Israel-Poland crisis deepens as Holocaust bill moves forward

If a decision is made to recall the Israeli ambassador from Warsaw, it would most likely not happen before Poland’s president signs the bill into law.

Survivors and guests walk inside the barbed wire fences at Auschwitz, during ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)
Survivors and guests walk inside the barbed wire fences at Auschwitz, during ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2018.
Israel has postponed next week’s scheduled visit of Poland’s national security adviser, to show displeasure over the Polish Senate’s passage of a bill to criminalize the implicating of Poland in the Holocaust, but stopped short of recalling its ambassador for consultations.
One official in Jerusalem confirmed on Thursday that if a decision is made to recall the ambassador, it would most likely not happen before Poland’s President Andrzej Duda signs the bill into law. Having now passed both houses of the Polish legislature, Duda’s signature is the last step before the bill – which among other things would impose a three-year prison sentence for saying “Polish death camps” – becomes law.
Duda, who expressed support for the law on Tuesday, has 21 days to sign the legislation.
Despite an agreement to set up teams to discuss the legislation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki reached in a phone conversation on Sunday night, the Senate voted early on the bill on Thursday morning; it handily passed by a vote of 57-23, with two abstentions.
“We, the Poles, were victims, as were the Jews,” Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said before the vote. “It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland. Just as the Jews, we were victims.”
Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem were miffed that the Senate voted before the teams even convened to discuss the matter, and said this ran against the “spirit of the conversation” between the two leaders. The officials expressed “deep disappointment” at the move, especially since the relations between the two countries are important to both.
Ambassador of Israel to Poland Anna Azari attends a commemoration event at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, January 27, 2018 (REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)Ambassador of Israel to Poland Anna Azari attends a commemoration event at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, January 27, 2018 (REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said on Twitter that “Israel opposes categorically the Polish Senate decision. Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No law will change the facts.”
Israel was not alone in expressing disappointment at the vote. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert issued a statement, which was posted on the US Embassy website in Warsaw, saying Washington is concerned that the draft legislation “could undermine free speech and academic discourse. We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust.”
The statement also warned that signing the bill into law could have “repercussions” on “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships – including with the United States and Israel. The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals.”
The statement encouraged Poland to reevaluate the legislation “in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and on our ability to be effective partners.”
IN RESPONSE, the Polish Foreign Ministry said the legislature’s “main aim is to fight all forms of denying and distorting the truth about the Holocaust, as well as belittling the responsibility of its actual perpetrators. In this context, we hold the view that accusing – publicly and despite facts to the contrary – the Polish nation and the Polish state of complicity with the German Third Reich in Nazi crimes is inaccurate, misleading and harmful to the victims who are Polish citizens of both Jewish and Polish descent.”
The statement said that Poland believes the legislative work under way to “develop legal solutions that would protect historical truth will not affect Poland’s strategic partnership with the United States.”
Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem were surprised by the timing of the Senate’s vote despite the conversation Sunday night between Netanyahu and Morawiecki, and said it may have had to do with Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow on Monday, and comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Polish-Russian ties are tense, and one of the issues straining the ties is Poland’s destruction of monuments to the Red Army’s victory over Nazism that were built in the country by the former Polish Communist regime.
Putin, in comments with Netanyahu at a ceremony at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, said Israel and Russia cooperate closely, “including in countering attempts to falsify history, to revise the outcomes of World War II, to deny the Holocaust, or to belittle the decisive contribution of the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany. Such attempts must be put down swiftly.”
He praised Israel for erecting a monument to the Red Army in Netanya, and for planning a monument in Jerusalem to the defenders and residents during WWII of besieged Leningrad.
Israel urges Poland to change bill regarding its role in Nazi Holocaust, January 28, 2018 (Reuters)
“We are grateful to the leadership of Israel and the people of Israel for their respect for history,” Putin said. “This is especially important amid the destruction and desecration of monuments to Soviet soldiers who gave their lives to liberate prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, and save Europe and the entire world from Nazism.”
The quick and unexpected Polish Senate vote Thursday may have been Warsaw’s response to these words, one official speculated.
ISRAELI POLITICIANS across the political spectrum reacted with anger to the Polish vote.  
Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz called on Netanyahu to immediately recall the ambassador to Poland for consultations in Israel.
“The law passed by the Polish government is severe and constitutes a brushing off of its own responsibility and a denial of Poland’s part in the Holocaust against the Jews,” Katz said. “In the balance between diplomatic considerations and moral ones, the choice is clear: preserving the memory of Holocaust victims over any other consideration.”
Yisrael Beytenu faction chairman Robert Ilatov echoed the statement, saying that the Polish parliament is attempting to “whitewash” and “rewrite history.”
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid sent a letter to EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret, demanding that the European Union and its member states condemn the legislation clearly, forcefully and unequivocally.
“We have not forgotten and not forgiven,” Lapid wrote. “No nation can be expected to forgive and forget the murder of millions of its sons and daughters, including a million-and-a-half children. We will not accept the rewriting of history, we will not accept attempts to avoid responsibility – and neither should you.”
Zionist Union faction chairman Yoel Hasson blamed Netanyahu for the law’s passing, saying that the prime minister “flies all over the world and is photographed with world leaders, but at the moment of truth, he cannot prevent the enactment of the Polish law or the voting against Israel at the UN. It’s time to admit that Benjamin Netanyahu is not a political prodigy. Israel needs results, not impressive pictures on Facebook.”
United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev said the draft law cannot erase the history of Poles turning in their neighbors and co-workers to the Nazis, not to save themselves but out of pure hatred of the Jews.
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) accused the Israeli Right of being in bed with extremist nationalist governments, and said “we must remember that those who deny the Holocaust and continue inciting against Jews in their country cannot be our friends.”
Yad Vashem, meanwhile, characterized the legislation as “most unfortunate.”
“This law is liable to blur historical truths due to limitations it places on expressions regarding the complicity of segments of the Polish population in crimes against Jews committed by its own people, either directly or indirectly, on Polish soil during the Holocaust,” the Holocaust remembrance center said.
Yad Vashem reiterated that the term “Polish death camps” is erroneous and that the concentration and extermination camps were built and operated by the Germans in Nazi-occupied Poland.
It said, however, that “the correct way to combat these historical misrepresentations is not by criminalizing these statements but by reinforcing educational activities. However, the law passed last night in the Polish Senate jeopardizes the free and open discussion of the part [played by] the Polish people in the persecution of the Jews at the time.
“Yad Vashem will continue to support research aimed at exposing the complex truth of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust, and promoting educational and commemorative activities in this spirit,” Yad Vashem added.
Tamara Zieve and Reuters contributed to this report.