The Israeli-Polish rift can only be repaired by talking - opinion

Israel and Poland recalled their ambassadors after Poland passed a law saying that descendants of Polish Holocaust victims will not have their property returned.

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at a Middle East summit in Warsaw in 2019.  (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at a Middle East summit in Warsaw in 2019.

I was troubled by “the break” of diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel. How did we come to a point where “agree to disagree” doesn’t apply anymore and we go to extremes where all relations are cut off?

I found myself sitting across the table from Marcin Czepelak, the Polish ambassador to the Netherlands, in a kosher restaurant in Antwerp. This meeting was organized by Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs and Dutch Jewish journalist Hans Knoop. The intent was to save the relations. One may think: how naïve could we be that just sitting around a table with some good food could seal the deal?

Yet where do we start? The relations de facto ended when both countries recalled their ambassadors and haven’t scheduled returning them again to each other’s country. 

That said, we should definitely be in favor of dialogue. If not between heads of states, if not between parliaments, then maybe a few activists and an ambassador could be a safe place to start.

Ambassador Czepelak looks like a young tough businessman, ready to negotiate the best possible deal. He does not look like someone who wants to mend relations at any price and seems to be carrying a huge responsibility on his shoulders simply by being here and discussing the matter. Nonetheless, he most definitely seems to deeply care about the issue and is committed to making the effort. 

Treblinka German death camp in Poland railway sign at Yad Vashem. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Treblinka German death camp in Poland railway sign at Yad Vashem. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The chief rabbi and the journalist are both people who want to make the best of it, all while keeping their integrity intact and remaining truthful to historical facts. They are not prepared to give anyone shortcuts but are ready to listen and give leeway to different perspectives. 

Knoop is rarely driven by emotion; he is a master of taking a step back and attempting to assess issues based on facts, even when it hurts. He is never afraid of confrontation and does not see any shame in admitting to being wrong. He considers a debate as the ultimate way to achieve understanding and progress. 

I do not know Rabbi Jacobs well, but I immediately noticed the stark difference between him and the rabbis I’m used to in Antwerp. He is involved in political matters, and as a board member of the European Jewish Association, he contributes as much as he can to improve Jewish life in Europe and relations with Israel. 

And then there is me, striving to make a difference where I can. This matter came to my attention when the Holocaust law was introduced and I realized something very complicated is happening. I knew right there and then that this issue was not going to be easy to resolve. 

Yet former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki did attempt to resolve the rift by signing a joint declaration, which ended up being refuted by both sides and resulted in a Polish rejection of the declaration. At that point, both Israel and Poland understood they had entered an impasse that would take much more than a one-page declaration to overcome their differences.

Israelis were accusing the Poles of undermining historical facts and the Poles were accusing Israelis of slandering their nation by accusing them of crimes the Nazis committed. 

In reality, Israelis and the Jewish world are seeking to make sure Poland owns up to its part in the awful fate of Polish Jews. And Poland, for its part, seeks to gain recognition for its own suffering. 

The Poles never claimed they had suffered more than the Jews but are conflicted with the notion of being guilty while they were victims themselves. A Jew claiming restitution after so many years will find a Pole telling him, “Listen, you were a victim, but so was I, so please claim compensation with the responsible authority: Germany.” Israelis, in turn, never claimed Poland is responsible for the Holocaust or for the Nazi death camps on Poland’s soil but will keep insisting that a portion of the Polish people were antisemitic and participated in the demise of the Jews.  

And then came the restitution law that further complicated the matter for Holocaust survivors and their descendants: “We won’t be able to retrieve our lost belongings, and in essence, history has been deleted,” they said. 

This feeling was echoed by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who outright called the law “antisemitic and bordering Holocaust denial,” one of the statements that led directly to the disruption of relations. 

The Poles in presenting their case, claim the goal isn’t to revise historical facts or even prevent Jews from claiming restitution but rather to cease a never-ending process in which Polish citizens who had no connection to the war wind up losing their property. 

Poland subsequently rejected Lapid’s statement and accused him of exploiting the Holocaust. 

Whether we will get out of this impasse, no one knows, but one thing we managed to accomplish that day at the kosher restaurant was to sit together and talk about each other’s grievances, bring up anecdotes and try to explain perspectives to one another with the hope of laying a foundation for new relations.

New relations do not mean we agree. New relations will primarily mean that we agree to disagree but wish to work hard on achieving common ground. The bumps on the road will be dealt with and hopefully, our nations will start to heal. The art of diplomacy entails dealing with such difficult matters in the best possible way. In fact, it is not uncommon for unfriendly nations to maintain diplomatic relations just to ward off conflict. 

Therefore, talking to each other must remain a prerequisite, as that’s the purpose of diplomatic relations. Hopefully, Poland and Israel will adequately use this tool in order to move forward.

The writer is director of Golden Gate Public Affairs, advises on EU-Israel affairs and works with European Union institutions in Brussels.