University students on the March of Remembrance and Hope visit the barracks at Majdanek concentration camp, located on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland.
(photo credit: COURTESY SECOND STORY PRESS/MARCH OF THE LIVING)
Throughout the crisis with Poland’s right-wing government, led by the nationalist Law and Justice Party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to maintain correct diplomatic relations.
Even after the Polish parliament ratified and Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law legislation seeking to whitewash the Poles’ role in carrying out the systematic destruction of over three million Polish Jews, Netanyahu hoped to keep up the relations with Poland.
It was business as usual. Netanyahu opted not to call back Israel’s ambassador to Poland. In the coming months, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was expected to come to Israel as part of Netanyahu’s plan to host the next meeting of the Visegrad Group, which is made up of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Likewise, the Knesset extended an invitation to the director-general of the Polish parliament to participate in an upcoming conference of secretaries-general. (A recommendation by the Foreign Ministry to not invite the Polish secretary-general was ignored.)
Netanyahu’s desire to cultivate ties with Poland is understandable. Poland has proven to be one of Israel’s few EU-member allies in votes that pit Israel against the knee-jerk support enjoyed by the Palestinians in UN institutions. And while other members of the Visegrad Group have broken with the EU in UN votes seeking to bash Israel, Poland is a large country that is perceived to be the bellwether of Central and Eastern Europe.
Developments in Poland have more far-reaching impact than in Hungary, not to mention Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Netanyahu, who has Israel’s diplomatic and economic interests in mind, is rightly wary of allowing a controversy over Holocaust memory – which does not deal at all with concrete considerations of profit and loss, but on matters of principle – to sabotage these interests.
Yet, there are statements and acts made by Poland’s prime minister that the prime minister of the world’s only Jewish state simply cannot ignore. Morawiecki’s outrageous and very public rebuttal during the Munich Security Conference of the impassioned and emotional questioning by journalist Ronen Bergman, the offspring of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors who were betrayed by their Polish gentile neighbors, cannot be left unaddressed by Israel on the diplomatic level.
And just hours after Morawiecki drew a parallel between Polish perpetrators of the Holocaust and “Jewish perpetrators,” as though Poles were no more likely than their Jewish fellow citizens to identify and collaborate with the Nazis’ ideology and activity toward the Jews, he had the audacity to pay his respects at the grave site of fighters from the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade, a Polish underground military unit that worked with the Nazis and murdered Jews during the final stages of World War II.
While Netanyahu has an obligation to look out for the State of Israel’s interests, as head of the Jewish state he has other obligations as well. One of them is using Israel’s diplomatic voice and clout to battle all forms of Holocaust denial. In Poland and in countries like Ukraine or Lithuania, there is an ongoing attempt not to deny outright that there was a Holocaust, but to minimize the role of Eastern Europeans who lived under Nazi occupation and aided the Nazis, sometimes with zeal.
Israel, as the world’s only Jewish state, also has an obligation to Holocaust survivors who suffered at the hands of Poles. These survivors cannot speak up for themselves in the same way that the State of Israel can by taking decisive diplomatic action against Poland, including calling back our ambassador and disinviting Polish government officials slated to attend state events in Israel.
And while Poland’s Jewish population is minuscule – at around 10,000 people – Israel has an obligation to defend them as well.
If Netanyahu fails to make it clear to Morawiecki that his comments and actions and the legislation his country has passed have diplomatic consequences, Israel’s image in the world will be tarnished. It is a matter of national pride that Israel defend the value of free and open Holocaust scholarship and call out those who attempt to distort the truth.