lepper is also the leader of a coalition partner, and the loss of support of both Lepper and Rydzyk may be the double-whammy that will force early elections.
Poland today has a stable democracy and an expanding economy. It is, believe it or not, one of Israel’s staunchest allies in global politics. Antisemitism has certainly not disappeared, but there is significant philosemitism there as well, particularly in the younger generation. A Museum of the History of Polish Jews is scheduled to be completed in 2009. Even decades ago, Shlomo Carlebach played to audiences of enthusiastic young non-Jewish Poles. The Pope most favorably disposed towards Jews in memory was Polish. The Council of Polish Bishops has spoken out against Rydzyk. On the other hand, recently retired Cardinal Glemp showed a consistent pattern of hatred towards Jews. For many years, the Poles referred to the multiple Nazi extermination camps as killing fields for Poles, despite the fact that the Jews murdered there by the millions were never seen as Poles but as outsiders. But more recently, Irena Sendler a non-Jewish Pole was recently recognized at age 97 as a Polish heroine for saving 2500 Jewish children during the war, and not cracking under Nazi torture.
What it boils down to is a familiar theme in human history. Rydzyk’s hate-mongering may bring down a government. In a country with very few Jews, antisemitism may once again prove to be counterproductive, acting to the detriment of all its citizens.
In 1936, pressure from the Vatican shut Coughlin down, if only for a while. Today, the Simon Wiesenthal Center [full disclosure: I work there] asked the Pope to use his offices to shut down Rydzyk.
The Pope recently demonstrated his commitment to combat antisemitism by calling an international bishop’s meeting next year to deal with the issue. Getting rid of the rot from within would seem to be a good place to start.