March 1st, 2024

Far-right lawmaker extinguishes Hanukkah candles in Polish parliament

By Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press on December 12, 2023.

WARSAW, Poland (AP) – A far-right lawmaker in the Polish parliament used a fire extinguisher on Tuesday and put out the burning candles on a menorah that were lit for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

All major political forces quickly denounced the unprecedented incident carried out by Grzegorz Braun, one of the most controversial lawmakers in the current parliament, and said there would be no tolerance for antisemitic and xenophobic behavior in the parliament.

Braun, a pro-Russian member of the Confederation party, has in the past falsely claimed that there is a plot to turn Poland into a “Jewish state” and has called for homosexuality to be criminalized.

The speaker of the parliament, Szymon Holownia, called the act “absolutely scandalous” and excluded Braun from the day’s parliamentary session, expressing hopes that “he will not return soon.” He said he was reporting him to prosecutors. The parliament also slapped the highest possible financial penalty on Braun, forcing him to lose half of three months of his salary and per diems for half a year.

“Poland is home to all religions,” Holownia said.

According to video footage of the incident, Braun grabbed a red fire extinguisher and put out candles on the menorah. A cloud of smoke, haze and white powder filled the area.

Rabbi Shalom Ber Stambler, who led the Hanukkah ceremony as he has done for 17 years, told The Associated Press the celebration took place peacefully and had just ended when suddenly chaos broke out and he became aware that Braun was putting out the candles on the sixth night of the weeklong festival.

People begged him to stop and a woman, a member of the Jewish community, tried to stop Braun. Kickback smoke from the extinguisher went into her face and she needed medical attention afterward. Every year, members of the Jewish community attend the menorah lightning in the parliament.

“He was doing it in a very brutal way,” Stambler added, speaking of Braun.

The incident disrupted an important day in Poland’s parliament, when the newly elected Prime Minister Donald Tusk gave his inaugural speech. Tusk pledged in his speech that his government would demand that the Western world keep up its help for Ukraine and that it would be a stable ally to the United States and NATO.

He strongly condemned the antisemitic incident saying: “This is unacceptable, this must never happen again. This is disgrace.”

The incident delayed a vote of confidence in his government.

Stambler, a rabbi for the Chabad community, said that if felt like Braun wanted to disrupt a day when many people were happy after Tusk was elected and gave his inaugural speech to parliament.

“Somebody was trying to destroy it,” Stambler said. “And I think the impact is the opposite. Now there will be even more awareness of how much tolerance is needed, how it is important.”

After the incident the candles were lit again.

U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski tweeted: “I am outraged by the nasty anti-Semitic act committed today by one of the Polish members of parliament.”

The incident was also denounced by Poland’s Catholic church.

“I am ashamed and I apologize to the whole Jewish community in Poland,” tweeted Cardinal Grzegorz Rys, the who leads a committee for dialogue with Judaism.

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Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.

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