Poland on Wednesday amended its controversial Holocaust law that made it a crime punishable by up to three years in jail to say “Polish concentration camps,” four months after the law went into into effect and badly strained ties with Israel and the US.
Polish lawmakers voted on Wednesday by a vote of 388-25, with five abstentions, to water down the law and remove parts that imposed jail terms on people who suggest the nation was complicit in Nazi crimes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to issue a statement on the change Wednesday evening.
Last week, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told the visiting Polish Minister for Entrepreneurship and Technology Jadwiga Emilewicz that Israeli-Polish ties will not return to normal
until the controversial law is changed.
He told the The Jerusalem Post
that while all agreements with Poland already in effect would continue, no new agreements would be entered into with Warsaw until the law was changed.
The unexpected u-turn came as the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) seeks to bolster security ties with Washington and faces heightened scrutiny from the EU.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki did not say what precisely had prompted his morning announcement. But he told parliament the terms of the existing law had already done their job by raising awareness of Poland’s role in World War Two - the government says Poles were the victims of Nazi aggression, not fellow perpetrators.
The law had been meant as “a kind of shock” and courts would still be able impose fines, he added.
“The purpose of this law was and still is one fundamental message: fight for the truth, fight for the truth of World War Two and post-war times,” Morawiecki said.
“A publisher in the United States or in Germany will think twice before publishing today an article using the expression 'Polish SS,' 'Polish gestapo' or 'Polish concentration camps' if he risks a lawsuit and a fine of 100 million euro or dollars,” Morawiecki added.
According to the prime minister, the “severe provisions” of criminality in the law aroused so much controversy that it began to be “counter-productive.”
The changes triggered a heated debate inside the parliament, with Robert Winnicki of the far right-wing National Movement unsuccessfully trying to postpone the vote and accusing the government of “crawling” before the Jewish communities. He called the move a “scandal.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz of the liberal Modern Party asked why it had taken so long for the government to change the law that had caused such damage to Poland's international reputation.
Michal Dworczyk, the head of the prime minister's chancellery, said in a public radio interview that the intent of the law was to “defend the good name of Poland” and counteract the use of the words “Polish death camps” instead of “Nazi death camps,” but that that this caused a crisis with Israel and “our other partners,” including the US.
He said that now the issue will be dealt with through “civil-legal tools” rather than through criminalization.
Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, who sharply condemned the law when it was first brought to the parliament in January, characterized the proposed change as “a bad joke.”
“This law has to be wiped off of the law books in Poland,” said Lapid, the son of a Holocaust survivor. “They should cancel this scandalous law and ask forgiveness from the dead.”
Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli, who proposed two Knesset bills to counter the Polish legislation, welcomed the Polish changes, but said they do not go far enough.
“According to the law it will still be forbidden to mention the role of the Poles in the crimes against the Jews, but now – rather than this resulting in criminal proceedings - it will result in civil proceedings,” he said.
Shmuli said even the amended version of the law casts a heavy cloud and places the mark of Cain on modern Poland, which instead of learning from history prefers to deny and blur it. We promise the Holocaust survivors that this effort will not succeed.”
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder praised the change in the law, but also called for a re-examination of the "inherently flawed" legislation.
On Tuesday, the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (IAJLJ) submitted an opinion to Poland's Constitution Tribunal reviewing the law, saying that the imposition of “criminal restrictions on freedom of expression not only violates constitutional and international law standards but also harms Poland itself and its relations with the Jewish people.”
The IAJLJ issued a statement saying that according to its legal position, “the amendment severely and disproportionately violates the freedom of expression protected by international and European treaties (to which Poland is a party), is incompatible with the provisions of the Polish Constitution itself that protects freedom of expression and freedom of the press – and has already caused increase in antisemitism in Poland.
"There is also concern that the amendment will cause a chilling effect when it comes to the study of the Holocaust, since researchers will be cautious in their statements and afraid to publish their research.”
The controversial law, under the heading “Protection of the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation,” reads: “Whoever publicly and contrary to the facts attributes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich... or for any other offenses constituting crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of these crimes, shall be liable to a fine or deprivation of liberty for up to three years.”
The law states that if the “perpetrator” acts unintentionally, “they shall be liable to a fine or restriction of liberty.” It excludes those acting “within the framework of artistic or scientific activity,” and said the law is applicable irrespective of where the “prohibited act” took place, and regardless of whether the offender is a Polish citizen or a foreigner.Reuters contributed to this report.