Think about it: Poland and Israel: National narratives and myths

Though I am totally opposed to equating the Holocaust with the Nakba, Israel is no different from Poland in its approach to its own national narrative and national myths.

Polish and Israeli flags at a march next to Auschwitz in April (photo credit: REUTERS)
Polish and Israeli flags at a march next to Auschwitz in April
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On June 27 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki issued a joint statement against the background of the Polish parliament dropping paragraph 55a of the 1998 Act on the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation (in short, the Polish Nation Act), a paragraph added to it on January 26, 2018.
This article had stated: “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich... or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”
This was the price that the Polish government was willing to pay in return for the Netanyahu-Morawiecki statement, which included many instances of historical falsehood, such as granting the wartime Polish government-in-exile credit for attempting “to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies to the systematic murder of the Polish Jews” (article 3 of the statement), and granting the “Polish underground State during the war” (?!) credit for creating “a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people” and maintaining courts that “sentenced Poles for collaborating with the German occupation authorities, including for denouncing Jews” (article 4). The statement also downgraded the collaboration of Poles with the Nazis, and magnified the phenomenon of Poles who may be counted as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
The reactions in Israel, in Jewish communities around the world, and among scholars of the Holocaust and Polish antisemitism, were largely hostile. Many argued that the statement twists the truth regarding the role played by many Poles during the Second World War and its aftermath in facilitating the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in Poland; that even though there will be no criminal charges and imprisonment sentences against persons claiming Polish involvement in the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews, the Polish government can still find ways to persecute those daring to do so – be they Polish and other researchers, or persons giving personal evidence that refutes the official Polish claim of innocence; and that Netanyahu seemed to be willing to use the memory of what happened in the Holocaust as a tool to try to subvert the official policy of the EU, which is critical of Israel’s policy regarding the Palestinians and the occupied territories, by means of the EU’s most right-wing and chauvinistic and racist regimes (of which Poland is one), and to convince the latter to move their embassies to Jerusalem.
Prof. Yehuda Bauer, the best-known historian of the Holocaust, went so far as to say that the agreement borders on treason vis-à-vis the memory of the Holocaust.
While this whole shameful episode places yet another blemish on Netanyahu’s leadership record in terms of its long-term ramifications and consequences on Israel’s future, what disturbed me most strongly about it is the general hypocrisy that has surrounded the discussion about it.
Most everyone seems to note that Poland is willing to go very far – including the misrepresentation or concealment of facts, and legislation based on these – in order to promote its own narrative regarding the history of its people in the last century. But so is Israel.
On March 22, 2011, the Knesset approved what has been nicknamed “the Nakba Law,” which is an amendment to the Foundations of the Budget Law, which stipulates, inter alia, that bodies that mark Independence Day or the establishment of the State of Israel as a day of mourning may be punished by cuts in funds due to them from the state. This was a watered-down version of a bill submitted by Yisrael Beytenu MK Alex Miller, to the effect that anyone marking Independence Day as a day of mourning would be liable to imprisonment for up to three years.
Even though the law passed is not as draconic as Miller’s proposal, it was still based on the premise that the Palestinian narrative regarding the Nakba – the catastrophe to the Palestinian people resulting from the establishment of the Jewish state and the fleeing and/or expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians from the territory of the State of Israel during the 1948/49 Arab-Israeli war – is not only to be rejected but is a misdemeanor at best, and a crime at worst. Only the official Jewish-Israeli narrative is considered legitimate.
I am not saying that the Palestinian narrative is accurate. Certainly, the fate of the Palestinian people would have been different had the Palestinians and the Arab states been willing to accept the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine, had they gone to the trouble of establishing a state in those territories allotted to them, and had they agreed to reach a modus vivendi with the Jewish state. However, none of this changes the fact that the establishment of Israel was the Palestinians’ loss, and that much hardship was caused to many millions of Palestinians in subsequent years as a result.
Though I believe that the Israeli narrative is much more solid than the Palestinian narrative, it is certainly not objective, and without doubt Israel actively contributed to the Palestinian negative situation in many ways. I would add that if Israel were at least willing to understand Palestinian feelings regarding the Nakba, would do everything in its power to make its Arab citizens feel at home in the Jewish state, and to help find a real and lasting solution to the Palestinian problem, it would be doing much more to weaken the Nakba narrative than by defining the latter as a misdemeanor or crime.
Certainly, shameful sights such as MK Miki Zohar (Likud) hollering at the Arab MKs, and shouting at MK Haneen Zoabi (Joint List) “God promised this land to me – not to you” (which he repeated several times) at a Knesset House Committee meeting on June 23, 2015 (this was before he was selected to chair the committee), only help strengthen the Palestinian narrative and weaken the Israeli one, which was historically based on widespread international support, international law and Israel’s enlightened, democratic foundations.
Thus, even though I am totally opposed to equating the Holocaust with the Nakba, which are of totally different magnitudes, Israel is no different from Poland in its approach to its own national narrative and national myths.
Perhaps it is high time that instead of horse-trading with Poland about the Polish self-image, using the Holocaust and Polish antisemitism as the hard currency in the deal, Israel should do some introspection regarding its own national narrative and myths, and thus start cleansing its perception of the Palestinian issue and experience, while embarking on a new road toward trying to reach a settlement with the Palestinians.
Should Israel do that, it would no longer need favors from Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other illiberal states in Europe.
And while we are at it, perhaps if worse comes to worst, and the superfluous Basic Law: Israel the State of the Jewish People is actually enacted before the Knesset takes its summer recess, someone will add a sentence in it that says that the Jewish state is committed to preserving the rights and promoting the welfare of its non-Jewish citizens.