Passion has always been the enemy of good history and good diplomacy. The latest twist in the crisis in Polish-Israeli relations is a textbook example of this.
Rather than attempt to dampen tempers arising from the ill-chosen remarks in Warsaw of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, our new “top diplomat” – freshly appointed Foreign Minister Israel Katz – poured kerosene on the smoldering embers. Asked about the crisis in a TV interview, instead of offering a circumspect and nuanced response that might have calmed the situation, he chose to quote Yitzhak Shamir.
Thirty years ago, in an unguarded moment after an interview by the late David Landau of The Jerusalem Post, the then-prime minister suggested that Poles ingested antisemitism with their mother’s milk. To be sure, Shamir’s biting observation still enjoys some credence among Jews of Polish origin (and their loved ones). In Poland, many had experienced (or had been told about) antisemitism – often causing discomfort and distress, but on occasion, manifested in lethal violence.
In fact, Shamir’s own father had been slain by a Pole. It was a festering wound and he could not overcome his own bitterness at that loss. However, his off-the-cuff remarks had been uttered off the record, or so he thought.
Quite understandably, Poles took great umbrage with that slur and in the years that followed it was invariably trotted out as “exhibit A” in the Polish case for “Jewish anti-Polonism.”
Still, until this latest incident, many longtime observers of Poland had hoped, perhaps naively, that whatever the vicissitudes of the sometimes-stormy Polish-Jewish relationship, Poles and Jews and this hurtful, grating trope had largely been relegated to the dustbin.
Predictably, with its reintroduction into mainstream public discourse – by a foreign minister who had been on the job for less than 24 hours – the Polish-Israeli bilateral relationship has suffered a grievous blow, as has the cause of Polish-Jewish dialogue.
Suspicion and even toxicity now taint the atmosphere, and a match has been set to the efforts of many good people in both societies who have assiduously worked over the decades to wipe away injurious stereotypes and misunderstanding on both sides.
Among those good people is a large and unsung band of Polish scholars who have tenaciously confronted Poland’s wartime history, however chilling, with candor and courage – but no less important, with rigorous exactitude.
Striving to reveal the unvarnished truth about what happened in German-occupied Poland, they concluded that local cooperation in the annihilation of the Jewish population was not confined to a marginal element of society but was a widespread phenomenon. Still, that fact cannot and should not today serve as a justification to vilify an entire people. Significantly, Poland was the only post-Communist country in which such a probing confrontation with its own history was undertaken.
In Poland, these findings, at least in certain quarters, produced genuine introspection and contrition, were too much to bear for many people, especially nationalists, who had been raised on a narrative of Polish heroism and suffering.
Of course, there is truth in this latter narrative: Poland was the first country to resist the Germans, and Poles shed rivers of blood in that ferocious struggle. By the end of the war, Poland had been utterly ravaged. Indeed, no country in Europe paid a higher price. Later, Poles found themselves trapped in the Soviet orbit and subjected to the Kremlin’s despotic whims.
Therefore, the notion that victims could prey on victims was difficult to swallow and thoroughly rejected. The heroic deeds of thousands of Polish rescuers were shamelessly instrumentalized to defend Poles against charges of local collusion, and it is often suggested that their actions were somehow representative of Polish society as a whole.
That was the context of Warsaw’s unfortunate decision to enact legislation to quash the narrative of bothersome scholars who had “besmirched the good name of Poland” and the storm that erupted in its wake. Of course, that law produced the opposite of what the masterminds (if we can call them that) behind it had intended – and sent Polish-Israeli relations into a dizzying tailspin.
It was Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (not Napoleon) who wrote: “What is history but an agreed upon fable.”
When politicians, even the precious few thoughtful ones, take it upon themselves to interpret history the result will often be fables. And no one should be surprised when those fables become the cause of fierce squabbles.
Historians should be the ones writing history, not politicians who for better or worse are charged with making it. Especially not those of them prone to only open their mouths to change feet.
The present crisis is yet another reminder of the need to decouple foreign policy from history. Politicians, both Israeli and Polish should be dissuaded from addressing sensitive historic questions that are beyond their expertise. They have to be taught that yes, words do matter, and that if you court someone you constantly call ugly, you cannot expect a love affair to blossom, let alone a strategic alliance.
In the same vein, diplomacy should be left to diplomats.
In his classic work on the subject, Harold Nicholson wrote that the qualities of the ideal practitioner of diplomacy included “Truth, accuracy, calm, patience, good temper, modesty and loyalty.” He went on to address the question of why he had omitted “intelligence, knowledge, discernment, prudence, hospitality, charm, industry, courage and even tact” from that list: “I have not forgotten them,” he wrote. “I have taken them for granted.”
Sadly, in recent days we have seen an appalling reminder that those virtues can never be taken for granted – at least not where Poles and Israelis are concerned.
Today, travelers to and from Poland can take advantage of flights not just to Warsaw but to some half a dozen other Polish cities, a fact often highlighted as a symbol of the burgeoning Polish-Israeli friendship. However, taking stock of recent events, it is puzzling that the burning need for a line linking Ben-Gurion Airport directly to Chelm – the hometown of the mythical fools in Jewish folklore – has yet to be identified.
The authors are historians.