Incident at Krakow cafe: When is anti-Semitism not anti-Semitism?

A troubling recent incident in the heart of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, has raised questions anew about the scope and impact of anti-Semitism in the age of instant response and interactive social media.

The incident involved a waiter (or waiters) at a popular cafe, Moment, who rudely refused service to a group of about a dozen would-be patrons — foreigners and Poles, Jews and non-Jews, some wearing kippot — late at night shortly before closing time.

Accounts differ, but at some point during a heated encounter the wait staff reportedly called the group “f—king Jews” and told them to “f off” to Israel (or, according to some accounts, to go back to Warsaw or to another cafe down the block). Ironically, among them was the German writer Uwe von Seltmann, the grandson of a Nazi SS man, who was in town to promote a book he wrote with his Polish wife, whose grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz.

The incident was reported to the police, picked up by the local — and international — media, and spread like wildfire on Facebook.

But was it “really” anti-Semitism, or more a case of ugly words unleashed in an angry confrontation that got out of hand?

Disturbing as it was, it was clearly not a pre-meditated attack on Jews. Nor did it approach the scale of recent anti-Semitic incidents in other countries, where Jews have been deliberately targeted, physically attacked — or killed, as in Toulouse, France, this past March.

When considering anti-Semitism, though, do such diversities matter?

“Even the simple expression of anti-Semitic views in public discourse can have a corrosive effect over time and may lead to very real security concerns,” Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish relations, told me.

Several particular factors made the Moment incident the talk of Jewish Krakow for days. For one thing, it occurred at a time and place that many found inconceivable.

Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, thrives on a lively and multifaceted interaction between Jews and non-Jews — everything from tourism, study programs, cultural events and religious observance.

The would-be cafe patrons at Moment had just attended the annual Jewish Culture Festival’s exhilarating open-air “Shalom” concert, a seven-hour love-fest that saw 15,000 people of all ages, religions and ethnic backgrounds dancing and cheering to Jewish music in the Jewish quarter’s main square.

What’s more, Moment cafe had been known as a venue particularly open to Jews and other minorities, including gays.

“I go there a lot, and I have never detected even a whiff of anti-Semitic or prejudiced behavior, nor has anyone I’ve been there with,” Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the Krakow JCC, told me.

In many ways, I found the aftermath of the Moment incident much more troubling than the original episode. Articles about it posted on Polish websites unleashed hundreds of odious — and absolutely unambiguous — anti-Semitic comments, along the lines of “Bravo for the waiters. Give them a prize” and “I hate Jews; finally they are treated as they should be.”

At the same time, from the other direction, a Facebook group calling for a boycott of the “anti-Semitic Moment Cafe” amassed more than 320 members and also ran outspoken comments before it was taken offline after two days.

And Moment itself was spray-painted on its outside walls with graffiti calling it “Nazi” and “fascist.”

All of this made me consider the dynamics of anti-Semitism. What makes an incident — or turns an incident — into something anti-Semitic? How can local and national contexts influence the way episodes, events and intentions are viewed, experienced or even defined?

I’ve suffered plenty of rude behavior from waiters in my day — even last week in a touristy part of Krakow. But if someone in an argument would call me a “f—king American” or “stupid woman,” would that mean he or she was anti-American or anti-woman per se? Or just a loud-mouthed idiot?

This is Poland, though, with its history of prewar anti-Semitism and Holocaust destruction, not to mention postwar pogroms and persecution of Jews under communism.

“It is Poland where we come from and where we were born, and any anti-Semitic, even only verbal, attack will break my heart more than what happens to French Jews,” Daniela Malec, one of the Jews who was part of the group involved in the Moment cafe incident, told me in an e-mail a few days later.

“This is the case for the many Jews born in Poland,” she wrote. “We have our own trauma and it cannot be compared to traumas of different places. And we react to any manifestations of anti-Semitism via this trauma.”

Poland in fact has done much in recent years to ease relations with the Jewish world, cement links with Israel and promote Jewish communal and cultural revival. But many — possibly most — Jews worldwide don’t trust this.

Given history, there is even something of a “gotcha” aspect to any anti-Semitic manifestation here.

As it happened, with crowded venues, open doors, huge public Shabbat dinners and little overt security, the 10-day Jewish Culture Festival had gone on in Krakow without a hitch. And the Euro2012 Soccer cup, too, recently concluded without incident, despite prior fears of anti-Semitism in the stadiums.

But for many, the Moment incident — and much more so the hate-filled aftermath on the web — confirmed the distrust.

It made newspaper columnist Wojciech Pelowski rhetorically throw up his hands.

“I would rather defend a pulsating multicultural Kazimierz,” he wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza in a column calling for a crackdown on Internet hate. But, he added, “I cannot — and this is why.”

And he simply listed some of the barrage of racist and anti-Semitic comments that had appeared online after the Moment incident.