Middle Israel: the foreign minister’s Polish joke

A day will come when Israelis will also be in a position to talk to foreign governments as frankly as they talk to each other. Until then, Israeli foreign ministers will have to make friends.

Israel Katz (L) whispers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) during a cabinet meeting, December 9th, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israel Katz (L) whispers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) during a cabinet meeting, December 9th, 2018
 Having written of Hillary Clinton that she looks “like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital,” and having said of Barack Obama that he is “part-Kenyan” and therefore plagued by “an ancestral dislike of Britain,” Boris Johnson was an odd pick as British foreign secretary.
With the media recalling how, as mayor of London, he published a poem (of all forms of expression) about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (of all people) having sex with a goat (of all associations), Swedish statesman Carl Bildt said of Johnson’s appointment: “I hope this is not a joke.”
It is indeed not every day that an oaf is inserted into the diplomat’s tuxedo, but Israel has just proved that what Britain once did in 2016 bizarrely, but harmlessly, the Jewish state can do better, and harmfully.
That is how acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz, appointed Sunday, managed by Tuesday to make Poland’s president cancel a visit to Israel and, while at it, scatter a high-profile conference between the leaders of Israel and four European states.
POLAND’S CURRENT government is no mission of angels. Its pressure on the judiciary and the media is anathema to any democrat, its legislative imposition on academic freedom is grotesque, and its provocation of Jewish memory is historically absurd and politically mad.
Yes, grandstanding against “the Jews” can impress a well-known portion of the electorate, but Poland’s interests demand harmony with the Jewish people because it lives in the shadows of a restless Russia, whose resurgence it dreads. Standing up to this overbearing neighbor requires good standing with Uncle Sam and his Jews, and also with Israel and its military-industrial complex.
This is besides the fact that no rhetoric can erase what happened in summer 1941 in the town of Jedwabne, where local Poles locked hundreds of Jews in a barn and torched it, or what happened in summer 1946 in Kielce, where dozens of Holocaust survivors were shot and stabbed to death.
This is what the late Yitzhak Shamir alluded to when he said what Katz now quoted, “Poles suck antisemitism with their mother’s milk.”
Sadly, this is where the two statements’ similarities end.
Set aside the fact that Shamir’s father, Shlomo, was himself murdered by Poles after jumping off of a Nazi death train; Katz’s parents are survivors, so his hypersensitivity on this issue is as understandable as that of the rest of us second-generation Israelis.
The problem is that Katz, unlike the rest of us, is the foreign minister. His job is not to express his emotions, but to contain them, and his task is not to dent Israel’s foreign relations, but to nurture them.
Set aside also the fact that Shamir qualified his generalization by adding that “today” some Poles “are cleansed of this antisemitism,” a concession that – had Katz mentioned it – might have averted the crisis he fanned.
The decisive difference between Shamir’s statement and its recycling by Katz is in the timing. Shamir spoke in 1989, when Poland was only beginning to emerge from its Communist nightmare, and had yet to restore the diplomatic ties it broke with Israel in 1967.
In those heady days’ circumstances, Shamir’s charge cost Israel nothing, and in fact served as a useful reminder to Poland’s elites, both the departing Communists and their democratic successors, that the Jewish people and the Jewish state forgot nothing: not Kielce, not Jedwabne, and not the purges of 1968 when thousands of Jews were fired and some 15,000 were driven to leave Poland.
Katz’s statement came in an entirely different setting.
POLISH-ISRAEL relations, nearly 30 years since their restoration, have matured and, in fact, become critical from any Israeli viewpoint, but particularly from the Right’s.
Never mind that Poland bought this decade $1 billion worth of David’s Sling antimissile defense systems, part of a much broader commercial relationship which, back in 1989 – with the Warsaw Pact still intact and Poland part of it – was nowhere in sight.
Poland is the heart of the Visegrad Group of 65 million Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians, whose combined gross domestic product is nearly $2 trillion, more than Canada’s.
Wedged between Russia and Germany, which dominated them alternately over the centuries, the four hold joint military exercises and at the same time challenge the European Union’s liberal leadership, whose attitude toward Muslim immigration they fear, resent and defy.
Any Israeli displeased with Brussels’ Middle Eastern policy should cultivate this grouping, whose inhabitants are nearly 60% Polish. If it’s up to them, Europe might abandon its simplistic peace formulas and Iranian appeasement.
That is why an Israeli foreign minister is today in no position to quote Yitzhak Shamir’s anti-Polish statement.
Britain can afford an oaf in its foreign office. Everyone has ties with Her Majesty’s realm, and no one has the motivation, tools, or audacity to bully the United Kingdom, let alone deny its right to life. That is not the case with the Jewish state.
A day will come when Israelis will also be in a position to talk to foreign governments as frankly as they talk to each other. Until that day, Israeli foreign ministers will have to spend their days making friends, not enemies.
Deploying Boris Johnson’s kind of humor, one of the iconic comedy trio the Gashashim asked why Israel has no minister of war, before suggesting to make the minister of education the minister of war. Asked why, he said that when the minister was in charge of education there was no education, so maybe when he is in charge of war there will be no war.
Israel Katz is the transport minister, presiding over countrywide traffic jams crowned by the delayed opening and daily malfunctions of Israel’s first fast train. Maybe his appointment, like that of a defense minister who mongered war and a treasurer who threw shekels out the window, is designed to do to our foreign relations what he has already done to our trains.