ANALYSIS: Controversy Over Israel-Poland Joint Statement

Monday, July 09, 2018 |  Tsvi Sadan

The Polish government has decided to translate into Hebrew a joint statement on the role of Poland in the Holocaust, and publish it as an advertisement in Israeli newspapers, which has sparked controversy among Israeli historians and politicians. 

This affair began with "The Polish League Against Defamation" conference "Support Poland!" held on November 2017. The conference urged Poles around the world to defend Poland's good name, specifically in refuting the claim of "Polish death camps." This call was taken seriously by Mateusz Morawiecki, who became the Polish prime minister just a month later. Then-deputy PM Morawiecki said that "Poland should take legal action against all those powerful foreign media organizations that still dare" to insist that there were Polish death camps. As prime minister, Morawiecki was able to pass a bill on February 1 that could send those accusing Poland of involvement or responsibility for the Nazi atrocities to prison for up to three years.

After Morawiecki defended the bill at the Munich Security Conference on February 17, Prime Minister Netanyahu responded that “there is a problem here of an inability to understand history and a lack of sensitivity to the tragedy of our people. I intend to speak with him forthwith." That discussion resulted in the joint statement now causing so much noise due to Netanyahu allegedly aiding a Polish revision of history.

Historians at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum thanked Netanyahu for excluding any restrictions on free research, but noted that "the joint statement contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field." It is untrue, as the statement would have us believe, that "the wartime Polish Government-in-Exile attempted to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies to the systematic murder of the Polish Jews." The truth, said Yad Vashem historians, is that "much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them."

The Historical Society of Israel expressed its full support for the Yad Vashem historians regarding this matter: "We are all unanimous in that the joint statement of the prime ministers contains serious distortion of known historical facts … likewise we want to express our strong protest against the intervention of politicians in historical discourse." In response, Netanyahu stressed that his primary goal had been to remove the criminal element from the new Polish law, which he did, and that at a later date the historians' criticisms regarding the details could be considered.

But it wasn't only historians laying into Netanyahu. Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, called the joint statement a "bad joke" and demanded that the new Polish law in question be repealed entirely. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, said that "the statement is a disgrace filled with lies."

In response to the attacks on the joint statement, Dina Porat, the chief historian at Yad Vashem and the one who advised Netanyahu's negotiation team, said the statement is reasonable. She further called on critics like renowned historian Yehuda Bauer, who called the Israeli participation in the statement an act of treason, to find different words to voice their disagreement. Porat said that following the harsh criticism she considered resigning from Yad Vashem, but that the president of the institution wouldn't accept it, which means that contrary to the concerns of Yad Vashem historians, the institution itself accepts as legitimate Porat's position that the joint statement is reasonable. 

One will have to wait and see where this commotion leads, and whether or not it is going to affect Netanyahu's electability. One thing is certain though, the Holocaust is still a volatile issue, as it should be, and those tempted to lend their name to the revision of history for the sake of political expediency risk seriously damaging their reputation.

PHOTO: Jewish youth from all over the world participate in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

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