Poland’s Holocaust legislation: Have we crossed a diplomatic line?

The irony is glaring: the countries that were the killing grounds for the Jews in the past century are Israel’s closest friends in the current one. But at what price?

PHOTOGRAPH OF Auschwitz-Birkenau taken in February 2017. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
PHOTOGRAPH OF Auschwitz-Birkenau taken in February 2017.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On December 21, when the UN voted in favor of a resolution against the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a grand total of six out of the 28 countries making up the European Union abstained on the measure.
All six of those countries were former Communist countries which joined the EU after the fall of the Soviet Union: The Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Croatia, which was once a part of the now defunct Yugoslavia.
What was somewhat surprising was that most of the other former Soviet Bloc countries did not join them in abstaining: Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Bulgaria, even though those countries do have a record of breaking from the EU pack on international votes on Israel and abstaining or – once in a great while – voting with Israel on Israeli-Palestinian-related questions. (Slovenia, the other former Soviet Bloc country in the group – it, too, was once part of Yugoslavia – is the exception, and can be counted on to vote against Israel. In fact, there were moves this week in Slovenia’s parliament to recognize the state of “Palestine.”)
Those voting patterns are telling, and illustrate that the former Iron Curtain countries are currently Israel’s closest friends inside the EU: Lithuania, not Spain; Latvia, not Belgium; Poland, not Ireland.
The irony is glaring: the countries that were the killing grounds for the Jews in the past century are Israel’s closest friends in the current one. Add Israel’s strong relationship to Germany and its good ties with Ukraine (which was absent in the UN vote on Jerusalem), and the picture becomes even more complete.
But at what price?
Ambassador of Israel to Poland Anna Azari attends a commemoration event in the so-called "Sauna" building 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 in the so-called "Sauna" building at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, January 27, 2018 (REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)
THIS WEEK’S diplomatic crisis with Poland over its legislation criminalizing suggestions that the Poles were complicit in the Holocaust, and making it a punishable crime to say “Polish death camps,” has brought to the fore in a particularly raw manner the dilemma that this country, in fact all countries, deal with: Where to draw the line between key interests and core values?
Israel has a keen interest in good diplomatic ties with Poland. The country has just become a member of the UN Security Council for the next two years, and a type of axis has developed between Israel and the four countries that make up the Visegrad Group in Central Europe: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. These are the countries, along with Germany, that Israel routinely turns to when it wants to water down anti-Israel resolutions in the EU coming from the direction of Ireland, Sweden, Spain and France.
At a meeting with the heads of these countries in Budapest in July, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was caught in a hot mic moment urging them to get the EU to stop linking its bilateral relationship with Israel to the Palestinian issue. Their diplomatic importance to Israel is not insignificant.
But Israel also has core values. One is an obligation to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, a responsibility to the victims to keep their story alive. And the way many Poles treated and mistreated the Jews during the Holocaust is very much a part of that story.
The crisis with Poland over this issue is still developing, and it is forcing Jerusalem to carefully balance its interests and its values.
Some, such as Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, don’t have the same dilemma. As an opposition politician and the son of a Holocaust survivor, he was free to respond fiercely to the legislation, lashing out at the Poles by saying it was no accident that most of the Nazi extermination camps were on Polish soil.
He could tweet his utter contempt for the law and write that “there were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that” and – despite angering some Polish politicians – will not have to bear any consequences. The worst that can happen is he won’t be invited to give a lecture in Warsaw.
But Netanyahu has to be more calibrated, because what he says – or what he tweets – will have consequences for Israel’s relationship with Poland, not an unimportant country in Europe. No less sensitive to the Holocaust than Lapid, Netanyahu cannot lash out to the same degree.
“We have no tolerance for distorting the truth, historical revisionism or Holocaust denial,” Netanyahu said of the bill at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “We will not accept any attempt whatsoever to rewrite history.”
He then spoke with the Polish prime minister in the hopes – vain so far – that the legislation could be stopped before getting final approval from Poland’s president.
However, Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that Netanyahu’s comments were disingenuous.
Netanyahu and other prime ministers have been tolerating Holocaust distortion for the last 15 years in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Croatia and Ukraine, he charged: “This didn’t start today – it has been going on for years, and Israel was totally silent.”
