A rift of Poland’s making

August 18, 2021 by Ruthie Blum - JNS
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The diplomatic crisis unfolding between Jerusalem and Warsaw is unfortunate. Eastern European countries have been staunch supporters of the United States and Israel in a way that their counterparts in the Western continent have long ceased to be.

Jewish youth from all over the world participating in the “March of the Living” at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, as Israel marks annual Holocaust Memorial Day on April 16, 2015. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90

As a result, conservative columnist Amnon Lord is among those stressing that Israel needs to be smart, not just right, when it comes to its relations with Poland.

Despite its nationalism, he recently wrote, Poland “is a type of ally. … The cooperation with it in terms of military aviation is a cornerstone of our national security. The Poles also buy weapons and other systems from us. Poland is also an important potential partner for Israel, together with the member countries of the Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), with regard to Israel’s effort to crack the anti-Israel Western-European bloc.”

It’s more than a valid point. But let’s not kid ourselves.

Poland’s hysterical reiteration that it played no part in the Holocaust—other than being victimized by the occupation of the country first by Hitler and then by Stalin—is problematic. Though technically true, both in relation to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the reality where the former is concerned is more complicated.

For decades, any mention of the death camps in Poland has been pounced upon by Polish politicians and intellectuals as a lie, or at least, as misleading. German-occupied Poland did, however, house 457 Nazi camp complexes. The most notable of these, Auschwitz-Birkenau, is the site of the annual March of the Living, which attracts participants from all over the world, including Israel.

Warsaw’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge any role in or cooperation with the genocide of the Jews—let alone pursue and prosecute individual Polish collaborators—culminated in actual legislation. According to a law passed by the Polish parliament and then signed in February 2018 by President Andrzej Duda, “Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.”

The outcry that ensued in Europe, the United States, and, of course, Israel, caused Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to amend the law, which he argued had merely been intended to “defend Poland’s good name.” He stated that the “correction” would be to switch violations from criminal offences to civil ones.

This didn’t stop him from taking a dig at Israel for its vocal objections to the law, even after it was modified.

Asked about it during a press conference at the 2018 Munich Security Conference, he told reporters: “It’s extremely important to first understand that, of course, it is not going to be punishable, not going to be seen as criminal, to say that there were Polish perpetrators—as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian … not only German perpetrators.”

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the remarks “outrageous,” saying that they showed “an inability to understand history.”

This brings us to today’s brouhaha, occurring with a new Israeli government but with the same cast of Polish characters going at it again.

The current flap surrounds Duda’s recent approval of yet another piece of legislation—this one establishing a 30-year limit for restitution claims on property stolen by the Nazis and then confiscated by the post-war Communist regime. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid blasted the law, going as far as to accuse Poland of having “become an anti-democratic, non-liberal country that does not honor the greatest tragedy in human history.”

He also recalled the charge d’affaires from the Israeli embassy in Warsaw and put a hold on dispatching the newly appointed ambassador there.

Referring to the move as “groundless and irresponsible,” Morawiecki posted on Facebook: “No one who knows the truth about the Holocaust and the suffering of Poland during World War II can agree to such a way of conducting politics.”

To make matters worse, the country’s deputy foreign minister, Pawel Jablonski, said in an interview with the Polish Internet radio station, Kresy, that Warsaw is considering canceling Israeli school trips to Poland, where they visit Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of their Holocaust-studies curriculum.

He asserted that “the trips do not take place in a proper manner; they sometimes instil hatred for Poland in the heads of young Israelis.”

He went on, “We are dealing with anti-Polish sentiment in Israel, and one of the reasons for this is the way in which Israeli youth are educated and raised. This propaganda, based on hatred of Poland, seeps into the heads of young people from an early age in school.”

Talk about chutzpah—or projection—not to mention delusion.

As it happens, Israeli kids are not fed anti-Polish propaganda, certainly not in school. If any hear of horror stories about Polish anti-Semitism, they do so from their grandparents or other aging relatives, who experienced it firsthand.

No, Jablonski’s accusation was of a retaliatory nature. He was getting back at the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir—and his disciple, former Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz—for saying that Polish children “imbibe anti-Semitism from their mothers’ milk.”

Tit for tat, so to speak.

The difference, as the late anti-Semitism scholar Manfred Gerstenfeld wrote in 2019, is that there actually was “massive participation of Poles in the murders of Jews during the Holocaust, as well as … persistent anti-Semitism [in Poland] both before and after the war.”

He, like Lord, urged that Israel exercise caution in the “complex” relationship with Poland, as the countries have many shared interests. It’s excellent advice in the realm of pragmatic diplomacy.

Too bad Poland isn’t following it. Warsaw needs friends in the international community just as much as Jerusalem does, after all. Enacting anti-Semitic laws is not the way to keep the Jewish state in its corner.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”

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