11/13/2017 10:14 EST | Updated 11/13/2017 10:14 EST

Poland Defends Independence Day March Organized By Far-Right Nationalists

About 60,000 people took part.

AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
Demonstrators wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. Thousands of nationalists marched in a demonstration organized by far-right groups in Warsaw Saturday, as Poles celebrated their country's Independence Day.

WARSAW, Poland — Poland's Foreign Ministry said Monday that it strongly condemns racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic ideas, but insisted that a large weekend march by nationalists in Warsaw was largely an expression of patriotic feeling.

The ministry said that the march Saturday on the Independence Day holiday was "a great celebration of Poles, differing in their views, but united around the common values of freedom and loyalty to an independent homeland."

The event was organized by groups that trace their roots to radical nationalist pre-World War II anti-Semitic groups. About 60,000 people took part, including families.

But there were also young men carrying banners with messages including "White Europe of brotherly nations."

Some carried the Celtic Cross, a white supremacist symbol, and there were reports that people chanted slogans against Jews and had anti-Islam banners.

Police detained 45 counter-protesters who blocked the march's path, but didn't act against any of those expressing extremist views.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon called the event "a dangerous march of extreme and racist elements."

"We hope that Polish authorities will act against the organizers," Nahshon said in a statement to The Associated Press. "History teaches us that expressions of racist hate must be dealt with swiftly and decisively."

Ministry said it opposed Richard Spencer visit

The Polish Foreign Ministry said it wasn't justifiable to define the march based on some "incidental" elements. Underlining its opposition to extremism, the ministry recalled that it had opposed a visit to Poland by Richard Spencer, the leading American white nationalist.

Spencer was originally to have attended a conference in Warsaw a day before the march, but he was taken off the schedule after the ministry said it didn't want him in the country.

The American Jewish Committee, a global Jewish advocacy organization, also urged the government to act. It cited reports that masked participants had chanted "Sieg Heil" and "Ku Klux Klan" as well as "Pure Poland, white Poland" and "Clean blood, lucid mind."

Agnieszka Markiewicz, director of AJC's Warsaw Central Europe office in Warsaw, said the holiday "was seriously marred by hateful, far-right throngs that threaten the core values of Poland and its standing abroad."

Agencja Gazeta / Reuters
Protesters light flares and carry Polish flags during a rally, organised by far-right, nationalist groups, to mark 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw Nov. 11, 2017.

"The apparent tolerance shown for these purveyors of hate — and, let's be clear, that's exactly what they are — by some Polish government officials is particularly troubling," Markiewicz said.

Jonny Daniels, the head of a Jewish organization, From the Depths, who has worked closely with the right-wing government in Poland and is seen as sympathetic to it, expressed his shock at events and asked prosecutors in Warsaw to investigate whether criminal acts of racism had been committed.

"Each one of these individuals would have been filmed by media and city monitoring," Daniels said. "There is no excuse for these people not to be easily found and prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

He said that acts and words expressed Saturday "can easily lead to violence, unrest and have already placed a feeling of unease with minorities in Poland and all decent peace-loving Poles."


Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press