Zuroff, not a diplomat, dismissed the argument that Israel overlooked efforts to whitewash participation in the Holocaust in some of these countries because of diplomatic and economic interests.
“The fact of the matter,” he said, “is that some of these countries – like the Baltic countries – are little, nothing countries that need Israel far more than Israel needs them.”
Israelis condemn Polish law that bans using the phrase "Polish death camps"
In a good relationship, he said, you can say, “We simply can’t accept this.”
THE HISTORICAL distortions that have been taking place in these countries, Zuroff argued, are not that the Holocaust did not occur. Rather, he said, there are two distinct trends: trying to minimize their own participation, and trying to “sell a bill of goods that communism was just as bad as Nazism, and that communism is genocide. If communism is genocide, that means Jews committed genocide, because there were Jewish communists.”
The Polish legislation is a manifestation of these trends. Israel was silent all these years when all this was bubbling inside these countries, Zuroff said, “and now we are reaping the consequences.”
Asked how far he thinks Israel should go in expressing its displeasure, and whether the issue is important enough to break off ties, Zuroff responded: “No, that’s crazy. You lower the nature of the ties, you do certain things, but you don’t have to run and break off relations. Poland is an important country, but what they are doing with this bill is absolutely mad.”
After the Polish Senate approved the legislation on Thursday, leaving only the Polish president left to sign off on it, Transportation Minister Israel Katz weighed in on the whole dilemma of interests vs moral values, saying that in this case there is no real dilemma: values wins.
He called for the immediate return of Israel’s ambassador to Poland for consultations, a measure designed to show the Poles how seriously Israel views the issue.
“In the balance between diplomatic considerations and moral ones, the decision is clear: preserving the memory of Holocaust victims over any other consideration,” he said.
This is not the first time Israel has ever had to weigh pragmatic interests against Holocaust memory. It first did so in the early 1950s, when the country grappled with the question of whether to accept reparation payments from Germany.
This issue, which split the country in passionate debate, was whether to take money from Germany – something in Israel’s interest – or whether that would be tantamount to forgiving the Nazis for their crimes and dishonoring the memory of the victims.
Then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion took the pragmatic approach, saying that the money and assistance from Germany was economically essential for the country.
But Gideon Meir, a former deputy director-general at the Foreign Ministry and an ex-ambassador to Italy, said the Polish legislation and the German reparations cases are not parallel. Ben-Gurion, he said, took the reparation payments because the money was desperately needed to build the fledgling Jewish state. That same interest is not at stake now with Poland.
More importantly, he argued, on the moral issues of antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance, Israel cannot weigh pragmatic concerns, and must also consider the interests of the entire Jewish world.
“We cannot come to the Jewish world and say, ‘We have given up the value of Holocaust remembrance,’” he said. “There is an element of Holocaust denial in what is taking place in Poland, and we cannot give up there. Israel cannot travel that route, even at the price of pragmatic relations with Poland.”
He also said that Israel has an obligation to Holocaust survivors who suffered at the hands of the Poles not to be seen in any way as complicit in the Polish effort to whitewash their history.
“A state that gives up on its values will not be respected,” he said, noting that “other countries respect those countries that stand up for their values.”
Another former senior diplomat and ex-ambassador, Arye Mekel, agreed, and said there are cases where a country has to rise up over practical considerations and think about its core interests. Israel, he said, must work aggressively to change the legislation.
Mekel, who served as ambassador to Greece, doubted that the Poles would retaliate by altering their position toward Israel in the EU or at the UN.
Part of the logic behind their law, he said, is wanting to come out of the Holocaust “looking clean.” For this reason, good relations with world Jewry and with Israel are important to them. If Israel strenuously opposes the bill, he doubts Warsaw would retaliate by working against it in the EU, because a good relationship with the Jews and Israel is important in the way they want to be perceived by the world.
Mekel said there is no hard-and-fast rule on how to behave when interests conflict with values, and that each situation must be looked at, and decisions made, on a case-by-case basis.
However, he added, Israel should be guided in making those decisions by one important dictum: “It’s always important to keep in mind where you came from. Otherwise, you will not know where you are going.”