At a time when many of America’s traditional allies are alienated from the United States because of President Donald Trump’s stand on issues like Iran, a few have grown closer to the United States because of him. Some Eastern European nations, like Poland and Hungary, that are governed by populist conservative governments have applauded Trump. That’s also true of Israel, where Trump’s reversal of President Barack Obama’s desire for more daylight between the United States and the Jewish state, plus decisions on Jerusalem and Iran, have made him very popular there.
Israel and these Eastern European nations have found common ground on many security issues in recent years, especially when contrasted with the highly critical stance Western Europe has taken with regards to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was planning on hosting a follow-up meeting to last week’s Warsaw Summit where the Eastern Europeans and Israel found themselves aligned with the United States, but the conference has been called off due to a growing crisis between Poland and Israel.
The reason for this has nothing to do with the issues that brought these U.S. allies together. Instead, it is a rerun of past quarrels about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust that, in theory, both Warsaw and Jerusalem had vowed to transcend. While the problem began with a foolish Polish decision, statements coming out of Israel have now compounded it. Cynical politics, rather than ongoing differences about a history in which both Jews and Poles have suffered greatly, have, at least for the moment, derailed a rapprochement that should benefit the United States as well as the two countries involved.
The dispute between Poland and Israel has its immediate origins in Polish parliament’s passing a 2017 law that made it a criminal offense for anyone to suggest the Polish people were in any way responsible for the Holocaust. Jews saw this an attempt to deny history and responded with the outrage that is always engendered when the Holocaust becomes part of any contemporary debate.
Poland’s motivation was rooted in their justified resentment when Auschwitz and other Nazi death factories are referred to as “Polish death camps,” which is a gross historical error. But the original text of the bill went beyond that and said “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 law was amended to exclude imprisonment but still allows civil suits. Either way, this sounded an attempt to deny the long history of Polish anti-Semitism, the fact that some Poles helped the Germans kill Jews as well as the hostile and sometimes violent reception Jewish survivors got when they tried to return to their homes after the war.
Why Did Poland’s Government Adopt Such A Law?
The current nationalist government thought whipping up anger about perceived slights to Polish honor was in their interests. At a time when many on the continent are understandably resentful about the impact of globalization and the outsized influence of the European Union (of which Poland is a member), anger about the actions of Germans, past and present, or critics of Poland is a political winner. That’s true even if it does nothing to help the country in its struggle to preserve its independence against the ambitions of the current Russian government.
But as wrongheaded as this bill is, rather than take the bait, Netanyahu initially chose to try avoid a quarrel despite the desire of his domestic political opponents, as well as historians associated with Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, to pursue the argument with the Poles.
Sadly, Jewish attitudes toward Poles are still more the product of historical memories than the generally good relations that exist today between Israel and Poland. Jew hatred was widespread in the independent Polish republic that was destroyed by a German invasion in 1939. It was also officially sanctioned by the government and rooted in centuries of religious prejudice whipped up by many in the Catholic Church.
But those who harp on these facts would do well to also remember the extent of the Polish suffering at the hands of the Germans. Talk of “Polish death camps” is inaccurate. The phrase shifts blame from the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust to the invaded nation where the bulk of the murders took place.
The Holocaust was the fault of its German perpetrators, not the Poles. The fact that the death camps were located in Poland was a function of logistics, not a belief that the Poles would help the Nazis kill Jews. Germans and collaborators from elsewhere in Eastern Europe, not Poles, staffed the camps where many of the three million Polish Jews who were killed in the Holocaust died.
The Occupation Of Poland Was Bad For Everyone
The plight of the Poles under German occupation was not as dire as that of the Jews, all of whom were marked for death. But Poles were victimized more than any other occupied nation. At least 1.5 million Poles were deported to Germany for forced labor. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps and at least 1.9 million Polish civilians were killed during the war, including many who were murdered by Soviet Communist occupiers.
The extent of Polish resistance to the Nazis also deserves to be remembered. The Poles fought bravely against impossible odds both at the outset of the war and in 1944 when they rose against the Germans. That revolt was brutally crushed in a defeat that was enabled by the cynical refusal of the advancing Soviets to help, and resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 Poles.
Although some Poles helped the Germans or were hostile to Jewish victims, many thousands also risked their lives to save Jews. Among them was Jan Karski, the heroic Polish officer who brought word of the death camps to the West and was ignored by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his pains.
That doesn’t excuse the massacre of Jews by Poles at Kielce or at Jedwabne in 1941. But those who lump them in with the Germans need to understand that Poles have every right to be considered victims, not perpetrators. Moreover, Poland’s victimization didn’t begin in 1939 but stretched back centuries as the great powers of Europe treated it as a pawn in their wars.
For Jews and Poles to fight over the Holocaust is also particularly sad because it ignores the progress made to bridge the gap between the two peoples in the postwar era. The efforts of the late Pope John Paul II to combat endemic anti-Semitism both in his own nation and among Catholics everywhere deserve to be remembered with honor. The post-Cold War government of Poland also should be given credit for maintaining friendly relations with Israel. Support for and interest in Jewish culture among Poles also testifies to the way Poland is changing.
Yet after doing so much to avoid conflict with Poland and being bashed for it by his critics who have accused him of not caring about the Holocaust or history, Netanyahu and his government were responsible for reviving this pointless dispute, and for the same reason the Poles began it: politics.
Reviving Disputes For Political Reasons
When Netanyahu was asked about the Polish Holocaust law last week, he flippantly replied that “The Poles collaborated with the Nazis and I don’t know anyone who was ever sued for such a statement.” By implying that all Poles collaborated when this is clearly not the case, Netanyahu infuriated Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and his government, which had pledged to reopen discussions about further amending the law due to pressure from Israel and the United States.
If that wasn’t bad enough, newly appointed Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz followed it up with a statement in which, citing his background as a descendant of survivors, he piled on Poland by quoting the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who said in 1989 that Poles sucked anti-Semitism with “their mother’s milk.” While Shamir, who grew up in Poland during its worst period of pre-war anti-Semitism, might have been forgiven for saying that, there was no excuse for Katz or for Netanyahu not to rebuke him for speaking in that manner.
Why is Netanyahu willing to bash the Poles after defending them for a year? He’s attempting to win a fourth consecutive term as prime minister in April and doesn’t want rivals to claim that he’s soft on the Holocaust. So instead of continuing to nurture the alliance with the Poles, he’s sabotaged it and blew up a conference that would have been to the interest of both nations and their mutual ally: the United States.
These cynical political maneuvers should remind both peoples that Jews and Poles don’t need to be enemies anymore. To the contrary, given Poland’s complicated strategic situation and the ongoing attacks on Israel, they have much in common. So rather than engage in mutual condemnations, both people should speak with the same understanding and compassion for each other’s suffering and sensibilities that they demand for their own history.
The Polish Holocaust law was a foolish mistake. But it would be a pity if arguments about history were to undo the progress that has been made to heal the historic rift between Jews and Poles as well as to further a necessary alliance that the United States wishes to encourage.