Why do some people hate the phrase 'Polish death camps'?

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Defenders of Polish integrity howled with outrage Tuesday after President Obama used the following phrase (bolded text mine) while bestowing a posthumous Medal of Honor on Jan Karski:

Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.

As any reporter or editor who's ever used that phrase in a publication knows, this is an automatic inbox-filler. (One time someone who wrote for me at a hyperlocal publication in Washington, D.C., used it in a preview, and I heard from readers in Canada, Wales and other points outside our coverage area.) The letter-writers' beef: Concentration camps were established by occupying Germans, not by any sort of Polish authority.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press updated its Stylebook to ban the phrase. At the time, AP deputy standards editor David Minthorn told my Poynter colleague Craig Silverman that letter-writing campaigns, such as one prominent one by the Kosciuszko Foundation, didn't figure into the decision.

“We’ve had email exchanges with the Kosciuszko Foundation on their campaign,” he said. “While we listen to anyone with a style suggestion, the decision to include the ‘concentration camp’ entry reiterating longstanding AP guidance was ours alone, not the result of a campaign or request.”

Silverman said by email this morning that the phrase "Polish death camps" is a frequent source of corrections:

The term "Polish death camps" is the subject of many corrections in newspapers and other media outlets, and has been objected to by prominent Poles and Polish officials in petitions and other communications. I imagine it was a slip of the tongue by the president, but it's a mistaken term that conjures up strong feelings among Polish people.

An Economist column says Obama's gaffe comes at an unpropitious time:

America's most important ally in the ex-communist world already feels bruised by the administration's shilly-shallying on issues such as missile defence (back in 2009 Mr Obama's adminstration chose to announce its backtrack on that on September 17th, the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. That was akin to giving America bad news on pacific security on Pearl Harbour day). America has not lifted visa requirements for Poles (who can die alongside Americans in Afghanistan but not visit them without humiliating bureaucratic hassles). And instead of providing the promised Patriot missile battery to protect Warsaw, it sent some toy rockets as part of a sales pitch. (That, at least, is how Poles see it).

Polish pols tweeted their outrage. The White House apologized. Kosciuszko Foundation president Alex Storozynski gave ABC's Jake Tapper a statement calling for a better apology and referencing a peculiar right-wing obsession: "Obama was seen reading this phrase off a teleprompter. The president must acknowledge his mistake and apologize for it."

But if Poles want to have this discussion, they might want to prepare themselves for where it might lead. On Monday, BBC aired a documentary about antisemitism among Polish and Ukrainian soccer fans as those countries prepare to host the Euro 2012 tournament. (It's not available on the Beeb's website, but someone's put it on YouTube.) Writing in the Krakow Post, Jamie Stokes says Polish fans' racism demands cultural understanding: "the average Polish hooligan has no idea what a Semite is." Your run-of-the-mill Pole, Stokes writes, "is today almost completely ignorant of Judaism."

Which brings us, inevitably, to Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget, who tells The Washington Post's Erik Wemple "a couple of folks" on his editorial staff told him they thought his post intending to air out the question of just why people hate Jews "would provoke a vigorous discussion, which it has."

"Gotta love the transparency, if not the depth of editorial deliberations at chez Business Insider," Wemple writes. (Presumably he'll be hearing from French-Americans offended by that superflous "at.")

Years ago we passed the point at which we should take pride in stimulating conversation on the Internet. If you’re willing to write something dumb or just act in poor taste, you too can have a career as an Web conversation launcher. Stick with the IPOs, Blodget.

To Blodget's credit, he hasn't turned the ensuing social-media freakout over his post into an opportunity to paint himself as a victim; he's updated the headline post for what feels like the 30th time, now with an apology:

Whatever interesting responses came from the post, I now regret writing it. (I'm okay making people feel uncomfortable about some topics, but not this one.)

Hilarity followed Blodget's post, some of which is nicely documented in a Storify from Daily Dot, the headline on which evolved from "Why do people hate Jews?" to "Why do some people hate Jews?" to "What are the sources of anti-Semitism?"

"BOMBSHELL: Here's the Real Reason People Hate Henry Blodget," went the headline on an Alexander Abad-Santos post cataloguing some of the main beefs against Blodget and Business Insider: Consistently weird editorial choices, over-aggregation, Blodget's responses to criticism.

Blodgetism (hey, why not?) has its defenders, sort of. Writing on ZDNet, Tom Foremski says Blodget's non-training in journalism can be an asset, even if his site's dopiness is a symptom, not a cause, of journalism's problems:

Henry Blodget and the Business Insider editorial team aren’t the ones responsible for the poor state of journalism today, they are merely the expression of what’s currently possible given the means available - which isn’t much, a whole lot of nothing much (about 250 news stories a day at Business Insider).

And what's more, Blodget doesn't hate Jews, writes Foster Kamer in The New York Observer.

I’m pretty sure he even has a few in his employ who he doesn’t whip while building his SEO pyramids on a daily basis. ...

The only possible motivation for writing a headline like that is to attract attention, and pageviews, and it’s the kind of attention that will (naturally) only inflame parties on all sides (be they Jews, Jew Haters, Self-Loathing Jews, and so on). You can rest assured that whatever genuine intellectual curiosity Blodget has about this issue—and compassion towards marginalized and/or persecuted peoples, which I don’t doubt he has—was made a moot point by that headline.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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