Being at the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem was a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness history. It was moving beyond words. I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw the words – etched quite literally in stone – “Embassy of the United States of America, Jerusalem, Israel.” Those who were fortunate enough to be present – about 700 in total – will never forget the feeling of uplift and inspiration as the world’s foremost superpower and most influential nation recognized Jerusalem officially as the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
Over the next few days other nations, like Guatemala and Paraguay, also courageously moved their embassies to Jerusalem. Still more nations are considering the move.
But two countries in particular could make a very special kind of history by moving their embassies, and those are Poland and Rwanda.
I have written in these pages, over the past few weeks, about the special challenges presented by the Polish-Jewish relationship. On the one hand, the Jewish people sojourned in Poland for more than 800 years, originally being offered a place of refuge when few other nations would take them in. On the other hand, the Jewish presence in Poland ended with a tragedy beyond description when the German Nazis swooped in and murdered more than 90% of the Jewish population. Since then there has been a heated and important debate about the extent to which the Poles themselves participated in atrocities against the Jews. The recent Polish law forbidding discussion of official Polish collusion with Germany in the Holocaust, only served to exacerbate Jewish feelings that Poland was, and remains, antisemitic.
But such feelings do not address, or help, the necessary partnership of the Jewish people with the Poles in commemorating the memory of about four million Jews who were murdered on Polish soil. The Polish government is now entrusted by providence with preserving the memory of the Nazi extermination camps and telling the story of the annihilation of Polish Jewry. Working together with Poland, as the March of the Living does admirably, is critical to preserving that memory.
There is one thing that Poland can do, however, monumental and historic, to address traditional charges of antisemitism in one fell swoop, and that is to move their embassy to Jerusalem.
Poland has become one of Israel’s closest friends in Europe and resisted repeated pressure from EU countries to join in various condemnations of Israel. Unfortunately, the relationship became frayed with the passage of the Holocaust Law, threatening to punish anyone who suggests Poles played any role in the crimes committed by the Nazis. While that law remains on the books, pending a court decision on its constitutionality, it is likely that Polish-Jewish relations in general will remain tense. Still, the Polish government could change the narrative by joining the United States in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving their embassy to the city.
The foremost genocide of all time took place on Polish soil. That gives Poland a unique responsibility to educate the world about genocide prevention and the evils of the Holocaust. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would create a new era of Jewish-Polish cooperation in joining together as partners to promote human rights.
The same applies to Rwanda, where the world’s fastest genocide of all time took place. 800,000 innocent men, women and children, primarily Tutsis, were hacked to death between April and June 1994. Rwanda has a special relationship with the Jewish people as one of the few nations that understands the indifference of the world to mass murder. The UN behaved disgracefully during the Rwanda genocide as did the Clinton administration, which all but ignored the slaughter. Rwanda has an embassy in Israel and Israel just announced it will open an embassy in Rwanda. But there can be no greater statement of solidarity or friendship than Rwanda moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Poland deserves praise for taking a stand against the anti-Israel activists in the EU. But no one should think the relationship with Israel is a one-way street. In addition to the normally positive diplomatic ties, Israel and Poland have become increasingly close strategic partners as well. Polish pilots, for example, participated in the 2017 Blue Flag exercise, the largest aerial training exercise to ever take place in Israel. Israel has also sold Poland its David’s Sling missile defense system.
Moving the Polish embassy to Jerusalem would be a powerful symbol of friendship. In prior years it might have been highly controversial, but in light of the American decision it should not create any political problems.
We have already seen how, despite apocalyptic warnings, the Muslim and Arab world did not blow up over the issue. Poland can expect criticism, but even Israel’s enemies recognize the reality that Jerusalem has functioned as Israel’s capital for the past 70 years and has been the Jewish people’s historic capital for 3,000. None of them are prepared to punish Poland for following in America’s footsteps. In fact, it is likely they will be joined by other Eastern European nations.
This year is also a fitting time for Poland to do what is right. It is not only the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence, it is also the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. A small number of courageous Jews stood up to fight the mighty Nazi army at a time when many governments rolled over and let the Germans occupy their countries. The Polish people, Jews and non-Jews, were among the few to resist.
Rwanda too has acted courageously in supporting Israel at the UN. But just as Kigali – a beautiful city which I have been privileged to visit – is special to the Rwandan people, Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the Jewish people. I recognize that Rwanda will take some heat from other African countries for moving its embassy, but the American example is one that should be followed.
Israel was not created because of the Holocaust, but it stands as a statement of the Jewish people’s determination to stand strong and ensure that no Jew is ever threatened with annihilation again. The brave Jews led by 23-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz in Warsaw knew they were going to die but fought anyway to prove Jews were willing to resist tyranny and genocide. The people of Israel have no intention of allowing genocidal regimes such as the one in Iran, or murderous terrorists from Hamas or Hezbollah, to put them in the position of having to die to make that point again.
The Polish people appreciate this determination to live. At least three million, and possibly many more, Poles died in World War II. More Poles suffered and died under the brutal Communist regime. They never want to be in a position where their lives can be threatened again. That common fear is one reason for Israeli-Polish military cooperation.
After I criticized the “Holocaust Law,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote to me that the tensions between Poland and Israel “deeply saddens” him, and he said his country is an ally of Israel. I subsequently met with him and he reiterated his desire for Poland to have a closer relationship with the Jewish community and Israel.
These were comforting and necessary sentiments, but words are not sufficient to accomplish this objective. Deeds are required as well. I can think of no better act to bring our peoples together than for Poland to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Israel’s capital.
Likewise, the Rwandan people have emerged from the brutality of the genocide of the Tutsi with determination and an affirmation of life. They should now join more deeply with the Jewish people in allowing the incomparable light of Jerusalem to spread throughout the Middle East, Africa, and the entire world.The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom
The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent work, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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