2018-02-09 12:17:47 UTC
Poland and Israel need friendship, not a bitter fight over history
by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
February 7, 2018
POLAND AND ISRAEL are embroiled in a diplomatic crisis, the worst between
the two countries since the Cold War ended 30 years ago.
Extremist groups, demonstrating in front of the presidential palace, call on
President Andrzej Duda to sign a bill banning discussion of Polish
collaboration in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust.
The furor was ignited by a bill — passed by the Polish parliament and signed
Tuesday by President Andrzej Duda — that makes it a crime to suggest that
Poland was "responsible or co-responsible" for atrocities committed during
the Nazi era. Israel and the United States have condemned the law, under
which any claim that the Polish population collaborated in the Holocaust or
crimes against humanity is punishable with imprisonment. The legislation was
propelled by Poland's dominant Law & Justice Party, which says it wants to
"safeguard" history from assertions that Poles were complicit in the German
But some Poles were complicit. However unwilling Poland may be to squarely
face the demons of its past, it cannot evade painful historical questions by
passing laws to punish those who raise them.
Poland was Ground Zero in the Holocaust. It was where the Germans built
Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other industrial-scale death camps, and where they
murdered 90 percent of Poland's pre-war Jewish population, by far the
largest in Europe. Millions of non-Jewish Poles also died at Nazi hands. In
the occupation that followed Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939,
Poles were starved and enslaved with brutal ferocity. Under terrible
conditions, Poles fought valiantly against the Nazis; during the 1944 Warsaw
Uprising alone, more than 200,000 Polish civilians died.
But if Poland suffered grievously under the Nazis, many Poles also inflicted
German commanders recruited Polish police and railway workers to guard
ghettos and deport Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles betrayed or
hunted down Jews in hiding "and actively participated in the plunder of
Jewish property," notes the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"There were incidents, particularly in the small towns of eastern Poland,
where local Polish residents ... carried out or participated in pogroms and
murdered their Jewish neighbors." Among the most notorious cases was the
1941 massacre in the town of Jedwabne. Poles there massacred 1,600 of their
Jewish neighbors, locking them in a barn and burning them alive.
In Israel, where communal memories of Poland's deep-rooted antisemitism
still run deep, the proposed Polish law has been fiercely condemned. Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried it as a "distortion of the truth, the
rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust." Israeli
parliamentarians retaliated with their own legislation, a bill making it a
crime to minimize or deny the role of collaborators during the Holocaust.
Journalists and politicians in both countries have gotten hot under the
collar, with Poles and Israelis accusing each other of bigotry, ignorance,
All this is profoundly distressing, for several reasons.
First, laws criminalizing any historical point of view are odious. That goes
as much for Israel's ban on Holocaust denial as for Poland's ban on
discussing Holocaust complicity. Free societies have no business punishing
opinion or argument, not even those that are vile or ludicrous.
Second, there are elements of truth on both sides of this controversy. Poles
rightly wince at ahistorical references to "Polish death camps" — those
hells on earth were Nazi death camps, erected by Germans on Polish soil.
They point out properly that many Poles took tremendous risks to save Jews
from death. But it's also true that many more Poles murdered, robbed, and
viciously deceived Jews. Even Poland's president, on a state visit to Israel
last winter, admitted as much, declaring that such people had "expelled
themselves from the Polish people."
Worst of all, though, is the mounting danger of a breach in the friendship
between Poland and Israel.
Polish President Andrzej Duda (left) poses with his Israeli counterpart,
Reuven Rivlin, during a state visit to Israel last year.
After Communism fell, many Poles went out of their way to repudiate the
country's past antisemitism, and Poland has become one of Israel's most
important European friends. Warsaw has defended Israel against pressure to
pejoratively label products made in the West Bank. It abstained from the UN
condemnation of America for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Countless Israeli students and soldiers have made pilgrimages to Poland, and
the two countries' governments have cultivated a close strategic
The unquiet ghosts of the past cannot be silenced, but they must not be
allowed to poison the Polish and Israeli present. Israel and Poland need
each other. They don't need this ginned-up crisis, and the longer it
persists, the worse for all concerned.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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