The tension between Israel and Poland that erupted over the weekend has yet to go away. On Sunday afternoon, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who was expected to arrive Monday for the first-ever Israeli hosting of the Visegrad summit – between Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – canceled his participation and announced he would be sending his foreign minister instead. The move indicated that the crisis which had erupted between his country and ours while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Warsaw last week has yet to fully die down.
The issue at hand is Poland’s Holocaust Distortion Law, which says that calling Poland or the Polish people complicit in the Holocaust can be met with civil proceedings. The law originally made such remarks a criminal offense, carrying a prison sentence, and sparked outrage in Israel and elsewhere. After months of negotiations between Warsaw and Jerusalem, the punishment was reduced to civil suits.
In June, Netanyahu and Morawiecki released a joint statement rejecting those who blame “Poland or the Polish nation as a whole” for Nazi crimes, while acknowledging the magnitude of those atrocities. They said that no law will limit the right to exercise free speech and academic freedom in relation to the Holocaust. But the statement also seemed to create an equivalency between antisemitism and “anti-Polonism,” and gave the impression that Netanyahu endorsed the new version of the law. Many were dissatisfied, but the scandal mostly faded.
On Thursday, at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Netanyahu said in response to a question from a journalist that “Poles had cooperated with the Nazis... I am saying it here, there is no argument about this.”
Many Israeli outlets, including The Jerusalem Post, reported Netanyahu’s remarks as “The Poles,” implying the Polish nation, a point that was further drawn out in the editing process.
Polish President Andrzej Duda called for the Visegrad summit in Israel to be canceled, and Israel’s ambassador to Poland was summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry. The Post immediately changed the line to “Poles” upon learning of the error, as did others when Netanyahu’s spokeswoman played a recording of his remarks. She further clarified the remarks, saying that he spoke of “Poles and not the Polish people or the country of Poland.”
And while it seemed that Warsaw had accepted the clarification, Morawiecki’s decision not to come to Israel shows that the issue is far from settled. The reason is because this really isn’t about semantics or whether one uses the word “the” or not. These crises will continue as long as Poland’s government insists on whitewashing history. Their Holocaust Distortion Law may have been the most blatant attempt, but these actions continue in statements by politicians and other politically-influenced actors.
The state-run Auschwitz Museum, for example, recently tweeted that, “talking about complicity between the occupiers and local civilian population in the history of Auschwitz is false,” despite massive evidence to the contrary in Poland and other Nazi-occupied lands.
Warsaw would do better if it stopped trying to cover up the role of many Poles in aiding the Nazis in their plot to exterminate the Jewish people. Over 90% of Polish Jews perished in the Holocaust. Polish-Jewish historian Szymon Datner estimates that Poles brought about the murder of 200,000 Jews, either directly or by handing them over to the Nazis.
Historian Jan Grabowski found that two of three Jews who asked Polish gentiles for refuge were murdered, and that Polish “Blue Police” slaughtered Jews who hid from the Nazis. There were pogroms before the German occupation; many Jews who survived the Holocaust and sought to return to their homes were murdered.
Jews should not allow these attempts at laundering history to stand. It’s also unclear how this benefits Poland. If Warsaw thought this law would exculpate all Poles, they were wrong. Their actions have ironically drawn greater attention to the Holocaust in Poland and the role Polish people played in it.
Israeli-Polish ties are important. Netanyahu’s strategy of working with the EU countries that are more pro-Israel, such as the Visegrad states, is a smart one – after all, the EU is our largest trading partner. But Israel should not and cannot let Poland get away with distorting the most tragic chapter in Jewish history.